Inside USD

Old Chocolate and Other Surprises: Learning from the May Collection

Monday, October 29, 2012

Previous exhibitions in USD’s David W. May American Indian Gallery have each celebrated materials from the May Collection, often focusing on aesthetic aspects of the objects. Textiles, ceramics, and silver jewelry have been subject to rigorous study by curators, professors, and students alike. Indeed, most of the more than 2,000 in the collection possess both aesthetic and anthropological dimensions.

“Old Chocolate and Other Surprises” explores the potential for the May Collection to yield new knowledge through forensic study, over and above concerns about physical appearance. Indeed, some of the exhibition’s findings cannot be observed with the naked eye.

USD’s American Indian Collection was originally amassed by the May family, whose members took pleasure in the art and artifacts of the Southwest and adjoining areas. Objects have been added to the collection since it came to USD in 1994, because of aesthetic criteria, as well as because of the contributions they make to the overall learning environment at the university.

There is significant research potential in using artifacts from the May Collection as part of creative collaborations between students, faculty and the community at large. “Old Chocolate” is part of an experiment to chart new agendas for May Collection research.

An ongoing student project in chemistry, for example, will be featured that looks at the potential for determining what was consumed from mugs made in the  Mesa Verde region of the American Southwest over 700 years ago. For his senior project, Donny Millar undertook that analysis of residues using chromatography. He was examining the mugs specifically searching for evidence of cacao (chocolate). He obtained a sample of theobromine as a control and ran several tests to determine how well the equipment detected the compound. He has selected mugs for analysis, which another chemistry student, Lauren Klein, is continuing this semester. Even though this project is not finished, the process and potential will be presented in this exhibit. Mugs from the May Collection were also featured in the “Mugs of the Mesa” exhibit presented in 2009-2009.

The exhibit opens Nov. 1 and runs through May 27 of 2013. Hours for the free exhibit are 1 to 4 p.m., Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and by appointment. The exhibit is closed during university holidays.

– Tim Gross, PhD, Department of Anthropology

Gross is the curator of the exhibit and Julie Gay is the designer.

For more information go to or call (619) 260-4238.

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