Into the Unknown: Theodore Bowie and “The Arts of Thailand”

Theodore R. Bowie, an art historian known for his work in what was at the time an underrepresented field – the history of Asian art- wore many hats during his time at Indiana University. A newly acquired and now-processed collection of Bowie’s papers containing a large number of photographs, letters, lecture notes, publications, and preparatory documents for perhaps the largest undertaking of his career, i.e. a 1960 exhibition named “The Arts of Thailand,” has allowed me a peek into the life of this prolific academic. Partially complete drafts of his memoir paint an inspiring picture of the man whose unflinching eagerness for professional involvement, passion for learning and travel, and unwavering confidence managed to bring the art of Thailand to the United States for the first time in history.

Cover of the softcover catalog for the 1960 opening of “The Arts of Thailand”

Originally educated and trained in the study of French literature, Bowie first displayed the nimbleness with which he moved through his career, throughout a multitude of academic positions and areas of expertise, when he moved into the discipline of art history. Bowie joined the Art Department as an associate professor at Indiana University in 1950. His relative lack of background in the field made him an uncertain candidate for tenure. Noticing his supervisor’s hesitancy in granting tenure, Bowie suggested his own installation as a librarian and guardian of the department’s new Fine Arts Library, a position which provided the ambitious and optimistic professor the opportunity to become involved in curating.

After mounting five shows dealing with the arts of Japan and China, in 1955 Bowie was approached by Henry Radford Hope on behalf of then-president Herman B Wells asking for a show demonstrating the art of Thailand. This request for a Thai art show came at a time when IU was one of multiple state schools participating in an exchange program with the Southeast Asian country. American universities sent faculty in a variety of disciplines and their families to Thailand for eighteen to twenty-four months and, in turn, Thailand sent undergraduate and graduate students to study at its partner universities. Bowie agreed to take on the immense task, despite having no knowledge of Thai art. After inquiring with the National Gallery in DC as a location to inaugurate the show, he was met with a polite but firm “no.” Although “The Arts of Thailand” would go on to travel to a number of large internationally recognized museums across the US, Western Europe, and Japan, contributing institutions agreed that the show would open, for the first time, in Bloomington, Indiana in 1960.

Promotional material for “The Arts of Thailand” at Indiana University.

For Bowie, the formation of his selection committee was critical in facing the large task that now confronted him. He brought on Kojiro Tomita, a specialist in Japanese art from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; Alexander Griswold, an archaeologist and paleologist specializing in South Asian art; and Prince Subhadradis Diskul, the curator in chief of the national museum in Bangkok, to assist him in the project and teach him the ins and outs of Thai art. One of the few rules Bowie had in organizing the show was that none of the works were to be on loan from dealers, but rather from personal collections. A large number of the pieces featured, therefore, ended up coming from the collections of the Thai royal family. Bowie writes in his memoirs of the collectors hesitancy to let their best pieces travel, a cautiousness which was remedied by both Griswold’s personal connections and Bowie’s assertion that if Thailand wanted the global exhibition of its art to be on par with those of its East Asian neighbors, he would only accept the best.

Once the loans of the nearly three hundred and fifty works of art, many of which were large sculptural pieces, were secured, Bowie employed a Thai photographer to document them for the catalog. One of Bowie’s biggest challenges with the exhibition was transportation of the loaned pieces. As the show traveled around the world, Bowie was effectively responsible for each piece’s safety for the entire two years for which it toured. The pieces were stored in crates made from native Thai teakwood. During the entire duration of the shows global lifespan, the items were packed or unpacked over twenty times. Transported by large naval ships, the crates had to be stored on the top decks and protected from the elements, as opposed to in the more enclosed holds. This unique accommodation was necessitated by the sacred nature of a number of the items and the belief that to stand or walk above or on an image of the Buddha was sacrilegious. The Thai curators who accompanied the works abroad had never had the experience of traveling works of art across continents, and these logistical considerations provided additional job training and experience for them.

Pieces for the exhibition being transported using ships belonging to the US Navy.

