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Students interpret propaganda art for museum exhibit

Students and Rachel Epp Buller work on the exhibit "Campaign for a New China."

Bethel students, along with Kauffman Museum staff, helped develop and fabricate the museum's new special exhibit, propaganda posters from China, which opened Feb. 9.

The spring exhibition is “Campaign for a New China: Looking Back on Posters from the Cultural Revolution 1966-1976.” It continues the museum's year-long focus on collectors and collecting.

The grand opening was a come-and-go reception, with remarks from the four students involved in developing the exhibit at 7:30.

The late Robert Kreider, Bethel College professor of peace studies, collected 59 posters and other artifacts in 1976.

Kreider used the posters in his teaching to raise questions about freedom of expression and government control of education.

The “Campaign for a New China” exhibit reverses Kreider’s questions, as Bethel students have worked with Kauffman Museum professional staff to interpret the posters for visitors.

Kreider traveled to China with a friendship tour at a time when few Americans were allowed to visit.

His trip occurred just five weeks before the death on Sept. 9, 1976, of Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and the architect of the economically and socially disruptive Cultural Revolution.

Rachel Epp Buller, Bethel associate professor of visual art and design, led a Curatorial Studies class last fall, in which students researched the Cultural Revolution and its posters, as well as museum theory and practice.

“We began our semester by reading and learning about museum studies and curatorial issues in a historical context,” Epp Buller said.

“Having the opportunity to then put that learning into practice through hands-on research and writing at Kauffman Museum offered students a comprehensive and intensive experience. I’ve really appreciated the chance to learn and think critically alongside the students, working with them and with museum staff as a curatorial team.”

Emma Girton, junior from Wichita, said, “I’ve learned so much about how the museum process works through this exhibit.

“As something that I’d like to go into professionally, being able to get comfortable and see the process of putting an entire project together has been so valuable.

“Being able to work with people who do this work on a daily basis has been amazing for me. I’m beyond grateful for all the knowledge that they have shared with us about the inner workings of museums and having this opportunity to collaborate with them.”

Added Elizabeth Friesen Birky, junior from Denver, “I have loved experiencing the opportunity to collaborate with Kauffman Museum and work alongside my peers and professors to create an excellently cultivated exhibit [of] posters from the Chinese Cultural Revolution.”

Renae Stucky, Kauffman Museum collections manager, is a 2016 Bethel College graduate, but decided to also enroll in Curatorial Studies.

“In my year-and-a-half at the museum, this has been my first experience as part of an exhibition team,” Stucky said, “so I have been very much the student.

“It’s been a wonderful experience learning from such talented historians, curators and designers as we work together to interpret the history of posters and honor the collector, Robert Kreider.”

Newton senior Austin Prouty also joined the exhibition team as student designer.

As I began looking at potential senior seminar projects, I was drawn to the exhibit at Kauffman Museum because of the opportunity it presented for my work to be used in a real way,” Prouty said.

“Incorporating research with graphic design as well as navigating the special considerations museums must be cognizant of with their exhibits has been an eye-opening experience, and one that I look forward to taking with me after graduation.”

Kauffman Museum will open “Campaign for a New China” with a come-and-go event Feb. 9, 7-9 p.m. The students will present their insights on the exhibit process and Kreider’s collection beginning at 7:30 p.m.

Said Kauffman Museum Director Michael Reinschmidt, “‘Campaign for a New China’ is an exhibition that radiates the incredible enthusiasm humans can invest in their experimentations with cultural innovation.

“We see images that were not painted by communist dictates but by artists genuinely investing themselves into the facial expressions of their subjects as well as into the hopeful themes expressed in the actions of the revolution.

“No matter how the experiment ended, I wish humankind will never cease to strive for the freedoms we seek and for finding the lights that lead us up onto new and never-explored hills. This exhibition inspires us to do so.

"Campaign for a New China” received support from the Kauffman Museum Association and Humanities Kansas, a nonprofit cultural organization connecting communities with history, traditions and ideas to strengthen civic life.

Julie Mulvihill, Humanities Kansas executive director, remarked, “These posters, collected by a Kansan visiting China during the Cultural Revolution, tell us much about propaganda and the development of modern China.”

The exhibition and public programs will launch an exploration of how China used art to arouse social consciousness while suppressing freedom of expression, and how the backlash transformed China from an isolated, agrarian, totalitarian regime into a world economic powerhouse.

Kauffman Museum is open Tues.-Fri., 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Sat. and Sun. 1:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m., closed Mondays and most major holidays. Admission to the special exhibit, as well as the permanent exhibits “Of Land and People,” “Mirror of the Martyrs” and “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture,” is $4 for adults, $2 for children ages 6-16, and free to Kauffman Museum members and children under 6. The museum store is open the same hours as the museum but there is no admission charge for just visiting the store.

For more information, call the museum at 316-283-1612 or visit its website, www.kauffman.bethelks.edu, or Facebook page.

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As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.