Caroline Wood and the Ackland Art Museum

In fall 1997, the Ackland Art Museum of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) began focusing resources on using its multicultural collections to teach about world religions. The collections include ritual objects from Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. The “Five Faiths Project” produced new installations, interpretive materials, and public programs designed to include the perspectives of local people of faith, as well as those of art historians and scholars of religion. The Museum hoped to foster interfaith dialogue and understanding during a time of rapid change in North Carolina’s cultural and religious landscape.

Thanks to a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts the Ackland sponsored a series of artist-led workshops in local faith communities. In the fall of 1997 photographer Wendy Ewald and storyteller Louise Kessel began the series with workshops for children and adults in the Hindu and Jewish communities. Their work continued in the fall of 1998 with residencies in Muslim, Buddhist and Catholic communities. The community-based workshops culminated in a photography exhibition and a series of storytelling performances at the Museum in the spring of 1999.

Ewald, a MacArthur Fellow and research associate with Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, worked with groups of children ages 8 to 13 at Hindu Bhavan in Morrisville and at Beth El Synagogue in Durham. She taught the kids how to use special Polaroid cameras that produce black and white negatives, encouraging them to document home rituals and community events. Each group was curious about the other’s photos and voiced many questions about the religious beliefs portrayed.

Kessel began her residencies with Hindu, Jain and Jewish adults by learning how storytelling happens in these traditions and discussing how religious stories might be passed down here in North Carolina. During each workshop session, Kessel guided a group activity intended to open dialogue among the participants about their lives, invited them to tell a story they had prepared, and organized performance opportunities. Performances of Jewish stories were given at local Hebrew schools and for a seniors’ group, while Hindu and Jain stories were told at the temple and the Ackland’s spring Community Day. The class sessions culminated in performances for family and friends at the Museum, which were recorded for use in a multimedia curricular resource the Ackland is developing for social studies teachers.

These artist residencies enabled the Ackland to engage new audiences in its programs and document the growing religious diversity in North Carolina. Organizers hoped that these relationships will continue to grow, and that the products of the residencies—audio recordings, interviews and the photography exhibition—will yield new insights and understanding of our commonalties and differences. For a sample of the multimedia resources being developed for schools, visit Krishna in Context on the Ackland’s website.

As an Affiliate of the Pluralism Project, the Ackland Art Museum worked with UNC-CH students to conduct ethnographic research in the religious communities in which the artists were working. Students interviewed leaders in these faith communities and prepare a history and profile of each community using Pluralism Project guidelines. This research was integrated into the curricular materials being prepared for public schools, as well as the Pluralism Project archives.

Selected Links and Publications