A jewel of an exhibit on view at the San Diego Museum of Art through May 28, 2013, was conceived by UC San Diego faculty, curated by UCSD students, and includes narrative works of art from the Mandeville Special Collections Library. Alternative Accounts: Plains Indian Ledger Art from the 19th Century to Now focuses on “visual stories” created by Plains Indians at a time when their ancestral way of life had all but disappeared. The 19th century was a devastating time on the Great Plains. Massive herds of buffalo, which had once roamed the grasslands in the millions, were slaughtered nearly to extinction, destroying the livelihood of Native peoples. Indian artists turned from traditional painting on buffalo hide to other media, including ledger paper, which was both plentiful and available. At first, continuing in the tradition of buffalo-hide painting, the ledger drawings were representations of war heroism and sacred visions and other public status-building narratives. With time, the books began to also include more private accounts and memories – of ceremonial grandeur, of displacement and reservation life, of courtship and daily doings.
The exhibit was curated by 15 UC San Diego students enrolled in Representing Native America, a course taught by Ross Frank, an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies, and Teri Sowell, a lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts. According to the museum’s curatorial statement, the show “offers a rare look at the counter-narrative of America, told through the drawings of its original inhabitants.” The exhibit features examples of 19th century Plains Indian Ledger art, including four volumes from UC San Diego’s Mandeville Special Collections Library, newly acquired by the Plains Indian Ledger Art project, or PILA, a project directed by Frank. The collaborative project, established by Frank in 1994, aims to serve as a digital center for Plains Indian Ledger books, if possible keeping them intact or, failing that, archiving them digitally before they’re unbound and their pages are sold piecemeal. Frank has been especially impressed with the academic diversity—students in academic areas ranging from visual arts and theater to engineering and biology—and level of commitment from the students involved.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Frank said. “The students worked on the exhibition from conceptual beginning all the way through to putting on the show. And some are continuing to volunteer as presenters for some of the museum’s Art Stops. I have rarely been in an environment where students were so motivated.” One student playing a central role in the “Alternative Accounts” exhibit is Joseph Herring, who graduated with a bachelor’s in art history in 2012 and has worked at Geisel Library since 2008. Herring, who is looking forward to graduate studies in the UK with the goal of becoming a museum curator, has already gained an impressive amount of exhibit experience. In addition to his work at Geisel, where he has helped plan exhibits and responded to queries from Library patrons, he currently works at the San Diego Museum of Art and the Museum of Photographic Arts.
“I had the chance to write wall labels, create an interactive iPad application for the gallery space, design the exhibition title graphic, and assist on other projects along the way,” said Herring of his work on the exhibit. “I've worked on museum exhibitions before but usually my job was limited to one specific task. This project allowed me the unique opportunity to work on all the different tasks that go into creating an exhibition, and to see it through from start to finish.”
Frank and Herring both feel that the ledgers themselves and the exhibit are important both for their artistry and for the history they depict. “Native American history,” Herring said, “is usually told from the perspective of outsiders. ‘Alternative Accounts,’ through these ledger artworks, presents the visual tradition of telling history from a Native perspective.”
In 2011, PILA – supported by the Bradley Foundation and in association with Mandeville Special Collections – was able to acquire its first 19th century ledger book, The Black Horse Ledger, drawn in the late 1870s and early 1880s by a well documented Northern Cheyenne warrior by that name. The Black Horse ledger is on view for the first time ever at SDMA. The physical collection has since grown with donations and acquisitions to six volumes, making it, Frank believes, the second largest collection of whole ledgers in the U.S outside of the holdings at the Smithsonian museums. The PILA website meanwhile, he says, is set to surpass the Smithsonian as the largest repository of digital images of ledger art.