Sphinx and pyramid
Photo courtesy of Adnan Charara

For the 2015-16 academic year, Whitman’s Global Studies Initiative and the Sheehan Gallery collaborated with artist and collector Adnan Charara to create a new exhibit: Scenes & Types: Photography from the Collection of Adnan Charara.

The display includes a selection of more than a thousand ethnographic photographs, postcards and stereoscopic views from Charara’s collection. The underlying theme: orientalism and the phenomenon of “human zoos.” The exhibit is co-curated by Associate Professor of History and Director of Global Studies Elyse Semerdjian, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of General Studies and Art History Elizabeth Miller.

“Adnan Charara is big on education, so he made it known that he had this collection of ethnographic photographs and postcards. His idea was for them to be displayed in some sort of academic setting where they could be used as a tool for teaching,” said Director of the Sheehan Gallery Daniel Forbes. “Not only has the gallery been an important educational tool, but we have had four student interns working on the collection. It’s been truly an incredible opportunity for them to do some career development.”

“Human zoos” were the popular 19th and early 20th century display of human beings in semi-permanent installations (at actual zoos) and as traveling "ethnic shows," circus acts and world's fair attractions in Europe and the United States. These zoos were developed in tandem with the production of ethnographic photographs, usually destined for Western travel albums and scientific collections.

As a way to address contemporary viewership of the collection, students, staff members and faculty members wrote responses to individual pieces from Charara’s collection. The responses were printed on the back of some of the ethnographic postcards. While some wrote about how putting the collection together affected them emotionally, others talked about how the collection made them think, and what brought them to the collection in the first place.

Inspired by the Scenes & Types exhibit, Adnan Charara contributed some new contemporary art. Artist Lauren Frances Adams also created an installation in the Maxey Museum inspired by the postcards and photographs called Trove/Trope. The installation incorporates the photos into wallpaper and other detailed creations.

Forbes noted that multiple academic fields, including ceramics, English, history and more, have utilized the exhibit in their syllabi.

“This gallery has been really generative in a lot of ways,” Forbes said. “This has been such a community effort. In my time here, I have never seen an exhibit activate so many different components of Whitman’s community, so many artists from different backgrounds and styles come together over one exhibit, nor have I seen such a variety of classes and groups come through the gallery.”