Students take the lead in new exhibit at TXST’s Wittliff Collections
Within The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University is an archive of New Mexico historian Marc Simmons, including several kachina dolls gifted to Simmons from members of the Hopi tribe.
Kachina dolls are traditionally handcrafted by Hopi artisans using cottonwood root and painted with natural pigments derived from plants, minerals, and other organic materials.
The Wittliff Collections hosted an internship that brought together two undergraduate students from different academic backgrounds to research the dolls and present what they learned in an exhibition.
The dolls hold symbolic meaning and correspond to different kachinas — or spirits — in Hopi culture. They are traditionally given to children to pass down important spiritual or cultural beliefs. The dolls in the Marc Simmons Collection are typical of those given or sold to outsiders of the Hopi tribe.
Annemarie Teagle, an anthropology major, conducted extensive research for a cultural analysis of the dolls in the collection.
“When first researching the dolls, I would notice something new about them every time,” said Teagle. “It could be something from a small symbol, a pattern on the clothing, or something like the color of the paint and the significance of that color. The dolls are always full of surprises.”
Caden Summers, working under the guidance of David Schilter, Ph.D., in Texas State’s Department of Chemistry, used his science background to apply various analytical chemistry techniques to the dolls.
“This project highlighted the potential of non-destructive chemical analysis, revealing key information about the kachina, such as chemical composition, origin, and age of the dolls,” shared Summers.
Through his work with the kachina dolls, he hopes to inspire people to think differently about the field of chemistry, and “recognize the impact and practical applications of chemistry in fields like art and history.”
The exhibition on display in The Wittliff highlighted some of the cultural and chemical discoveries Teagle and Summers made about each doll, yet they both stress there is much more to learn than can fit in the case. Their hope is that their work informs visitors about the dolls but also sparks curiosity and reflects respect for the culture the dolls represent.
Internships like this offer students a valuable opportunity to gain hands-on experience and apply knowledge learned in the classroom.
“This interdisciplinary approach, combining chemistry and cultural history, has sparked my interest in the field,” said Summers. “It has motivated me to consider pursuing studies in this area and potentially a career applying chemistry techniques to interpret the cultural significance of artifacts.”
Teagle graduated in May 2023.
“This internship at The Wittliff has been vital for me at this time in my life,” said Teagle. “It has not only been a wonderful opportunity for me personally, but it will help in my job search. I feel like it has opened up a lot of opportunities, and it has helped me figure out what I might want to do in the future.”
Their exhibition will be on display through the end of 2023 in The Wittliff Collections’ Edward Curtis Gallery.
The Simmons Curatorial Internship was generously supported by the University’s Louise Lindsay Merrick Endowment.
The Wittliff Collections collect, preserve, and present the cultural heritage of Texas, the Southwest, and Mexico through works of the region’s storytellers, including writers, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, and other artists.
This article originally appeared on The Wittliff Collections Keystone Blog in May of 2023 and was modified for publication in the Newsroom in August.