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The INbox Guide to Bloomington Museums: Mathers Museum of World Cultures

April 19, 2019
Mathers Museum header

A museum opened its doors on IU’s campus in 1943, and although it collected and displayed items to the public, it would be two decades before faculty members insisted it be formally chartered through the university.

In 1963, it was officially named the Indiana University Museum and, two years later, the museum showcased its first exhibit under the directorship of Wesley R. Hurt. Their mission was - and still is - dedicated to preserving and promoting the knowledge of cultures from around the world.

As the museum collections grew, the staff knew a larger facility would eventually become necessary, and by 1971 their application for accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums was approved. A plan was set in motion to relocate and rebuild this new space.

Ten years later, the groundbreaking ceremony was held and the Indiana University Museum was renamed the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. This was to honor the death of William Hammond Mathers, the son of IU chemistry professor Frank C. Mathers.

Frank was the principal donor of the museum’s new facility. He had attended IU and even met his wife Maud there before accepting a faculty position in the chemistry department. Together, they had two sons who also became students at the university until 1938, when their youngest son, William, lost his battle with cancer. 

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In 1983 the building was dedicated, and for the first time in the museum’s life, it had a place solely dedicated to the careful keeping of its artifacts collected from around the world. That year, Dr. Geoffrey W. Conrad accepted the directorship position and under his leadership the cultural exhibits grew and thrived until his departure in 2012.

The following year the vacancy in the directorship was filled with the recruitment of Jason Jackson. Jackson’s museum work began during his time as a student at IU and continued when he joined on as a faculty member in 2004.

2013 not only marked Jackson’s first year as Mathers Museum Director, but it also marked the 50th anniversary of the museum itself.

“Those anniversary moments cause you to think about the past and about the future,” Jackson said. “So the timing was, for me personally, a fortuitous one. You get a chance to talk about the big picture in a way that’s hard to do at year 47 or 53 so I felt lucky that the timing worked out that way.”

Thinking about the past, present and future is what the Mathers Museum of World Cultures is all about. As a part of the Office of the Vice Provost of Research, the museum specifically focuses on engaging in activities designed to enhance or support the work of the university and all of campus.

“One of our roles is to help foster research,” Jackson explained. “For us that would be in the area of world cultures. We work with faculty, students and outside researchers all the time and we are also a research center, which means that we ourselves do research.”

The type of research that the museum conducts and participates in relates to not only the diversity of peoples and cultural histories of the worlds, but also to the commonalities in the human experience.

This is demonstrated in the museum through the recreation of a 1967 dwelling. The amount and types of goods within the dwelling speak of that cultures values, restrictions and freedoms.

 1967 Living Room 1967 Kitchen

The museum faculty supports scholarly research at all levels. Whether it's undergraduates tackling a project for the first time, graduate students working actively in the research sector or even those studying the museum's collections - inside the building and out - the Mathers Museum tries to be both an educational and human resource.

The Mathers Museum has also been known to partner with IU faculty who have had research underway all around the world - from Oaxaca, Mexico, to parts of Africa and Europe. The doll pictured below was a manufactured toy made in Japan. 

Japanese Doll Doll information

“As a public museum, we care for our collections for a number of purposes,” Jackson said. “One of which is to preserve and make them available for research by anyone who has an interest in learning from the collections as part of their research.”

An ongoing example of that is from the museum’s vast holding of photographs related to the Native American peoples of the United States. It’s possible that the majority of the Native communities are represented in these holdings. The museum receives daily phone calls and emails asking about old relatives or friends.

Captain Jim Choctaw Telephone Squad

The Mathers Museum is interested in connecting with their audience. As a university museum, one of their roles is to facilitate the richness in the educational experience of students. They have done that this year through the exhibit, México Indígena.

 Gallery activities Nakawe

Sponsored by the IU Arts and Humanities Council program Mexico Remixed, México Indígena explores the different indigenous peoples of Mexico featuring their innovations, as well as artistic traditions.

Marcos Bautista, from Teotitlán del Valle in Oaxaca, Mexico, grew up learning his family’s weaving business. Now a resident of Indiana, he will be visiting the museum to demonstrate his art at the standing loom on April 27th and 28th.

Loom Weaving thread

With over 127 million people and a vast geographical landscape, Museum goers are encouraged to learn about the indigenous peoples of Mexico through objects that have been retained, remade and revised for the 21st Century. The exhibit will continue through January 26, 2020.

Anthropomorphic vase Mathers display

A placard in the Mathers Museum might sum up its mission best:

“Culture doesn’t reach a conclusion, but is a process - a means, not an end... All thoughts, things and theories are shaped by cultures and over time, these cultures will be maintained or altered - subtly or dramatically - by individuals, families and societies as they live out their lives.”

Find out more by visiting the Mathers Museum - Open Tuesday through Friday from 9am to 4:30pm. Admission is free.

To view more images from the museum, visit our gallery here.