On a local level, Bowie was confronted with the complication that what would become the IU Art Museum was still under construction (part of the present day Fine Arts Building)– a problem which he solved by creating a dynamic show spread across three locations: IU’s Auditorium, The Lilly Library, and the Art Center Gallery (what is now the Grunwald Gallery). The unconventional settings, although facilitating greater access and public engagement, presented security concerns, as the various locations were not equipped with surveillance or guards. The safety of the Thai art work was ensured, however, by a detachment of university ROTC officers who provided twenty-four hour security. The Auditorium held sculptures from a variety of periods, with many of the larger pieces having to be displayed on the floor because of their weight. The Art Center Gallery displayed paintings from the collection of the King of Thailand and theatrical masks, while the Lilly featured displays of Thai books, manuscripts, and richly decorated lacquer cabinets. A number of the visitors to these exhibition areas would have, on their way to other events on campus, stumbled across lobbies for the three exhibition areas decorated in vibrant silks and been enticed to stay and linger with the treasured pieces on display. Well-received by students, faculty, and administrators at IU “The Arts of Thailand” would prove to be a huge success with audiences throughout its two year run, and inspired both a film of the same name and a follow-up exhibition, “The Sculpture of Thailand,” in the 1970s. Recently digitized, the film is part of the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive and can be accessed here through Media Collections Online.

“Thai Arts Exhibition,” 1960 in the Art Center Gallery (now the Grunwald)

“The Arts of Thailand” was a massive undertaking for its time, fraught with a number of obstacles which Bowie seemed to blithely address in stride. Describing his mindset in undertaking the show, Bowie wrote:

 “I had hoped to talk about it to Henry [Radford Hope] and Herman B Wells, but alas Henry is gone and I will never know whether the thought had occurred to him that here was a non-existent museum, represented by a little known member of his Art Department who was not an authority on anything and had published nothing, who was generally (and loosely ) familiar with Far Eastern Art  but totally ignorant of Thai art, proceeding as an equal with some of the most important museums in the country to bring to this country and circulate a large collection of works of art of all kinds, easily deserving because of the scale and quantity of objects of the term “blockbuster,” …The odd thing is that at [the] time in question, about 1959, I was not in the least fazed by those duties that I had not applied for. I was, however, certain that I could carry it out as expected and never lose any sleep over the matter”

As an aspiring curator and a student pursuing my master’s in art history, the discovery of the life of Ted Bowie has been timely. Coming to the field of art history with, as a former studio major, what felt like less background than my cohort, was daunting. As I am again veering off in a different direction, away from academia and, hopefully, into the field of curating, I often find myself riddled with uncertainty. Starting the grueling process of applying for jobs, I find myself doubting my qualifications. Coming across Bowie’s words, and researching his life, one which progressed not in a straight and proscribed line, but in a joyous meander driven by his passions and ambitions, I am reminded that, perhaps, it is good to wear a few hats throughout one’s lifetime. Bowie’s brazen self-confidence has come as a perfect rallying cry, a reminder to question not whether we are capable, but rather what things we might be capable of.

An undated portrait of Bowie found in his personal archive – The Theodore Bowie Papers

Sincerely Yours: How Artists Research with Alma Eikerman

Alma Eikerman, IU Archives image no. P0059062

I recently had the opportunity to reprocess correspondence in the increasingly popular Alma Eikerman papers (C621) for better researcher access. The series contains slices of the Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts’ life, including letters home from her extensive travels, thoughtful communications with former students, discussions with fellow IU faculty, and more. Eikerman’s correspondence shows her independent spirit, wit, and artistic and pedagogical philosophies.

Recently, I’ve been experiencing some summer blues—it is always difficult for me to not feel vegetative in the hot months between school years. In my dreary state, I came across a 1984 letter from Eikerman to Metalsmith editor Sara Bodine that mentioned the Metropolitan Museum of Art—something that piqued my interest. As I continued to read, I could almost hear Alma laughing at my intellectual lethargy. Her passion is evident:

“My life has been made most rewarding by following my interests. My research started when I was in college, it followed no plan, except that of my interests, and continues today. I have been a world traveler, and research of many different areas of metal objects has certainly added to the pleasure and my knowledge. I acquired a strong feeling that a professor of metal should also know as much as possible about the history of metal. Well, that means, knowing almost all of world history.”

Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April, 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington
Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Her honest account of following her research interests struck a chord with me. As practicing artists may know, however, it can be overwhelming to know where to start research. Alma includes helpful—and non-intimidating—advice for Metalsmith readers:

“For a beginner it is fun to start with a historical object that fascinates you. Gather a number of library books about the area of your interest. Fortify yourself with good maps of the area and begin to make sketches of all the important pieces in a given field. Sketches help you see and seek out the details.”

This is why research in the visual arts interests me so much. Artists are able to use their technical skills of creation to understand research material in a unique way. Being able to actually draw one’s research subjects is a powerful way to connect with learning. She continues to emphasize the importance of looking as an active verb in research, writing:

“Learn where the pieces were made or found-and in which museum they are located…This kind of study research can start in the museum nearest to you—or it can simply start from book study. Libraries are full of wonderful books, with good reproductions.”

