Barnes Foundation: Navajo Textiles

In 2011, The Barnes Foundation commissioned White Box Theatre to create an on-going education program that would introduce the Barnes Foundation and its collection, feature the Navajo Textile collection and engage 8th grade students from Philadelphia schools. The program serves approximately 1000 students a year. White Box continues to provide artist-educators and consulting for program development.  The program offers entry points for discovery, from looking, to weaving, to integrating observation, questions, and links to personal experience.

White Box Theatre worked in conjunction with the archivists, art historians and educators at the Barnes. Research included learning the core value and underlying principles of Barnes’ philosophy of education — reading correspondence between Barnes and the Hubbell Trading Post, learning about the history, technology, and culture of the Navajo people and their weaving practice, and meeting with 8th grade teachers to learn about needs of students and schools. White Box Theatre developed a curriculum guide, core ideas for lesson plans for a pre and post museum visit experience, and a two hour in-museum experience.

The museum experience includes looking exercises in the galleries, storytelling with props, and two hands-on experiences with weaving – one on large tapestry looms modeled after the Navajo loom, and one on small cardboard handlooms. 

In the first year of the program, White Box Theatre applied for funding from the Pew Foundation to expand the programmatic content and workshop a performance with dancers and the large looms. The performance was developed in part to push the idea of cultural appropriation, and invite students to discover their own entry points of curiosity and understand the inevitable role of interpretation. We asked: as non-Navajo people how do we experience myth, technology, artifact, and the surface experience of culture understanding?

Dancers worked with the Spider Woman myth, techniques in weaving, and the ways in which railroad expansion and trade began shift practice and weave cultures together. Dancers moved through the courtyard while Mundheim shared pieces of history and asked questions about artists/learners think about interpretation. Students then participated in weaving experiences interactive exercises in the courtyard — this was exciting — 100 students moving together across the courtyard, integrating body, material, and awareness of each other. This was a one-time special experiment.

In 2015, White Box Theatre consulted with Natural Light Films and traveled to the Navajo Nation to make a short documentary film introducing students to the Navajo landscape, weavers, and textile. View the full video here.

Preparing the program in the White Box Studio