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Curator Rebuts Catalogue Review : Fanfare Over Pavarotti Warranted?

January 30, 1988

I would like to address a few misconceptions created by Cathy Curtis' column in the Calendar Section of the Orange County Edition of The Times (Dec. 27), in which Ms. Curtis found it necessary to inform your readership that the Bowers Museum has yet to publish a catalogue comprehensible to the layman and additionally that the most baffling catalogue of the year was Armand J. Labbe's "dry, dry, dry 'Colombia Before Columbus.' "

I have enclosed for your scrutiny a body of documents that says otherwise. I have also enclosed a second grouping of commentaries that documents a consistent record of excellence in publication for our museum.

As was explained twice to Cathy, once by one of the museum's board members on the night of the "Colombia Before Columbus" exhibit opening and once by myself, "Colombia Before Columbus" (the publication) was neither designed as, nor was it in fact, an exhibit catalogue, although admittedly it could easily have been mistaken as such by the uninformed .

It was first and foremost a scholarly work, designed to fill an important gap in the existing literature. The intention was to create an attractive reference work that could be used by students, as well as by professionals, while at the same time capable of attracting the attention of the interested layperson.

Secondly, if possible, it was to serve as a supplement to the exhibit of the same name. There was in fact only about a 60% overlap between the art displayed in the exhibit and that documented in the book.

That it fulfilled these expectations is confirmed by the following: More than 400 copies of the book were sold through the museum gift shop during the exhibit itself. An additional 3,500 volumes were sold internationally, thereby constituting a first year sale of 80% of all books printed. These are extremely favorable figures for books of this nature.

The book has been very favorably received by scholars, students and interested laymen alike, as is attested to by letters of commendation, reviews, awards and other interest this book has generated. The book aroused such interest in Colombia, itself, that a Colombian publishing house, Carlos Valencia Editores, is currently preparing two Spanish language versions of the book for publication this fall.

Last September, I met with a large group of Colombian anthropologists and archeologists at the Gold Museum in Bogota to discuss this book and was honored that they intend to use it as a teaching manual for students of pre-Hispanic Colombian ceramic art.

I informed Cathy Curtis last spring about the significance of "Colombia Before Columbus" and how it was being received by the public, as well as the scholarly establishment. Furthermore, I gave her an open invitation to examine the documentation I had on file with respect to this book and our other publications.

I don't think anyone appreciates being negatively targeted in a newspaper, particularly when the negativity is not only unwarranted but is contrary to the available facts. Rather than being misled into believing that the Bowers Museum is remiss or deficient in either the scope or presentation of its publications, the Orange County community should be informed and take pride in the fact that its very own cultural arts museum is attracting such national and international attention and acclaim.

ARMAND J. LABBE

Chief Curator,

Bowers Museum

Santa Ana

Labbe's letter was accompanied by comments from 16 people praising "Colombia Before Columbus" and 14 letters praising other Bowers publications.

Cathy Curtis responds:

Armand Labbe seems to be conflating a number of issues. I was referring to the plight of the non-specialist who picks up the book thinking that he has happened upon a readable guide. By "readable," I mean written on the level of a literate general interest magazine.

My educational background includes work on a Ph.D (though not in Labbe's field), and I found the book very tough sledding. Trying to write a review of the exhibit for another publication, I was hard pressed to glean a few general morsels of information about pre-Columbian pottery that weren't hedged by numerous qualifications.

The fact that the book is selling probably has much to do with the fact that it is well-illustrated and apparently unique in its field. I'd be most interested to ask people who have actually staggered through the text precisely what they have learned.

The fact that scholars have praised the book has nothing to do with its usefulness as an educational tool for the general public. My remarks have no bearing on the scholarly merit of the book. I was simply noting that the Bowers Museum should produce additional publications specifically geared to at least the educated segment of the broad audience the museum is trying to attract.

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