The Putnam Museum and Science Center continues to reach out to reflect the diversity of the Quad Cities, including a major new exhibit in the World Culture Gallery and updating its permanent regional history exhibit.
“Akwaaba: West African Cultures” is the second exhibit in the World Culture Gallery, which opened in May 2021. The gallery showcases cultures from around the world as reflected in the museum’s historic collection and rich partnership in the local international community.
A Smithsonian Institution affiliate, the Putnam in Davenport houses a collection entrusted to the museum by seven generations of Quad Citians, including objects from world travels of some of the museum’s founders such as the Putnam, Palmer, and Figge families.
West Africa is made up of many diverse cultural groups bonded by common languages and shared ethnicities. “Akwaaba: West African Cultures” features artifacts of a dozen cultural groups from the Putnam’s collection and area West African immigrants.
“The World Culture Gallery brings the Putnam mission to life every day as we inspire our diverse community to learn about and care for our world and all its people,” says Rachael Mullins, the museum president/CEO. “The gallery and our newest exhibit, Akwaaba, provides an opportunity to celebrate and engage our international community to serve as experts of their culture and to create a sense of belongingness for other newcomers from their country.”
Much of the collection featured in “Akwaaba: West African Cultures” was generously donated by former ambassador Richard Kauzlarich and his wife, Anne, following their time in Africa during the late 1960s and 1970s. QC natives, the Kauzlariches lived in Togo while Richard worked at the U.S. Embassy and Anne managed a boutique in Lomé, purchasing items from Togolese tradeswomen.
There are 100 pieces in the exhibit (to run through the fall), and most are from the couple – which were donated some time ago to the Putnam permanent collection, Mullins said Friday.
“We felt it was important to work with our local West African community as well,” she said. “So the QC Alliance of Immigrants and Refugees partnered with us.”
Other objects are on loan from the QC West African community. The exhibit is co-curated with Nana Ouro-Agoro, who serves on the board of Quad Cities Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees (QCAIR), represents the United African Organization, and is herself an immigrant from Togo arriving in the QC in 2008.
Title means “welcome”
The name of the exhibit, “Akwaaba,” was inspired by Ouro-Agoro when she brought her children to the Putnam. “Last year, I got a chance to visit the Putnam Museum with my children,” she recalled, “and was amazed, delighted, and in awe to see the display of West African artifacts,” she said. “I just felt welcomed/Akwaaba.”
Ouro-Agoro attended the opening of the World Culture Gallery last year, was inspired by that, seeing her own culture represented, Mullins said Friday.
The Togo native had input in selection of the items on display and the interpretive text that accompanies them. She made sure the text and items were authentic and represented the African cultures, Mullins said.
“While selling insurance, I came across my fellow immigrants who were facing so many barriers as newcomers in the Quad Cities,” Ouro-Agoro wrote for the new exhibit. “It moved me to do something. In 2012, I was hired as Interim Program Director for the organization called Quad Cities Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees and now I am sitting on the board as Vice-President.
“I believe in culture and that every culture is so unique,” she wrote. “Seeing Quad Cities being so diverse, I believe that is a huge opportunity for us as foreigners to share our cultures with Quad Citizens. Last year, I got a chance to visit Putnam Museum with my children and was amazed, delighted and in awe to see the display of West African artifacts. I was overwhelmed and joyful to get to show them to my children. They were very amazed.”
Focusing on inclusivity
The World Culture Gallery celebrates both the “extraordinary international collection at the Putnam, and also celebrates our growing international community in the Quad Cities,” Mullins said. “We place a value on working with our community.”
“The countries have such distinctive attributes beyond their boundaries, so it’s represented by culture,” Mullins said of the West African items. “What you’ll see are unique cultures within many West African countries.”
The new exhibit (like many in the museum) has Spanish translations for visitors.
“The Putnam really places a priority on inclusive and representative information in this space,” Mullins said. “The regional history exhibit is also a good example of co-curation with the community.”
The Spanish translations are becoming standard throughout the Putnam, and museums nationwide, as the Latino population continues to grow.
“It’s our duty to make sure that’s representative of the Quad-City community, and many cultures represented here,” Mullins said.
Updating the regional history exhibit
If you stop by the Putnam’s Reflection Room (off the River, Prairie and People exhibit), you can see some of the ideas and emotions the museum may integrate into a long-planned update of that permanent regional exhibit, showcasing history of the QC area.
It incorporates goals of the Civic Season, launched in 2021 by Made by Us – a coalition of 150+ museums, historic sites and historical societies joining forces to serve the next generation – meeting curiosity with credibility. Civic Season is “one way we roll out the welcome mat for the future inheritors of the United States, putting history in their hands as a tool for informed, inspired civic participation,” according to the program website.
July 4th commemorates the moment a new nation was born, based on ideals that each generation since has worked to bring to life: freedom, equality, justice, and opportunity. Juneteenth, celebrated just a few weeks earlier, “reminds us of the immense hurdles in our ongoing journey to form a ‘more perfect union,'” the site says. “Civic Season mobilizes us to connect with the past, take action in the present, and shape the future, through activities and events in our neighborhoods, cities, towns and social spaces.”
One wall of the Putnam Reflection Room is covered in thoughts from the public, including Civic Season sheets, that ask visitors to fill in “I Stand For…” / “When I…” Mullins wrote on hers — “I stand for our legacy when I collect, share and preserve our stories!”
“This tool of the posters and that level of engagement is the heart of Civic Season,” the Putnam CEO said. “Communities are having conversations about what they value and what it mans to be a citizen and be contributing to the community. So this was a perfect opportunity to take the next step in the history exhibit, to be sure we were using this process to talk about the themes of the exhibit itself.”
These sheets are used in museums, libraries, and historic homes.
The regional history update should reflect the values of the QC, Mullins said, noting they’ve gotten lots of good feedback and suggestions. “I love this really organic process for people to engage with us,” she said. “It’s also an opportunity to leave a quick Post-It note on something that resonates with you.”
“There are so many stories. How do we prioritize and organize that content?” she said. “What you’ll see in the final exhibit is we’ll have local stories of what those themes mean to them, stitched into history from the very first Quad Citizens, the indigenous people.”
“We want to make sure this exhibit represents the story of us as a people, so it is broadly representative of a variety of people and cultures,” Mullins said. “So that every child who comes through the exhibit sees themselves represented in the community.”
Putnam staff has not only reached out for community feedback on the regional history update, but has encouraged people to donate letters, documents and other prized possessions that reflect QC culture and families.
The museum is working towards a March 2023 opening for the renovated exhibit.
The World Culture Gallery admission is included in the price of general admission — $9 for adults, $8 for youth (ages 3-18), seniors, college students and military. Through the Putnam’s Museums for All program, admission is $1 per person for households with the presentation of an EBT card. Admission is free for members.