The pieces stretch from one end of the gallery floor to the other, with narrow walkways left open to navigate around the hundreds of ceremonial masks, tools, instruments, weapons and weavings.
Cards offer notes about each of the nearly 500 pieces, including a description, size and condition.
While some of the works have been seen over the years in Spiva Gallery exhibits, many of them are now being carefully examined for the first time.
Christine Bentley, head of the art department, said that the cataloging process began nearly five weeks ago. Having only been with Missouri Southern for a year, she said she wanted to examine the African art holdings, which had been confined to a small storage area in the building.
“I learned that it’s a much more extensive collection than I thought it was going to be,” she said. “It hasn’t been properly stored, but it’s in very good condition. I was surprised that we had something of this quality.”
The works that constitute the basis for the collection of African art and artifacts were presented to the university by John and Pam Finley in 1997, said Burt Bucher, associate professor of art.
“It was put together as part of a sabbatical research project by Val Christensen (a former associate professor of art),” said Bucher. “He researched it, secured it and curated the collection. He sought out some of the pieces and in some cases the Finley family recommended others (who might donate).”
In addition to the Finleys, other contributors included Marianna Keown, Vivian Olson, Guy Mace and Ben Pickard.
Bentley used student and hired help to begin the extensive process of measuring, visually assessing and photographing each individual piece, and carefully cleaning them if necessary. But she also decided to seek some expert opinions on the African art holdings.
On July 24, two staff members from the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas-Lawrence traveled to Missouri Southern to view the collection and make some recommendations.
Angela Watts, the Spencer Museum’s associate collection manager, said that Missouri Southern’s collection is definitely unique to the area.
“I don’t know of many other places in this region that has this kind of collection available,” she said.
Cassandra Mesick, curator of global indigenous art, said it’s a strong collection and stressed the importance of properly cataloging each item.
“It’s time consuming and it’s tedious, to be honest,” Mesick said. “But I’m saying this as a curator – it is the single most important thing you can do.
“Sharing your materials with the public, doing exhibitions and putting things online … that’s all wonderful. But you cannot feasibly do that until you know what you have and you know that it’s in suitable condition.”
The collection will soon be moved from the gallery floor to make way for the first gallery exhibit of the 2014-15 school year. Bentley said she’s looking for classroom space where it can be stored for use in this fall’s gallery studies class. Students will use the works as they learn about cataloguing and collection care management.
Beyond that, Bentley said she’ll be looking into grants that are available to help with permanent storage.
“We’ll need some funding to properly store it and potentially get appraisals,” she said. “It’s a collection worthy of that funding and attention. It would be a shame if we didn’t give it the attention and proper conservation that it needs.”