The North Carolina Museum of Art has grown and changed in many ways in the last few years: The Museum Park Theater has been completed, the sculpture garden begun, the museum entrance redesigned, and many of the galleries revamped. The most recent of these improvements was completed last weekend, when the galleries for African, Oceanic and Ancient American art reopened on the museum’s middle exhibition level.

“Four years ago I left California especially to do this project–it’s been a long time coming!” says the museum’s chief designer, Eric Gaard. Museum curators Rebecca Martin Nagy and Mary Ellen Soles worked with Gaard, other design professionals and a distinguished team of consulting scholars from North Carolina universities to create permanent exhibition galleries that would allow the objects to seen to the best advantage. They also promote greater understanding of the collections and the cultures from which they come by displaying supplementary didactic material. The result is a dramatic improvement in the presentation of these artworks, and–thanks to the excellent maps, timelines, wall texts and label information–our ability to appreciate them.

To begin with, these three collections have been given more room. They had been inadequately housed almost since they were first put on display, in 1986, and as the museum holdings in African, Oceanic and Ancient American art increased, where to display the objects became an ever greater problem. But no longer are they scrunched into a tiny space and–despite their dramatic nature–almost hidden from view. A newly formed gallery space interrupts the old traffic-flow pattern that took people right on down the stairs instead of sending them back into the galleries. Three towering carvings from Melanesia have been moved out toward the stair head, and they beckon the visitor toward the other astonishing Oceanic objects.

From the beautifully carved utilitarian pieces and awe-inspiring ritual art of Oceania, you move through a big horseshoe of connected galleries housing African and Ancient American works. These spaces have been enlarged by knocking out walls and eliminating closets; the area is no longer claustrophobia-inducing. The curators and designers have done a great job of organizing the objects, grouping them by culture and/or period. There are many wonderful things that have never been on view before, either because they are new acquisitions or because they had previously been kept in storage for lack of display space (there are also several objects on loan from other collections), but many long-exhibited objects also appear new in their improved contexts.

One example is a metal sculpture of a bird that used to be mounted in a case with its back to the wall. It turns out that this bird was part of a trophy awarded annually to the champion cultivator of his fields in his Cote d’Ivoire village. The men would compete in a hoeing contest; the winner would get custody of the trophy, this bird mounted on a tall stick, which would then be planted in the winner’s field. So now the NCMA’s bird is mounted high on a slim rod in the gallery, and looks very unlike its formerly captive self. Another example of the kind of transformation made possible by good exhibit design is seen in the tremendous sawfish headdress from the Niger River Delta. This impressive item had previously been mounted in such a way as to give no indication of the liveliness of the masquerade in which it was danced. Now it is positioned high and angled, as if leaping, and low in the case a video monitor plays a tape loop showing a person dancing in a similar mask.

A particularly delightful new acquisition is positioned on the cusp between the African and Ancient American galleries. This leopard hip pendant, cast in brass with copper inlays, was made in the Nigerian kingdom of Benin, but it makes a wonderful transition into the next gallery, where one of designer Eric Gaard’s “environmental cases” is filled with jars and pots from pre-Columbian Nicaragua and Costa Rica, all decorated with effigies of animals. In some cases, the entire pot is in the shape of an animal, like an alligator, or has sculpted parts, as is the case with a stunning tripod jaguar vase. Other cases in this gallery focus on work from Mexico and from Peru, where the standouts are two splendid Nasca textiles from about 500 A.D.

Everyone involved with this reinstallation has done wonderful work, but I do have some complaints. A few things seem underlighted, and I wish some of the less vulnerable pieces could have been left outside of the cases: Only half a dozen objects share our space–the rest are barricaded behind acres of protective, but off-putting, Plexiglas. And I’m not so sure about those huge “environmental cases.” They are almost like shop windows, and they create one significant problem. Because they are so large, the labels for the objects have been put inside the cases rather than off to the side, as is customary for objects in vitrines. I really hate having the labels in with the artwork. It is distracting and it looks tacky. And there is no consistency in label placement in or out of the cases–sometimes it’s to the left, sometimes to the right of the artworks–which is confusing.

However, compared to the great improvements that have been made, these are minor points. At last, these collections are being treated with the same respect as the rest of the museum’s holdings, and the African, Oceanic and Ancient American galleries now welcome us in for happy hours of learning and looking. EndBlock

A five-lecture symposium on “Artists of the Ancient Americas” will be held in the museum auditorium, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Sat., March 4 ($35). Call 839-6262, ext. 2143.