Anticipating my fellowship at the BGC in spring 2019, I knew that I would read and work on a book manuscript, but I did not know that some of my most memorable moments on West 86th Street would involve the time I was turned into a purple jacket.

As a purple jacket, I lay on the ground for what felt like an eternity, trying to keep still, hoping that I had chosen a position I could maintain for each session, during which other BGC fellows, students, and faculty (not to mention Dean Peter Miller) were either positioned near me as other things—a jukebox, a milkshake, a hamburger—or as actors encountering those things. We were the props in a story, told by a BGC member, involving meeting her father in a diner. He had worn a purple suit. As the purple jacket, jukebox, milkshake, and hamburger, we helped retell the story, settings, and emotions. Our colleagues gingerly stepped over us while improvising new dialogue, projecting stories on us as the settings moved forward in time, and as the props were recovered in a house, picked over in a thrift shop, recontextualized in a museum, and more.

Contorted in odd positions around the BGC lecture room floor, we were kept mute, while the actors continued to spin new tales about us. At times it was fun, at times tedious, and yet others frustrating. I can’t remember why others got to shed their object identity and join the improvising crew, while I remained a mute, purple jacket for the entire evening. I also can’t remember why, but the purple jacket got to talk at the end, and I channeled my pent up energy to bring the purple jacket to life.

This experience, while unnerving, actually had some resonance with why I was even at the BGC, for my research on ancient Maya sculptures concerns how sculptures moved through time, and how their meanings changed as their physical contexts and forms were modified, and as new people engaged with them. Trying to discern how people engaged with the sculptures at various moments in their life histories is especially challenging, not only because I cannot interview the associated agents but also because each successive action at times partially or fully obliterated a previous episode of engagement.

I was at that moment realizing that diverse episodes of interaction, which together create a palimpsest of sorts, make up the most interesting aspect of the story, since some interactions happen precisely because another happened before. Grappling with that layering was key, since the effect of one engagement, such as breaking, may have inspired another, such as recarving or burial. They were interdependent, and separating them was artificial. The thing remains itself, as it endures through time and is perceived and handled in new contexts, but it becomes layered with meanings and new physical characteristics, some of which help to tell the associated stories. As the purple jacket, crumpled on a floor or hanging in an imaginary thrift store or museum vitrine, I had accumulated layers of meaning from my life story and had both absorbed and rebuffed some of the layers of meaning put on me.

This resonance between my research and the evening event may seem a coincidence, but the BGC theme that year was “After,” after all, and much of the work of the BGC community resonated with mine. People were focusing on engagement with things and stories in different ways, whether involving an artist manipulating clay to make a pot, or how that pot (or another thing) moves through time, traded to different hands or put in new contexts and frames. My officemate, Daniel Usner, was working with a trove of rediscovered letters and writing about the relationships of Chitimacha basketmakers with their clients, and about the shops and museums where the baskets were sold or displayed. On display in the BGC Gallery was The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology, curated byAaron Glass, which was part of a research project that has worked to reunite Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw stories and songs, as recorded by anthropologist Franz Boas and his Indigenous research partner George Hunt, and to alternative stories existing amidst the recordings, texts, and musical scores, and later annotations by Hunt. Also featured in the exhibition were designs by artist Corrine Hunt, a great-granddaughter of George Hunt. Through their projects and in multiple other events at the BGC that term, we collectively talked about how peoples’ and objects’ stories are told, who tells them, whose other stories need to be told, and how to ensure more people are able to tell their own stories.

Marinating in such richness of thought and practice, I also was rethinking my own approaches to teaching, scholarship, and curation. This was in spring 2019, one year before our lives were vastly transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was an amazing moment in New York CIty (or are all moments in NYC amazing?), as many Native American artists came to NYC to talk about their own works, as well as issues of collaboration, repatriation, and the presence of their ancestors’ works in museums. Several exhibited their artwork in shows that spring at the Met Museum, the Museum of Arts and Design, the Whitney, and the New Museum. I got to meet artists including Jeffrey Gibson, Teri Greeves, and Wendy Red Star. Meeting them, and others, opened new worlds for me, leading to the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, where I am Faculty Curator, taking the exhibition Each/Other: Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger, and hosting Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger for residencies on campus in fall 2021, which has been transformational for our museum and our students.

Being at BGC that spring, and learning from the incredible public programs throughout the city, and many private conversations too, I thought often about histories of things, and of museums, and of new collaborations and creativity. These enriched my spirit and fed my research, as I continued to toil on my manuscript, thinking about layers of meaning and engagement, and about multiplicities of voices, both in the past and present, as I seek to shed even just a bit of light on the ancient Maya past, and also work to rethink how to discuss these works in the present.

The rich dialogues from the BGC continue to inform my work, and I fondly recall many moments of intellectual engagement at the BGC. But at the least, I think of the BGC every time it rains because, by happenstance, my main piece of rain gear is a purple jacket.