October 23, 2023

Anthropologist Paul Stoller: Surrounded by the Spirits

WCU Professor of Anthropology Paul Stoller

The current exhibition in WCU’s Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in the Old Library is magical — literally. Rare potions, amulets, musical instruments, sacred objects, and other artifacts on display in “Surrounded by the Spirits: Paul Stoller and the Songhay Journey Toward Wellbeing” represent West African healing practices including spirit possession, witchcraft and divination, religious devotion, and traditional medicine. The exhibit invites visitors to experience the culture of West Africa and gain profound insights into holistic healing practices that place humans in harmony with the social, natural, and spiritual worlds.

WCU Professor of Anthropology Paul Stoller lived with and studied the Songhay people of Niger and found a mentor in possession priest Adamu Jenitongo, whose mud spirit hut is recreated as a central element of the exhibition. On the ceiling inside are illuminated constellations from the summer sky in Niger, evoking the cosmos and inviting visitors to contemplate their own wellbeing.

Stoller spoke about his experiences and research in a free presentation on October 19, when he also signed copies of his most recent book, Wisdom from the Edge, which underscores the importance of recognizing and applying indigenous wisdom to social problems that threaten the future.

Stoller’s artifacts, books, and writings are central to the exhibition, which also houses artifacts from anthropologists from other institutions. Also on display are items from Zeinab Baba, assistant professor in WCU’s master of public health program, and Bradley Flamm, director of WCU’s Office of Sustainability, and his wife, Esther Wyss-Flamm, who was working in Niger at the same time as Stoller.

Stoller, who joined the University’s faculty in 1980 and has conducted anthropological research for 40 years, plans to retire in 2024. In 2013, the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography selected him to receive the Anders Retzius Medal in Gold — anthropology’s highest honor and the field’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize — for his scientific contributions to anthropology. He is the author of 16 books, and recipient of multiple awards and grants including a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Michael Di Giovine, professor of anthropology and director of WCU’s Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, teaches museum studies students how to research, develop, and curate exhibitions. Student co-curators for this exhibition are William Babitts, Isabella Campese, Allison Magerr, Mary Moyer, Emily Nammavong, Katherine Noll, Sadie Patterson, Maclaren Remy, Mayur Suresh, Harrison Warren, Matt Wileyto, Kevin Wilson, and Sydney Wise. Graduate curator is Virginia Vintson. Curatorial interns are Kaitlyn Murray (Ursinus), Karthik Murugan and Caleb Beck (Downingtown East HS).

Di Giovine also collaborates with staff and faculty from other departments including, for this exhibition, Thomas Haughey, associate professor of theatre and exhibits designer; Karen Watkins, associate professor of art + design and exhibition design consultant; Tom Pantazes and Hannah Glatt, Office of Digital Learning and Innovation, who designed the museum’s virtual exhibition; and Stephanie Thompson, publications assistant in graphics and printing, who provided graphic design.

In addition, David Blackburn, director of the Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, is assistant curator.

Surrounded by the Spirits: Paul Stoller and the Songhay Journey Toward Wellbeing runs through December 1, 2023.

Learn more about the exhibition here or email museum@wcupa.edu


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