Emma Willard School’s capstone program, Signature, empowers juniors and seniors to dive deep into a personal project of their choosing. Jennifer L. ’19 used her Signature to bring new understanding to China’s often underrepresented autonomous regions of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. She researched the regions’ cultures and customs before traveling there to capture photography and video and collect instruments and clothing. Jennifer then curated a collection of multimedia visual and material elements to give the school community a glimpse into the people and cultures of China’s frontiers.
We asked Jennifer about her Signature experience and how she came to curate her final collection, which was displayed in Dietel Gallery earlier this month. Read our full Q&A below!
1. Your curator’s statement shares your background working in museums. Is that what inspired your appreciation for learning through cultural artifacts?
My experience working in museums has definitely been a large factor as to why I value cultural artifacts, but I’ve been inspired long before that. A very distinct memory from my childhood is the thick, overpowering scent of wool. I spent many afternoons accompanying my mother to her favorite antique rug store where the smell was a regular fixture. I remember coming across a small red prayer rug when I was nine and being taught by the store owner, Jay, that the medallion motif on it was inspired by the lotus flower, which is highly sacred in Islam. Each time I visited the store Jay taught me something new about Persian history and culture through his carpets. These experiences taught me the value of material and visual culture in being able to teach us more the past and the present.
2. Was there a specific artifact(s) or exhibit(s) during those experiences that impacted you?
Last summer I did a program at the New York Historical Society centered around the Norman Rockwell exhibit that they were showing at the time. I would say that that exhibit definitely left a lasting imprint on me because I was able to explore the very interesting intersection between art and politics. Focusing on Norman Rockwell, I learned about the role he played as an artist in enforcing an understanding of American values and culture.
3. Was this always a topic you sought to explore through Signature?
I never imagined myself doing something like this until the end of my junior year. I had always dreamed of curating my own exhibit one day, but it wasn’t until the end of last year that I actually thought of doing it.
4. What was it about the existing representation of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang that inspired you to focus on these regions in particular?
I don’t think I could answer this question in just a few sentences but simply put, I think they are underrepresented in general in the West. They come up in political debates, but outside of that sphere many people lack even basic knowledge concerning the two regions. Given their complex histories, I don’t think my exhibit alone will bridge that lack of understanding, but I’m hoping it’s a start.
5. How were you able to gain access to the people of these regions? What were your experiences like?
For one thing, both regions have booming tourism industries so it wasn’t very hard to travel around and learn about the cultures in both places. The locals were also incredibly welcoming, so I had a really easy time simply asking them for their permission when I wanted to take a photo of a person. I also had local guides who were incredibly knowledgeable on the regions and local cultures, so I was able to ask them questions about customs, religious beliefs, food, etc. Typically, I was able to communicate with everyone we encountered pretty easily, but if a local did not speak Mandarin, the guide would translate for me.
6. What was the process of selecting pieces for your exhibit like?
I found it easy to pick which objects I wanted to display and what kind of video I wanted to show in my exhibit. The hardest things to pick were the photographs. Out of all the photos I took I chose a combination of shots of landscapes, people, animals, food, and traditions to hang up. I ended up printing more photos than I could actually put up however, so then I was faced with the annoying challenge of choosing which carefully selected prints I was going to have to cut from the exhibit; I have at least 10 extra photographs I was not able to put up as well as one hat.
7. What do you hope people learn from your exhibit?
At the very least, I hope they walk away from my exhibit knowing where Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia are. My biggest hope was that I could use multimedia to create an immersive experience for my audience, but from that experience I expect people to leave having learned different things.
8. What are some of your biggest takeaways from the process of documenting these cultures and deciding how to represent them?
One of the most important lessons I learned is that no matter how much I want to or how hard I try, I can’t show everything. Since my goal was to document and represent people groups and cultures, I had a hard time coming to terms with that since I felt like anything less than a completely representative picture was disrespectful and inaccurate, but once I realized that I had to accept my own limitations, I found that I had a much smoother process.
Learn more about Signature and what students are working on this year on our Signature blog!