UCLA Spotlight


Marla Berns, Fowler Museum

  • By Cynthia Lee, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published Feb 1, 2002 8:00 AM

Fowler Museum Director Marla Berns has seen it happen. Out of sheer curiosity about who made this and why, visitors "connect" viscerally with an artfully carved gourd from Nigeria or an elaborately quilted fisherman's coat from a remote Japanese island.

These objects from faraway worlds can magically open up a passageway that lets museum-goers burrow deeper to reach a richer understanding of the cultures and communities that created them.

Challenging visitors to go beyond the cursory glance and absorb the contextual information that is laid out before them is what UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History can do better than many larger metropolitan museums. And on campus, the Fowler offers students and faculty opportunities to explore linkages between the museum's treasures and classes in ethnic studies, art history, film and many other disciplines.

Named the museum's new director last October, Berns' career path has led her back to the museum where she first interned as a graduate student in 1978 and back to UCLA where she earned a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in art history.

The daughter of a Los Angeles-area artist, Berns grew up immersed in museums and art classes. "At some point in college, I became an art history major because I realized I wasn't going to become an artist — I didn't have the passion or talent for it."

But a class in Oceanic art history, taught by Arnold Rubin, sent her in a new direction. "It was like an epiphany," she said, recalling how captivated she was by images of immense masked figures that flashed on screen in Dickson Auditorium. "The prospect of actually studying who made this art, why this art was made and how it fits into a cultural framework — that was so much more exciting to me than just memorizing who made it."

Berns spent two-and-a-half years in northeastern Nigeria doing research on the varied arts produced by 25 different ethnic groups living in the area. Her thesis work led her to curate her first exhibition at the then-Museum of Cultural History at UCLA on the region's decorated gourds.

Her holistic approach to studying cultural artifacts helped position her for her first museum job as director of a small departmental gallery at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. From the department's historical collections of fashion, textiles and decorative arts emerged such thought-provoking exhibitions as one on the history of women's underwear. Moving on to UC Santa Barbara in 1991, she took a small university art museum that had become isolated from the rest of the campus and reconnected it, expanding its exhibition space, creating a plaza and giving it a more prominent entrance.

With the Fowler's tenth anniversary only months away, Berns is currently looking to raise the museum's visibility. Says Berns: "I want the campus to know what's going on here behind this elegant brick façade."