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Butler Digital History

Looking Beyond the Glass of 19th and 20th Century African Art

museum person

For 40 years, African art and artifacts produced in the late 19th and 20th centuries have been an integral part of the Butler University campus. The collection was initially gifted to Butler University in the 1970s by prominent philanthropist and Indiana art collector Harrison Eiteljorg (19031997). He took an interest in the William Charters South Seas collection and began collecting art from Oceania. His collection expanded to include Indigenous Art and African art in the 1960s. When Butler University was given a portion of Harrison Eiteljorg’s collection, Thomas Celenko Jr. curated the Eiteljorg exhibition in Atherton Union in 1978 with free admission. Courses would visit the exhibit during class time, however this trend faltered in the early 1980s as academic offerings became limited. Harrison Eiteljorg then relocated art and artifacts of his collection initially given to the University to both the Eiteljorg Museum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The art and artifacts remaining in Butler University’s Eiteljorg collection have been kept and displayed prominently in the Efroymson Diversity Center, Atherton Union, Schrott Center for the Arts, South Campus Main Building, and the Libraries. 

Though Harrison Eiteljorg is the collector of these specific items, it is essential to recognize that this collection was created and maintained to present American audiences with access to material culture from various African regions. Like many western art collectors from the 1960s, Harrison Eiteljorg bought these items from traveling African art dealers, meeting them in motel rooms filled with artifacts of varying authenticity. He would then buy the dealer’s entire stock and sift through the artifacts based on their economic value. 

While experiencing this exhibit, keep in mind that the artifacts present a microscopic glance into the lives of individuals removed from our general realm of temporal or geographical awareness.  They are not just pieces in a collection. These artifacts served specific purposes concerning remembrancex and ritual. This exhibit aims to shine a light on their original intent while also addressing how Harrison Eiteljorg acquired them.

Looking Beyond the Glass of 19th and 20th Century African Art