It was black history – ancient African history – that first got Courtney M. Baxter interested in history. From one of the last generations that grew up on television, rather than web-based media, she was fascinated by the History Channel’s programs on ancient Egypt. She can also thank George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and their intrepid character of Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, who traveled to the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis in “Raiders of the Lost” (1981) on a mission to keep occult powers out of the hands of the Nazis.
So when Baxter was awarded the Saint Louis Art Museum’s 2015-16 Romare Bearden Graduate Minority Museum Fellowship, her favorite niche in the vast, encyclopedic museum became the ancient Egyptian rooms in the basement. Her single favorite piece – out of more than 2,000 on view – is Mummy Mask of the Lady Ka-nefer-nefer, which dates to Dynasty 19 of the New Kingdom, 1307-1196 BCE, according to SLAM.
“I love this gal,” Baxter told a visitor on Thursday, February 4, the day she first gave a gallery talk as Bearden Fellow (though it was not about ancient Egypt). “Look at her face. And the hair is so detailed.”
Interestingly, this mask has a story that is worthy of an Indiana Jones movie. Excavated in 1952 in Saqqara – about 200 kilometers south of Tanis, where Indiana Jones had his fictional exploits – it quickly appeared on the European art market, according to SLAM, and passed from collector to collector until the museum purchased it from an antiquities gallery in 1998. The U.S. government, however, believed an alternate version of events given by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, which claimed the mask was stolen from Cairo before eventually finding its way to St. Louis. The U.S. attorney eventually lost the case in federal court in 2014, and the mask remained in the museum long enough for Baxter to make her acquaintance.
Baxter’s frame of reference for the museum’s Egyptian collection is closer to her own present cultural moment than the intricacies of antiquities dealing. She pointed to the Coffin of the Singer of Amun, Henut-Wedjebu, which is exhibited near the mummy mask and dates from roughly the same period, 1391-1350 B.C.E. “To be a mummy you had to be someone important,” Baxter said of the ancient temple singer. “You could not be a regular Joe and be mummified. She was the Beyoncé of her era.”
Baxter is just getting started in this field, thanks to the Bearden Fellowship, but established experts agree with her, albeit using a comparison to a different pop icon. Noting that Henut-Wedjebu was one of the rare gilded mummies, with gold foil on her coffin, Sarantis Symeonoglou, a professor of Art History and Archeology at Washington University, said, “She must have been an extremely beautiful and important woman to receive gilded status, like a Marilyn Monroe of ancient Egypt.”
Symeonoglou was speaking to the campus newspaper Student Life in 2006, when the paper raised the question whether Washington University, which owns the mummy, should display it in the campus museum rather than loan it out to SLAM across Skinker Boulevard. Like the Mummy Mask of the Lady Ka-nefer-nefer, Henut-Wedjebu and her coffin thus far have remained safely inside the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Baxter, however, is likely to leave the museum this summer. The Bearden Fellowship is a one-year paid appointment, instituted in 1992 and named for African-American artist Romare Bearden, that is designed to train minority professionals in the museum arts and then export them to the field. Past fellows went on to work at the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Chrysler Museum of Art, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas at Austin. SLAM already has started to seek applications for the fellow who will replace Baxter (see sidebar).
Though she brought to the museum her passion for ancient Egypt and for history in general, the fellowship was her first substantial exposure to art and art history. She came here from a position at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and has degrees in public history (a Master’s from Loyola University) and history and sociology (a Bachelor’s from the University of Illinois-Springfield).
Oddly, for someone with an interest in ancient Africa who played with only black dolls as a girl and watched the 1977 “Roots” miniseries with her family every holiday season, Baxter was almost completely ignorant of black visual artists when she came to SLAM. In her formal education she had only learned about European art, mostly from the Renaissance. Through the Bearden Fellowship, she has learned enough to edit the museum’s “Celebrate African and African American Art” brochure – the edition that reflects her work was released at SLAM’s 2016 MLK Day program – and to give her first gallery talk on “the flourishing of African-American art from 1936-40.”
She also learned some things about black Americans that Alex Haley did not teach in “Roots.”
“African Americans have been producing art the whole time they were in America,” she said. “I didn’t realize that. In Colonial America, they were producing fine, skilled art. Black people were making beautiful marble busts and oil paintings early in American history. That’s good for people to know, especially kids. You don’t think about people going to art school when their parents were just slaves. It gives you a more full and complex picture of what peoples’ lives were like.”
Clearly, a museum educator has been born – or, rather, trained – during her Bearden Fellowship. Indeed, she has started to apply for museum educator positions with the strength of this new prestige credit from SLAM on her resume. “I want to do this career-wise,” she said. “Hopefully the fellowship made me more marketable.”
Like Rochelle Caruthers, who also came to the Bearden Fellowship from the public history graduate program at Loyola University, Baxter is willing to stay in St. Louis. Caruthers, who was Bearden Fellow from 2011-2012, is now University Academic Programs coordinator at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University (the museum that would exhibit the Coffin of the Singer of Amun, Henut-Wedjebu, should the university ever reclaim its valuable loan).
Baxter, a daughter of suburban Chicago, is enjoying her new city on the river. She enjoys all the “free public events” and “nice, free museums” and recently started swing dancing with Lindy Hop St. Louis.
“I would stay,” she said. “I feel comfortable here. St. Louis is small enough that there’s not too much going on, but there’s still a lot of cultural things going on.” And what about the local dating scene, for this single, black, professional woman? “Is Chicago any better to be single?” she said. “I don’t really think so. Really, the big city is not all that it’s cracked up to be.”
So Baxter has been searching for local job openings. She is looking closely at the Missouri History Museum, in particular, but only has seen one part-time position advertised there.
“Holler to the History Museum,” she told a reporter with a wink.
To apply for the Romare Bearden fellowship, visit http://www.slam.org/AboutUs/employment.php. The application deadline is March 18.