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Beautiful Connections
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In May, a major exhibition of more than 130 works of art, from large-scale masks and water-spirit headdresses to ritual dress and puppets, was launched to tell the story of a unique environment, the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria where different cultures share social, spiritual and practical connections to the water. "The Niger River, one of the longest in the world, empties out into the ocean," Berns explains. "Because the river system brought trade, the area has historically been the point of access for the outside world into Africa. We look not only at how the region's art and cultural practices have developed in response to the environment and economy, but how the outside world has influenced them."

And next year, visitors to the Fowler will get a glimpse of the inner workings of a Sufi mystical sect in Senegal.

Berns' background, her broad geographic reach from Africa to Japan and eclectic interests make her well-suited to head what is one of the nation's premier cultural museums, says Doran Ross, her predecessor at the Fowler, who has known her since her student days.

"The Fowler is a museum that deals with the whole world, from past to present," says Ross. "Marla's interests have virtually covered the globe. Her background, from dealing with African gourds to doing a retrospective exhibition on furniture to working with contemporary installation artists — these are the kinds of broad skills the Fowler depends on. She's going to carry on its tradition of innovative scholarship, of mounting ambitious traveling exhibitions and building on what's been achieved in the past."

Promises Berns: "We will pick subjects that will challenge visitors, but we'll also provide them with all the information and the tools they need to understand them — especially if they're willing to make the commitment."


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