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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 20, 2018

Museum displays Native American photos

By Andy Hallman, Ledger news editor | May 02, 2018
Photo by: ANDY HALLMAN/Ledger photo Angie and Doug Copeland admire photos and artifacts in the Carnegie Historical Museum during Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours Thursday. Gene Copeland donated 12 photos taken by Edward S. Curtis of Native Americans. The photos were incorporated into the museum’s existing exhibits.

The Carnegie Historical Museum hosted a Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours event Thursday.

The highlight of the evening was unveiling Gene Copeland’s recently donated collection of Edward S. Curtis photographs of Native Americans.

Curtis was from Wisconsin and lived from 1868-1952. He captured 40,000 images of more than 80 tribes, mostly in the western and southwestern parts of the United States. His work was compiled into large bound volumes, copies of which are at the museum.

Gene Copeland grew up in Fairfield, went to Parsons College and came back here to retire after a career as an attorney in Colorado. He had been collecting old photographs for ages.

Carnegie Historical Museum curator Mark Shafer said Copeland had a soft spot for the Carnegie Museum and library, since he went there as a child. He knew he couldn’t display all his photos at home, so he donated some to the museum, including 12 photos from Curtis’s collection. Two of them are original and even signed by the photographer.


The collection

One of Copeland’s stipulations for donating the photos was that they be inside locked display cases with other exhibits, protected from shoplifting. This was both a challenge and opportunity for Shafer, who had to think about which display cases best suited the photos.

Some of the decisions were easy. One of the photos depicts a native chief holding a mummified eagle with its wings spread wide. The museum already had a display case dedicated to raptors such as eagles and hawks.

“And the case had a big, blank empty wall behind it,” Shafer said. “It was almost like that case had been waiting for that photo for 40 years. It was a match made in heaven. The photo gives the [taxidermy] birds a new life that was not present before.”

Another photo, of a woman carrying a big load of supplies on her back near a teepee, is paired with a taxidermy squirrel and chipmunk. One photo titled “The Vanishing Race,” which Curtis signed, shows a group of Native Americans riding horses in the southwest.

“Curtis considered that one of his most important photos,” Shafer said.

“The Vanishing Race” was put in the display case with southwestern pottery, showing the public the kind of tools the American Indians pictured might have used.

A photo of women from the Hopi tribe are in the same display case as the scale model pueblo village, showing the kind of village they might have lived in.


Hanging the photos

Paul Conley and Shafer hung the photos, which was an arduous process. They began by photographing the displays so they could review where all the artifacts belonged after removing them from the case. The exhibits, many of which were installed by Ben J. Taylor and Paul Selz, had to be removed gingerly. Shafer recalled that it took four hours to hang one picture.

“We tried to leave things as they were as much as possible,” Shafer said. “Some artifacts were hung in ways you wouldn’t expect, and we had to work around them.”

Shafer has striven to preserve the appearance Taylor and Selz gave the museum when they rehabilitated it in the 1970s.

Conley said he wore special gloves called nitrile gloves, which prevented the oils from his hand from damaging or discoloring the artifacts. He said hanging the photos took several months because he had to work around the schedule of his day-job at Bovard Studio.


Other donations

In addition to the 12 photos, Copeland donated 1880s parlor furniture such as an armchair and table. The table has a Regina Music Box, a phonograph-like device produced in the late 19th century in which holes in a flat brass disc catch hammers that pluck a bell. Shafer said it’s in good working condition.

“Whenever school tours come through, I let each kid crank it three times,” he said. “I emphasize to them that not every museum lets kids play with $1,200 equipment. Gene was happy to know we were making it accessible.”


Comments (1)
Posted by: Aaron Phillips | May 08, 2018 09:43

Saw these at the Business After Hours hosted by the Museum April 26th.  A fine addition to the collection there!

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