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Explore 'Forgotten History' in CVB exhibit


May 17, 2016

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    For the past two years, graduate students in the Public History certificate program of Georgia Southern University’s Department of History have conceptualized, designed and implemented museum exhibits of local interest. This year’s class has produced The Spanish in Georgia: A Forgotten History, on display now at the Museum on Main at the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau.
    The Public History certificate program is designed for students who are interested in working with history outside of the traditional academic classroom, in settings such as museums, historic sites and archives.
    “While museums are all very different organizations, one thing they have in common is interpreting original artifacts, generally through exhibits,” said Dr. Tharp, director of the Georgia Southern Museum and instructor of the course.
    Thus, as a final project, Public History students created an exhibit brief, conducted in-depth research, wrote copy and worked with local exhibit designer Deborah Harvey to fully develop the exhibit’s design.
    “It’s about as hands-on as you can get during a course,” Tharp said.
    “We even built a mission wall, which was a lot of fun,” said Dr. Michael Van Wagenen, associate professor of history and founder of the Public History certificate program. “It has a cut-away into what missions would have looked like in Georgia, what they would be made from.”
    Spanish settlers arrived in Georgia a century before James Oglethorpe, the colony's founder, which is where most public-school knowledge of Georgia history begins.
    “The people who wrote the histories descended from English settlers, so those Spanish stories were forgotten,” Tharp said. He expects that as demographics continue to shift, there will be renewed interest in the Spanish history of the area.
    The exhibit shows visitors how the first Spanish attempt at settling in Georgia proved unsuccessful: Early settlers did not bring “the right tools and equipment, weren’t familiar with the North American environment, and didn’t particularly know how to deal with the native populations here,” said Dr. Tharp.
    But “while the first settlement didn’t make it, ultimately what does become important and successful is the mission up and down the sea islands of Florida and Georgia,” Tharp said. Where later English settlements were “more economically-oriented, the Spanish brought with them this mission of converting the Native Americans to Catholicism."
    Missions, or religious outposts, were usually established in towns already established by Native Americans, where trade became an important way of communicating and cooperating. The Spanish traded metal tools, glass beads and other items that Native Americans had never seen before for things the Spanish “desperately needed,” Tharp said, “such as corn, gourds, deer and hides to keep warm.”
    These trade relationships gave the Spanish the opportunity to talk about their faith and, gradually, friars began to approach conversion as a piece-meal process, understanding that they could not “whole-sale turn the Native Americans away from strong religious traditions of their own,” Tharp said.
    The artifacts within The Spanish in Georgia reflect this “amalgamation of belief systems” and help to demonstrate that Catholicism “wasn’t always imposed,” Tharp explained. “As the artifacts show, there was a definite cross-over: the Spanish changed Native culture, but the Native Americans also changed Spanish culture in North America.”
    The Public History class chose exhibit pieces from the personal collection of Monica Delgado and Dr. Michael Van Wagenen. Both grew up in California and were influenced by the aesthetic, cultural and historical import of the missions and adobe structures. They later spent years together as ethnographic filmmakers, focusing in North and Central America on folklore, religion, art and history.
    Dr. Van Wagenen’s favorite artifacts from The Spanish in Georgia are both from what was first New Spain, then Mexico, and is now the United States. The first is a steel-bladed dagger that probably belonged to someone of a religious order. Discovered hundreds of years later by a farmer in central California along the Camino Real, “the handle has three souls chained together, possibly burning in hell, or possibly captives,” Van Wagenen said. “Three souls in chains.”
    The second, found in New Mexico, is a “crude, primitive, iron-link belt worn by the Penitentes, a religious order that practices self-flagellation as a way of showing their devotion to God.” Likely from the 1770s, it is heavily spiked and would have been worn “under clothing as a reminder of [the wearer’s] devotion to God and sorrow for his own sins.”
    Dr. Brent Tharp’s favorite artifacts are two crosses, painted in a traditional Mexican floral style, set into the recreated mission wall.
    “They are my favorites in part because they are such clear signs of the Christian and European tradition blended with Native elements,” he explained.
    Also of particular interest to Tharp is a drum, fabricated in the traditional style of central Mexico. The drums are often carved into the form of an animal, such as a panther and leopard.
    “But this one is carved with the face of a lion,” he said. “There were never any lions in historic times here in Central America, so this wild and whimsical lion is likely based on images from the missions, or the Bible.”
    This final project for the Public History certificate program serves as “essentially a lab for students, and then a product for the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau,” Tharp said.
    “It’s great that the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau has included this museum element for students to have professional experiences and share their budding talents with the community as a result,” Van Wagenen said.
    “This is great material for their portfolios, as professionals in the field,” agreed Dr. Tharp. “It’s a really exceptional exhibit, I think.”
    The Museum on Main is located at the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau at 222 South Main Street. There is no cost to visit the museum, which is open for all visitors Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m., and Fridays from 9 a.m.–4 p.m.

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