Land of Extremes: New season, staff, ideas at the Imperial Valley Desert Museum

Robin Dodge, President of the Imperial Valley Museum Society, Inc., reviewing the new case and the mini-exhibit “Ceramics of the Americas.” Courtesy Photo

In August, the Imperial Valley Desert Museum (IVDM) expanded its research and curatorial staff. Dr. David Breeckner, the museum’s newest Post-doctoral Research Fellow, has been brought in to care for, interpret, and exhibit collections associated with the Imperial Valley College Archaeology Collection.

Breeckner is a ceramic expert and collections specialist from the state of New Hampshire. For a few months, he will be trading the ski resort for the desert.

He comes to the museum from a career as a Mediterranean archaeologist, during which he studied the Bronze Age civilization of the Minoans on the island of Crete. He brings to the institution his skill and experience in handling material culture, and a particular passion for ancient ceramics.

Over the next several months of his residency, Breeckner will be examining the collections that are in the storage vaults at the museum — collections rarely seen by the public. His work will both advance the institution’s understanding of the history of its own materials and celebrate the culture and history that it stewards. Through original research, he seeks to interpret and contextualize the origin, life and meaning of the museum’s historical collections, and to implement innovative ways for their display and presentation.

The storerooms are open

Beginning in September, the museum is launching a series of mini-exhibits designed to engage patrons with previously-unseen materials from its curated collections. These mini-exhibits will change weekly.

The exhibits will be designed to be small in size and duration, but will echo the weight of the collections at the museum. Entering the museum, guests will find one of its new display cases, full of new objects and research. These cases and their contents demonstrate specific themes and ideas, exploring the contents and nature of the museum’s material collections. These exhibits are fleeting and designed to only be featured for a limited period.

...But never fear! From the ashes of one exhibit, another will rise to take its place. The Imperial Valley Desert Museum hosts a variety of archaeological materials in its stored collections: pottery, lithics, fossils, multimedia (photographs, audio, video) and much more. Its goal is to showcase them all, interpreting and celebrating the landscape and culture of the Imperial Valley Desert region. With this new program, the IVDM aims to make accessible that which was previously stored, bringing our backrooms to the exhibit floor.

This week, the museum has unveiled its first exhibit in this series: Ceramics of the Americas. Surrounded by the museum’s impressive collection of ollas (ceramic pots), this exhibit celebrates the material culture of native peoples from outside our region and follows from the investigation of the museums “comparative collection,” ceramics that are not local, but came from local collectors. Visitors are asked to explore the presented materials, exploring the similarities and differences between those objects which have never before been displayed.

New research, new understanding

Through new and original research, the museum has begun to explore the individual histories of its stewarded collections. Rather than a simple repository, the Imperial Valley Desert Museum actively engages with its materials, investigating both the cultural history of an object as well as its personal narrative — the story of an object from when it was first made through to its eventual placement today. This research is done in coordination with its exhibit work, with the displayed objects not only celebrating the diversity and scope of the institution’s collections, but also the most recent results of investigation.

Among the unique ceramics of the current exhibit, one pot in particular stands out. From behind the glass of the display: a large, red-painted pot with flattened rim and six identical heads stares at guests in almost an abstract challenge. Breeckner’s work has attributed the vessel to the state of Colima in Mexico, and dated it to between 200 BCE and 500 CE. It belongs to the enigmatic Shaft Tomb Culture. But even after that work, many questions remain. How did the pot travel from Mexico to our region in California? It is a riddle which requires the input of a community to solve.

The other pottery on display tells much of the same story, and visitors are encouraged to engage with museum staff in answering those lingering questions. The current work at the Imperial Valley Museum represents a cycle of reflection, conversation and response. Through their study, Breeckner is bringing new understanding and interpretation to the collections of the Imperial Valley Desert Museum. Through their display, the institution celebrates the regional landscape and indigenous culture. And through their interaction, guests are encouraged to contribute their own perspectives and experiences.

All of this has and will be done through the study and display of new materials in new ways. An ongoing series of revolving exhibits now fills the schedule of the museum, just in time for the start of its fall season. Both this week and in the weeks to come, there is something new for everyone. The museum invites you to come by and answer the question yourself: what’s the new thing at the museum now.

New season

The Imperial Valley Desert Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. In October, we will begin expanded fall programming, as we already have several exciting events scheduled. Come check out our new mini exhibits — but stay tuned for hiking, biking, stargazing and other fun opportunities to engage with the desert environment.

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