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Museum exhibit breathes life into student ancestry

January 13, 2011

Artist and professor of sculpture James Lawton has created an exhibit for the MSU Museum called “Evolutionary Artifacts,” which will feature photographs, artifacts, and sound recordings. To contribute to his exhibit, Lawton asked students, faculty, staff, members of the East Lansing and Lansing communities and anyone with access to the Internet to submit family photographs to his website These photographs will be projected onto the wall of the Museum’s Heritage Gallery where the exhibit is to be held. Lawton discussed the importance of such engagement of the community by artists with the works they create.

Artist and professor of sculpture James Lawton has created an exhibit for the MSU Museum he hopes will show family is more than just immediate — it’s universal.

This multifaceted exhibit, which runs from Sunday to April 3, is titled “Evolutionary Artifacts.” It will feature images of 20th-century families screen-printed onto transparent acrylic panels which will travel on a conveyor system throughout the museum’s Heritage Gallery.

Visitors to the exhibit will see an image of what Lucy, the hominid whose 3.2 million-year-old fossils were discovered in 1974, might have looked like, as well as an ultrasound image of a fetus.
With this collection of images, Lawton hopes to highlight the evolution and the history shared by the world’s citizens.

“I want them to take away the experience of the richness — the richness of who we are and where we’ve come from,” Lawton said. “Each individual is a unique being, but we’re all part of this universal family, this global community.”

Ultimately, the message is about community, MSU Museum Director Gary Morgan said.

“There’ll be so many ways in which people can think about where they’ve come from,” he said. “That we all bring our own experiences, we all bring our own background, but when we come together, we forge something new, and that is the community around us.”

Lawton reached out to this global community to create his exhibit. He asked not only students, faculty, staff and members of the East Lansing and Lansing communities, but anyone with access to the internet to submit family photographs to his website

“Without the community, or the interaction of the community, the show cannot be a success,” Lawton said. “I’m relying very heavily on the response of individuals.”

A reception for Lawton’s exhibit will be held at 4 p.m. on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“This exhibit will be launched during the weekend of the Martin Luther King celebrations, and of course, the legacy of Martin Luther King (is) very much about community and very much about integration and recognition of difference, but respect for everybody who is part of that community,” Morgan said. “Those sort of messages have got tremendous resonance as much today as ever.”

Apparel and textile design senior Alexandra Lasky was one of several students who contributed preliminary content to the exhibit.
“It’s interesting, especially because you have everybody putting all their different ancestral pictures in one group, and you can flip through and see the differences and similarities,” she said.

Lawton plans to project the submitted ancestral images onto the walls of the gallery. Seeing these snapshots, captured in a variety of time periods and places, he hopes visitors will appreciate their diverse family histories.

“When you’re young, you don’t necessarily think about your ancestors,” Lawton said. “You’re busy with school, or career, or classes and more immediate things.”

Even so, Lawton thinks students should consider what their family has done for them.

“As you grow up, you start looking back and saying, ‘What richness and riches have they given me, not just the financial side of things or the livelihood they give me, but the strengths of person they give me as an individual,” he said.

Morgan said the exhibit prompts the audience to consider their past.
“It does allow the audience to think about ancestry: their own ancestry and the ancestry of so many people who make up our community,” he said.

In addition to these projected family photographs, photocopied images will line the walls of the gallery, Lawton said. Recordings of student voices will announce their ancestral names, some in their ancestral languages, and the Beatles song “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” will play throughout the space.

And more than 20 artifacts from the museum’s collections will be added to Lawton’s exhibit to further emphasize human evolution and myriad ethnicities.

A diverse collection of objects and images will work together to highlight a diverse community.

One of the most important messages the exhibit promotes is the value of this diversity, Morgan said.

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“We really do need to be thinking about what makes a community — how does a community become strong? And I think exhibits like this help that to happen,” he said.


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