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Secrets of the Past

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By Mary Daily

Published Jan 1, 2017 8:00 AM


Matthew Robb, the new chief curator of UCLA’s Fowler Museum, believes we still have much to learn from the ancient cultures of the Americas.


Photo by Michael Tighe.

Growing up in Texas and Alabama, the son of an art historian and a museum director, Matthew Robb took many family trips to Mexico. The ancient ruins he explored there made a lasting impression. At Princeton, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and worked in the campus museum, he remembered the “romantic feel” of Central Mexico and decided to build a career studying the area’s art and architecture. He earned a master’s degree at the University of Texas and a doctorate at Yale. Before being named chief curator of the Fowler Museum at UCLA in May, he was curator of the arts of the Americas at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

What about your Princeton experience led you to build a career in this field?

At that time, Mesoamerican archaeology and art history were undergoing profound changes. A lot of new information and new interpretations were coming to light. You got the sense that there were new discoveries to be made. Things change rapidly in this field. The decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs that was happening in the ’70s and ’80s at a rapid clip and that continued into the ’90s was really exciting. I got to see a little of that. Scholars could tie names and events to dates, so you could talk about history in a new way. And that meant you could talk about art in a different way, too.

What has kept you interested over the years?

There is a basic appeal to those misty pyramids in the jungle. When you climb up and reach the peak, you can see for miles, and there’s an excitement of being someplace really different.

But there also are intellectual challenges. One is understanding how places like Mexico and Guatemala have a very different relationship with their ancient sites and cultures than the U.S. does with ancient North American populations. There is an ancient past in North America that most of us never get to learn about. You sort of stumble across it.

So those other cultures have more respect for their forebears?

It’s difficult to know where to put it. In the 19th century, there were all these crazy theories, with people referring to the current population of Native Americans and saying they could never have built such grand structures. Very prejudicial kind of attitudes that affected the way the material was seen and understood. And today the field doesn’t incorporate the analysis of North America in the broader sense of what is pre-Columbian art history. People in North America tend to think they have to go to Mexico or Peru to see ancient ruins. The story has gotten lost in terms of how we think about ourselves as Americans.

The tendency to keep North America out of conversations about ancient Mexico interests me. [After all,] we are in a place that used to be Mexico, and California and Texas have big Hispanic populations from not just Mexico, but different parts of Central and South America. That gives museums and people who study this material a different set of challenges. We’re going to represent the collections we have and we’re going to, hopefully, speak to people whose ancestry is from this area. What are we doing with respect to Native American art? Are we paying enough attention to it? People in areas [rich in Native American history], like Alabama and Missouri, have been collecting this material for years, but it doesn’t have the esteem that pre-Columbian has.

Why did you choose to join the Fowler?

I like the opportunity to research a permanent collection. A university museum gives you more leeway to do that than you might have in a larger municipal museum. And the Fowler’s exhibition program is dynamic, inventive and creative, both in the subject matter and in the way it is presented. The Fowler is relatively young, so we’re not bound to organizing things in a traditional way, but its collection is much older, so we have the richness and depth of a collection with a fascinating history.

How else is working in a university museum different than in a municipal museum?

You’re immediately part of a community. Everybody is here to learn something, and if I don’t know about something, it’s not that hard to find somebody who does. It was also really appealing that we can be a space where students come and learn, and where faculty can generate ideas that we can test and give a wider audience.

Do we still have a lot to learn from ancient peoples?

Oh, my gosh, yes. For example, Teotihuacan was a big city in a way that you would have recognized. Maybe not in terms of population — there were only 100,000 to 200,000 people at the most — but that’s big in ancient terms, and it’s important for us to understand how a place like that worked, why it looks so similar to a modern city but still has things that make it unique and different. It’s on a grid. It has these multiroom residential compounds. It had people speaking different languages who were keeping some of their local traditions, but presumably participating in a kind of city identity. How did they get all of those people to work together? We have a lot to learn from how they managed their resources in sort of a practical sense — water management, agriculture and the raw materials they needed to make things. How did the rulers get all those people to cooperate? You could argue that art is the glue that holds all this together.

At an urban scale, manufacturing jade ornaments and ceramics and obsidian tools requires a lot of coordination and effort. We’re familiar with what that means in a contemporary sense. To recognize it happening in the past can help us understand different solutions to the problem. One reason that studying the ancient past is valuable is that it reminds us that things haven’t always been as they are. Things can change. What are the factors involved in these changes? Is it people? Is it the environment? Is it some combination? Understanding how and why things change allows us to think creatively about solutions to our challenges.

What are some of the things you hope to accomplish at the Fowler?

I want to expand our presentation of the indigenous arts of the Americas. For example, there’s a great collection of Indian ceramics here, and we need to tell the story of the collection and the story of where we are. That means talking about the Tongva and other local Native American groups that have been here a lot longer than we have. And so much is going on in the world of contemporary Native American art, all over the continent, and I think we could do similarly interesting things here. For example, there’s a project on campus, Mapping Indigenous LA, that is dedicated to documenting those kinds of stories and the lives of the indigenous people who live here — indigenous to the parts of the world that we’re really tied into with the Fowler. I think we have some really great opportunities there.


Give to keep the past alive far into the future. For more information contact Michael Ruff.

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