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Schevill Maya Textile Collection: Relationship Building, Collaboration, and Public Engagement

by on November 7, 2013

Today’s post comes from Robin Wheelwright Ness, Digital Production Specialist at Brown University Library.

Museums strive to partner and collaborate with other institutions, engage the public, and build lasting relationships within communities. There is no foolproof recipe for success, but there are indeed successes that demonstrate how collaboration and community relationship building can lead to active public engagement with museum collections.

Chichi weaver, 1985, Ikat tzute. Photo: Margot Blum Schevill

I am responsible for the coordination of work on digital projects in Brown University Library’s department of  Digital Production Services; I am also a part-time graduate student in the Master’s program at Brown’s Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. These intersecting roles have allowed me a unique understanding of just how inter-institutional collaboration and public engagement intersect to expand what the museum is, what it does, and who it is for.

The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology holds a collection of over two hundred hand-woven Maya garments collected by anthropologist and Brown alumna Margot Blum Schevill, a specialist in Guatemalan weaving practices. In the past few years, Schevill has also donated correspondence and thousands of slides and photographs documenting Mayan weaving practices and Guatemalan village life to the Haffenreffer.

Back-strap weaving demonstration at Museo Ixchel, Ciudad de Guatemala. Photo by Margot Blum Schevill

Recognizing the need to digitize Schevill’s many images, curators at the Haffenreffer approached Digital Production Services in the fall of 2012. It proposed that the Schevill slides be scanned and added to the Brown Digital Repository, to which the museum plans to link as it builds its online collection database. Digital Production Services has previously provided digitization and metadata services to, and preserved digitized components of, projects including Mashapaug Pond and the Fox Point Project. The library was pleased to join in the effort to help make the Schevill materials available to a larger audience.

Two Public Humanities students, Anna Ghublikian ’13 and María Quintero ’13, took the opportunity to work on cataloging the textile component of the Schevill collection. I taught Anna, María, and another Public Humanities student already in our employ, Jacqueline Harris ’13, to digitize the collection (using our Nikon Super Coolscan5000 slide scanners) and to use our internal tracking system to record metadata about the images. Schevill was meticulous in recording not only the locations and dates of her visits, but also the types of looms, materials, and weaving techniques employed in the creation of textiles she photographed. This information can be used to create metadata records, providing a variety of access points and, ultimately, adding value to the user’s experience with the digitized collection.

Anna and María’s work paralleled a documentary and arts project, led by Brown undergraduate Alexander Crane, which partnered with the Maya-Guatemalan Weaving Collective Oxib’ B’atz, located in nearby New Bedford, Massachusetts. Oxib’ B’atz was formed, in part, in order to keep alive the tradition of the immigrant’s native Guatemalan practice of back-strap loom weaving. The connection to, and overlap between, the Schevill collection and the ongoing work of the collective inspired an exhibit at Brown University’s Carriage House Gallery, and planted the seed in Anna & María’s minds for further expansion of the project.

As the digitization work proceeded, Anna and María began building partnerships with institutions and weavers in New Bedford, MA. This ultimately led to an exhibition at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Weaving Stories, Weaving Lives: Maya Textiles from Guatemala and New Bedford, exploring Mayan weaving as a form of storytelling. Working as co-curators, María and Anna brought additional students into the project to form an exhibit team. They displayed garments from the Schevill Collection alongside contemporary examples woven by members of Oxib’ B’atz. The exhibit featured demonstrations of back-strap weaving by members of the Oxib’ B’atz, school vacation week programming, Spanish language content, and free admission to New Bedford residents.

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1960s huipil from the Haffenreffer’s Schevill collection on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Photo by Robin Wheelwright Ness

The work I performed conducting quality control and correction on the digitized slides facilitated the selection of images for use in the exhibit. Jacqueline has written about her involvement in the project on the DPS departmental blog, Curio, while Anna and María have written about the project in a previous post on this very blog. And — good news! — upon graduation, María Quintero became a curatorial fellow at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, where she continues to work on enhancing ties between the institution and local communities.

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A member of New Bedford’s Oxib’ B’atz collective demonstrating back-strap weaving at the exhibit’s opening. Photo by Robin Wheelwright Ness

One of the next steps in working with the Schevill Collection is to make the digitized images of the collection available to the general public so that those with interest in ethnographic costume and Maya Guatemalan weaving traditions worldwide can make use of this valuable resource. Stay tuned for updates on the digital component of this project as it enters the Brown Digital Repository.


A woman weaving in the Guatemalan mountains. Photo by Margot Blum Schevill

Thank you Robin. We love this project, and are excited about making these images available to the public in the Brown Digital Repository. More on that soon!

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