Priceless artwork restored by university professors


OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) – When the Joslyn Art Museum closed until 2024 to complete a dramatic renovation, a door opened to work with rare artwork and documents normally on display or carefully stored.

Fueled by a $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), a team of Creighton University faculty is digitizing the original collection of materials from the landmark 19th-century expedition into the U.S. heartland which chronicles in unprecedented detail Native American culture and heritage in the American interior.

The materials, many seen during Joslyn’s final major exhibit before their temporary closure, are the most complete collection of drawings, detailed writings, and artifacts collected and written during the expedition of German prince Maximillian von Wied and Swiss painter Karl Bodmer between 1832 and 1834.

”(Pieces in the collection) have two functions, they are beautiful and they’re also documenting so much cultural information, ” said Dr. Annika Johnson, Joslyn Art Museum’s associate curator of North American art. “We see so much information, from how a moccasin was made, to the specific kind of stitch that a woman is using in her beadwork. I mean that is information that you don’t get to see that often, a lot of times because the cultural belongings from that era just didn’t survive colonization and settlement.”

The project is a partnership between Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum, Creighton University, members of the Omaha Tribe, and Nebraska Indian Community College.

Creighton, the Joslyn, and the Nebraska Indian Community College all contributed to the collection that is now digitized.

Once the web portal is completed and fully functional, The Natural Face of North America: A Public Portal to the Maximilian-Bodmer Collection will feature digital files of more than 1,000 objects from the expedition, including handwritten, highly detailed journals as well as more than 400 watercolors and drawings, available to the public to access upon completion.

Dr. Simon Appleford, along with fellow Arts and Sciences faculty member Dr. Andrew Sundberg, is spearheading the project, working with students from Creighton and NICC. Appleford and Johnson said partnering with Omaha Tribal Council vice-chair Wynema Morris as well is critical to the connection between the chronicled past and the people represented.

“We’re going up to the Dakotas,” Appleford said. “We’ll be meeting the Omaha people and other tribal communities, to find out from them, what they consider to be important, what they would like to see the website portal do for their communities.”

There is a proxy portal, one with lower resolution images than will ultimately be uploaded, that is free to the public to access. As elements of the project are digitized, online visitors can see and interact along the way.

“First and most importantly, it is that word accessibility,” Appleford said of the project’s importance. “It’s ensuring that this material that is so valuable, is accessible to anyone, anywhere if you might be interested in these materials.”

The current phase of the project should be complete by 2024, roughly coinciding with the reopening of Joslyn.

There will be an academic curriculum and further studies developed as part of the project as well.

Copyright 2022 WOWT. All rights reserved.