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Donors Put UNLV on the Pre-Columbian Map

The Braunstein Symposium sheds light on the Barrick Museum's extensive collection of pre-Columbian artifacts. Join the conversation Jan 18-19.

Arts & Culture  |  Dec 12, 2013  |  By Regina Bacolas

Ancient documents from the Mixtec Indians, known as codices, are among the thousands of artifacts that alumna Mannetta Braunstein and her husband, Michael, have donated to the Barrick Museum. (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

If they survive, thousands of years from now what will the "artifacts" of our culture say about us? Advertisements might express our values. Currency and cash machines might reflect our exchange system. A stage set and some costumes might show how we were entertained.

Thanks to an extraordinary alumna and her husband, UNLV's students and faculty along with the general public can get answers to these questions about some ancient North American cultures by visiting the pre-Columbian and ethnographic art collections at UNLV.

Mannetta Braunstein, '93 BA Anthropology, and her husband, Michael, made their first donation of pre-Columbian art to UNLV's Barrick Museum in 1979. The donation launched the university's now extensive collection of pre-Columbian art.

The couple began collecting the ancient art as tourists in Latin America during the summer of 1974. Back then, the artifacts were seen as unrefined and such collections were not fashionable. "The artifacts were readily available for purchase in native markets and specialty shops," Mannetta says.

Ironically, its primitive nature is the reason the museum welcomes the unique and broad collection.

A large portion of the exhibit represents the visual arts of ancient Mesoamerica, an area encompassing most of Mexico and part of Central America. The area was home to such ancient civilizations as the Maya, Aztecs, and Zapotecs during the pre-Columbian era 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1500.

The collection's Mexican masks offer a glimpse into traditions that continue in some form today. Guatemalan garments called huipiles show the period's method of weaving, and oil paintings known as retablos illustrate the hierarchal societies.

"From the artifacts, we learn about the cultures of these people and how they lived," Mannetta says. "We learn that their societies were very complex."

The couple also donated their extensive book collection to accompany the art to "put into context what was going on during those times," Mannetta says.

The Braunsteins put UNLV in their estate plans last November to ensure that the university eventually will receive their entire collection of approximately 5,000 pieces.

The collection has made the museum an international center for pre-Columbian art and is providing students and faculty with countless years of research opportunities. According to museum curator Aurore Giguet, there is still much to learn.

"It's one of the largest collections of pre-Columbian art [in the world] and is virtually unstudied," Giguet says.

Two undergraduate liberal arts classes are already conducting research on the collection, and plans to incorporate more educational opportunities are under way. "We really want it to be a used collection and not something that is just housed here," says Giguet.

Mannetta has studied pre-Columbian art for more than 30 years and is a member of both the American Society of Appraisers and the International Society of Appraisers.

"You have to study the fakes to understand the good stuff," she says, noting the care she takes to ensure the pieces she collects are authentic.

Her appreciation for pre-Columbian and Mexican art drove her to learn as much as she could about the artifacts. Truly a lifelong learner, she knew that a degree in anthropology would allow her to study and interpret the purpose and cultural context from which the artifacts came. So, after years as a registered nurse and a philanthropist, she headed back to school to turn her growing passion into more knowledge.

"I needed a broader base in general anthropology so that I could begin to do my own investigations," she says of her UNLV degree.

She currently is engulfed in the study of Mixtec codices, writings that reflect genealogical, ritual, or historical information. When she speaks of them, it is evident that she cares about the people she studies. Through UNLV she is now able to tell their story and hopes that others will share in her appreciation for their art.