Pottery collection becomes library centerpiece
By Nancy Steele Brokaw
Anke Voss-Hubbard arrived at Illinois Wesleyan holding a wealth of archival experience.
But nothing in her training prepared her for the unexpected task of maintaining a
valuable collection of 19th-century Pueblo pottery.
The University’s collection of over 100 specimens of Native American pottery came
as a legacy from the famed scientific explorer John Wesley Powell, an IWU faculty
member from 1865 to 1867. During and his tenure at the University, Powell led IWU
students on some of his celebrated expeditions to the West.
|Above, some of the 128 pieces of clay pottery and hand-woven baskets that comprise
the John Wesley Powell Collection. (Photo by Jamie Stukenberg)
The pottery collection — containing objects of Zuni, Hopi and Acoma “provenance” (the
library word for “where things come from”) - has been moved around the University
since the late 1800s and has been on permanent display at the University’s main library
since the mid-1960s.
Deservedly, Powell’s pots were accorded prominence in the design of The Ames Library.
After much discussion, they became the showpiece of the main floor’s rotunda, encased
in four solid mahogany curved cases. There were many design considerations. How best
(and most safely) to light them? What about temperature and humidity control? And,
how best to clean and move them from their previous home at Sheean Library to the
new Ames Library?
This is not the sort of thing taught in library school. Obviously, the pots weren’t
exactly dishwasher safe. They were dirty — but archivists are protective about dirt,
which can have its own story to tell.
In the end, Voss-Hubbard and her crew armed themselves with protective gloves, conservation
dust cloths, soft fibrous bristle brushes, and a low-volt vacuum. They “minimally
and carefully” cleaned the pieces, wrapped them in acid-free, unbuffered interleaving
paper and bubble wrap, placed them in archival boxes and safely tip-toed them over
to their splendid new home, where they are displayed together with a seated sculpture
of Powell by Bloomington artist Rick Harney.
The pottery is part of the University’s John Wesley Powell/Western Frontier collection,
which continues to grow under Voss-Hubbard’s direction. She just purchased first editions
of work by Grace Hebard, a suffragist from Wyoming (the first state to grant women’s
suffrage) to add to the collection.
Voss-Hubbard also hopes to develop an on-line presentation of the Powell Pueblo pottery
to make it more accessible to scholars who may not have time to visit the actual pieces
in their new home. “I am trying to identify institutions with similar collections
to see if we might make it a collaborative project and thus unite online, similar
artifacts, many of which are now scattered at archives and museums throughout the
> To return to the main story about the University's archives, click here.
> To read about archival material of specific interest to Illinois Wesleyan alumni, click here.
> To read about a mysterious book in Special Collections, click here.
> To link to the home page of the Tate Archives & Special Collections, click here.