As someone whose most vivid childhood memories include parent-dictated art museum trips and the pages of the Time-Life Library of Art books, I second Alma’s affections. For artists, visual research (or looking) is just as important as text-based research.

Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April, 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April, 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington
Alma Eikerman to Sara Bodine, 2 April 1984. Alma Eikerman papers, C621, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Even so, Alma’s powers of textual description make this letter so fun. Following her advice, which she wrote to serve as an introduction to a piece in Metalsmith, Alma describes three pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that she wants to include with her magazine piece. There are no accompanying slides for these, so in order to identify them a reader has to do a bit of searching. Amazingly, just entering her description of each piece + “Metropolitan Museum of Art” into a search engine immediately retrieved the three pieces. Now that is some powerful descriptive skill!
The three pieces are: a pair of gold armbands with two tritons from Hellenistic Greece, a 4th century silver head of a Sasanian king, and a gold and stone necklace from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. Looking at these pieces, it is easy to understand Alma’s perspective on art history. Although she was a mid-twentieth century artist, she was able to pull from eons of history to inform her research and work. For anyone feeling stuck on an artistic or research project this summer, take Alma’s advice and trust your instincts—follow your interests. The way forward may not always be clear, but there is a path.

Feeling inspired? Get more motivation by contacting an archivist to check out this collection.

Through the Airwaves: The Indiana School of the Sky

We all enjoy our podcasts, niche radio shows, and morning news during the drive to work or school, but the history of radio has a far reaching past beyond our modern version of it. For much of the twentieth century, radio was the entertainment and news medium of choice — not television, and radio has a particularly interesting history here at IU!

Class listening to School of the Sky, Archives image no. P0050223

The Indiana School of the Sky radio program of the Indiana University Department of Radio and Television began broadcasting educational radio programs in 1947 and continued through the early 1960s. The program reached schools throughout Indiana and nearby states and led to new course offerings at IU. IU students performed in the radio programs originally intended for children ages 4-8 which aired for 15 minutes during each school day.

Eventually the program’s popularity called for further programming for high-school students, and later adults tuned in as well.  Topics in every subject from history and music to current events and news were covered during the various episodes of the program.

The School of the Sky series discussed possible careers for students, music and literature, how to find a job, dating and growing up, and current events.  In many ways the program’s subjects seemed to help students learn both educational topics and how to be a part of society.  Other episodes focused on the news and events of the time that were likely difficult for students to understand.

To explain the Cold War and Communism to audiences in 1962, as part of the “How It Happened” series the School of the sky performed a skit about West Germany. From the view of an airplane and from the ground, the actors describe West Berlin as an “island surrounded by Communism.”  The narrator and the characters in the show provide listeners with the history and problematic results of World War II.  Students learned, through the vivid description of the show’s script, the differences between East and West Berlin, Check Point Charlie, and the Berlin Wall.  The picture the program paints shows the effects of Communism and the grim reality in Berlin on the other side of the Wall.  On the ground in West Berlin, the narrator explains that East Berliners have a very different life than West Berliners and the listeners in the United States:

President Wells speaking for the opening of the School of the Sky, Archives image no. P0048605

“The Communists, in fear of having everybody run away to freedom, have built a wall to stop them.  This wall is the ugliest thing I have ever seen.  It is also a very sad thing to see, because behind it are people who want freedom, want to live like you and me, but the wall holds them in.  If they try to get over the wall, the Communists shoot them.  Many young students have died trying to get over into West Berlin.”

The Indiana School of the Sky, 1961-1962, How It Happened Series, Volume 3 of 3. Program #10, Aprill 11, 1962, George Strimel, Jr. Page 96.

The program effectively brought a faraway place and the conflict of the Berlin Wall and Cold War home to the listeners in Indiana.

The students here at IU were the radio show’s writers, performers, and producers. The Indiana School of the Sky eventually reached thousands of classrooms and children while also providing college students with invaluable radio experience.

Oscar winners in “School of the Sky”, Archives image no. P0052037

The bound volumes containing the scripts of the program and the teaching manuals found in the IU Archives’ Indiana School of the Sky records offer enlightening insight into the stage management, acting, and preparation that was necessary for each episode.

In 2009, the Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative (MDPI) at IU found numerous lacquer discs containing recordings of The School of the Sky. These are now digitized and available online through Media Collections Online.

The Alma Eikerman papers

The Alma Eikerman papers are now organized and available for research! If you don’t remember, the collection came to us in pretty rough shape; you can read about in my blog post from a few months ago.

