Marla C. Berns spoke at the Museum Conversations Seminar on Tuesday, December 10, 2013. Her talk was entitled “Fowler at Fifty: Museum Collections and the Challenge of the Contemporary.”

Fowler at Fifty is a suite of eight exhibitions conceived to celebrate and summarize the remarkable trajectory of the UCLA Fowler Museum’s growth over the last five decades. Founded in 1963 as the “Laboratory of Ethnic Art and Technology,” its description as a “laboratory” signaled the university’s intention to create something new and with unrestricted possibility. The mandate was global—with an emphasis on the arts of Africa, the Pacific, Asia, and the indigenous Americas—and its purview was to encompass and engage multiple academic disciplines—art history, anthropology, archaeology, and any other fields, as relevant. Over the years, with the freedom to invent itself, the Fowler has been a laboratory of innovation and experimentation. Berns’s presentation at the BGC shared some of what has made the Fowler Museum notable as an institution that has transgressed boundaries—between the local and the global, fine art and popular art, the gallery and the street, and the historical and the contemporary. The eight exhibitions in Fowler at Fifty feature strengths of the Museum’s now-vast holdings (totaling over 120,000 objects), and each takes a distinctive curatorial approach or engages an artist’s perspective. Together, the installations reveal the depth, breadth, range, quality, and research value of the Museum’s collections. The ideas and approaches engaged in each communicate just what an institution can do with such expansive resources. For the Fowler, artworks are never static in meaning or in value but are instead dynamic resources, subject to reevaluation, reinterpretation, and reconsideration over time.

Marla C. Berns is Shirley & Ralph Shapiro Director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA. She received her B.A., M.A, and Ph.D. from UCLA with a specialization in the Arts of Africa. At the Fowler Museum, she is presently Project Director for “Fowler at Fifty,” a series of eight anniversary mini exhibitions that opened in October 2013. She has previously served as Director of the University Art Museum at University of California, Santa Barbara, and Director in the Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel at the Goldstein Museum of Design at the University of Minnesota. Throughout her career, Berns has curated numerous exhibitions on a wide range of topics including African arts, Japanese textiles, and the history of underwear. Her most recent exhibitions include “Second Skins: Painted Barkcloth from New Guinea and Central Africa” (Co-Curator with Gemma Rodrigues and Roy Hamilton, Fowler Museum, 2012) and “Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley,” (Fowler Museum, 2011), which traveled to the National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C., Cantor Art Center, Stanford University, and Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. Additionally, Berns has authored or contributed to a variety of publications, including “Hallmarks of Beauty in a Tiv Ihambe Figure,” in Amanda M. Maples, ed., African Arts from the Leslie Sacks Collection: Refined Eye, Passionate Heart (Milan Skira Editore, 2013) and “A Mangam Crest Mask, Middle Benue Valley, Central Nigeria” in Arts & Cultures (The Barbier-Mueller Museums, 2012). Berns was awarded the Chevalier medal of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Republic in 2013 for her promotion of cultural exchange and partnerships between the United States and France.