JEWELRY CASE in Babbitt Gallery.Photograph by Robert K. Liu/Ornament, courtesy of Museum of Northern Arizona.
Museum of
Northern Arizona

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As one of the states bordering the Four Corners area, Arizona has been blessed with both geographic beauty and the cultural richness of its prehistoric and extant Native American peoples. In parallel with these advantages, its museums reflect this bounty, from the Arizona State Museum in Tucson to the south, the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) in Flagstaff.

HOPI bowguard, 1962, of brass, copper, overlay technique; by Glenn Lucas, Kiqotsmovi/Musangnuvi.

Situated among the conifers on both sides of North Fort Valley Road or Highway 180, the Harold S. Colton Research Center Campus includes the Museum itself, complemented by the new Easton Collection Center, a green, state of the art seventeen-thousand-square-foot facility, which contains both artifacts belonging to MNA and a larger proportion to other government agencies. The greater Museum of Northern Arizona Campus covers an even wider area, encompassing residential areas and the historic Colton family buildings. I had a chance to use their collection center when I went to study and photograph the prehistoric mosaic overlay pendants, among the few known from the Sinagua culture, within which Flagstaff lies. Mosaic overlay, practiced by most of the prehistoric puebloan cultures, were strong aesthetic statements and had great ritual importance. Also housed here are the extensive Anthropology Collection (Ethnographic and Prehistoric), the Biology and Geology Collections and the Fine Art Collection. Portions of each of these collections are on display in the museum, each within its own hall.

Thus all aspects of this region, known as the Colorado Plateau, are presented to the museum visitors, enabling a strong introduction to the life, culture, history, and land of this striking part of the American Southwest. The Archaeology/Ethnology Halls and its Timeline display Sinagua jewelry (simple, strong forms utilizing well both local and trade goods: stone, shell, bone, and ceramic shards), examples of early cordage, basketry, textiles, weapons, and footware in the form of sandals, providing protection against both terrain and vegetation. A clear map shows what was traded to and by the Sinagua and other puebloan cultures: turquoise, argillite, salt, shells from the Pacific coast and the Gulf of California; pottery and valuable, exotic goods from Mexico like macaws and copper bells. While these cast bells show the presence of metal in the prehistoric Southwest, it was not used for tools. In the Babbitt Ethnographic Gallery, there are extensive collections of jewelry and pots, collected from 1931 to 1955 by Joseph Babbitt, head of a prominent family in Arizona politics, who kept illustrated field journals when collecting. Historic and contemporary Hopi, Navajo and Zuni jewelry predominates. Like their prehistoric ancestors, many Native American jewelers still use the same shells and stones, augmented by metal, which enabled them to explore forms not previously possible without the plasticity and strength of this new material.

ENLARGED INLAID SHELL PENDANT that is about 1.5 centimeters diameter, showing the power of their abstraction in this deer representation, with a turquoise bead for the eye.

At the time of our visit to MNA last year, the retrospecptive of the late Hopi artist Michael Kabotie (Ornament 34.1, 2010) was being held at the museum. Kabotie, like his father Fred, was an artist with a long history in the region, the nearby Grand Canyon and its structures and to the MNA, excelling in his painting, jewelry and teaching. Murals, paintings, his jewelry, tools, and workbench were included in the exhibition. The latter were especially poignant, as not long before we had seen Michael Kabotie teaching a jewelry course at the Idyllwild Arts Center, California, using these same, few simple tools; his forging hammer had only the front face, as the rear portion had been either removed or had broken off. His steel block was embedded in a thick plank, drilled to hold his punches and other tools. In contrast to many other contemporary jewelers, Native American practitioners often still utilize only a few tools/equipment, compensating by their skills.

Because of the proximity of Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon, the Gunnar Widforss exhibition was especially additive to the experience of this geological grandeur. His paintings and watercolors interpreted so well these majestic vistas; I loved his Hopi Point and Grand Canyon watercolors.

Just as the Grand Canyon and enviroments are a must for anyone visiting northern Arizona, so is the Museum of Northern Arizona a vital part of the process in appreciating and understanding this beautiful part of the American Southwest.


Museum of Northern Arizona


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