Born in 1908, Eikerman was a well-respected artist and professor who taught in the School of Fine Arts (now the School of Art + Design) at Indiana University from 1947 to 1978. Known for her innovative metalsmithing, she was a vital force behind the development of the program at IU. Her work appeared in numerous exhibitions during her lifetime and now resides in private collections and museums across the country, including the Smithsonian and our own IU Eskenazi Museum of Art.

Passports of Alma Eikerman
Passports of Alma Eikerman

The Eikerman papers includes a wealth of material documenting Eikerman and her life. Included are papers from her extensive travels such as tickets, maps, itineraries, brochures, notes she took while on trips, and her passports with stamps of the countries she visited.

Her correspondence includes not only professional missivesSome letter sent to Alma but also many personal letters, such as post cards Eikerman sent to her parents while she was working for the American Red Cross and a letter from her grandfather from around 1916. Eikerman also sent annual newsletters to her former students to keep everyone updated on each other, demonstrating her dedication to and interest in her students.

The photographs in this collection are my personal favorites and include slides, negatives and prints spanning her entire life, personal and professional. Also, can we all just agree that Alma Eikerman was incredibly Pictures of Alma photogenic?

Lastly, and perhaps most important to those familiar with her work as an artist, is the part of the collection that relates to metalsmithing. Here researchers can find notes, receipts for materials, price estimates, sale tickets, as well as preparatory sketches of her work in various Sketches from Alma's papersstates of development – some hardly more than doodles while others are detailed sketches of a piece complete with notes.

Contact the IU Archives to schedule an appointment to view the Eikerman collection!

The Saga of the Alma Eikerman papers

Photo of Alma EikermanAlma Eikerman was a successful metalsmith, an innovative jewelry designer, world traveler, and beloved professor at Indiana University from 1947 to 1978. She was in countless exhibitions, won many awards, and her work today is in numerous museums across the country including the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and the Indiana University Art Museum (IUAM) on campus. As in intern at the IU Archives this semester, this was all pretty intimidating but I was thrilled to be given the opportunity arrange and describe Eikerman’s papers as part of my internship. I was already familiar with her work through the IUAM, where I also currently work as an hourly in the Registrar department. 

I was eager to dive in. I knew people loved her and respected her, but most of the items in the file were from other people’s point of view. I wanted to learn more about her.  Of course the best way to do this would be to actually meet her, but unfortunately Eikerman passed away in 1995. The next best thing, would be to go through the documents she collected during her lifetime.

Some collections come to the IU Archives neatly organized and labeled in alphabetized folders – the Eikerman papers were the opposite.  Sadly, it was as if whoever boxed them up, merely pulled out the drawers of her desk, turned them upside down, and dumped the contents into 12 Rubbermaid bins. It is my job to create some sort of order out of this chaos so that a researcher can come and use the papers in a timely fashion. I learned a lot about Eikerman as I went through the first few tubs. For instance, she traveled around the world (shown by her multiple tickets, receipts, guidebooks, maps and passports). She kept in touch with her former students and tried to follow their careers (shown through the newsletters she sent them and copies of publicity from their exhibitions), and designed her own home (seen by the designs she drew and the magazine clippings she marked).

A glimpse of the unprocessed Alma Eikerman Collection
A glimpse of the unprocessed Alma Eikerman Collection

I am now more than 3 weeks deep into this collection, and I feel that I have only scratched the surface. I find a messy collection like this exciting, with a new surprise in every box. I may sound like a commercial for those children’s cereals with a toy inside, but it is so true. I will be sifting through what seems like a thousand years worth of holiday cards and then SURPRISE there is letter she wrote to her grandfather when she was about nine or one of her passports with stamps from all over Asia.      

The whole process is fun, but it is also exhausting. I was starting to get a little overwhelmed and blurry eyed. I have all these piles of items that are similar, and I have taken over the back room storage room of the IU Archives. Then I came across an incredible find, a travel permission form from when she served with the Red Cross in the 1940s. Where does this go?!?! I sat there looking at my piles with this fragile, old paper resting in my hand for probably five minutes.  

My domination of the back room
My domination of the back room

After this blog break, I’m headed back to the collection to hopefully uncover more treasures. I hope to have the collection fairly well organized by the end of this semester; watch for more information here or contact the IU Archives. In the meantime if you’re interested in other artist’s papers, you might like those of printmaker Rudy Pozzatti, textile artist Joan Sterrenburg, or sculptors Karl Martz and Jean-Paul Darriau.