Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh is a consortium of local museums, galleries and archives working together to share information and expertise, and foster collaboration in research, teaching, and public engagement.

Here, at the HAA Constellations blog, you can read about some of the outcomes of these partnerships. Learn more about Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh at https://haa.pitt.edu/ckp.

 

Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Annie Abernathy

     

    Identity Materialized: Touching On Activism in Artist’s Books

    Author: Annie Abernathy

    Archival Scholars Research Award Spring 2019

    *A version of this blogpost was originally presented at the event Archival Scholars in Action on March 22, 2019. Below is an edited version of that presentation.

    In collecting art made with an anti-institution mindset, there is often a contradiction between original meaning and current context. The collection of artist’s books and zines in the Frick Fine Arts Library is a site of this contradiction-- however, unlike many institutions, the library supports the original mission of the art: making these activist themes visible and accessible to the public. As a recipient of the Archival Scholars Research Award this semester, my project has centered around artist’s books from the 1980s and 1990s in this collection. I have been thinking about this research in relation to my library work. Specifically, how do we make decisions about what to collect? How do you collect within the fringes of what is a book and what is art and especially the grey area between the two? A lot of these questions concerning collecting depend upon materiality.

    One of the artist’s books I was immediately drawn to is a booklet of posters made by Fierce Pussy, a feminist artist collective working to bring lesbian identity to the public eye. They did this through disseminating posters around New York City. The artists describe their practice as “adamantly lo-tech, fast and low-budget” as they used what they had on hand, including using the photocopiers at their day jobs to produce the work. In this way, they chose the medium of the poster because of it was cheap and fast. 

    As a material, posters can be widely-disseminated and easily mass-produced. This is especially evident here as Fierce Pussy would have photocopied these designs on printer paper. Since it would have been affordable paper, more could be produced to invade the public space of New York. The medium of the poster itself reflects the dematerialization of the art object discussed by Lucy Lippard as it falls in the category of “art that can be shown inexpensively and unobtrusively in infinite locations at one time.” In this way, posters can be seen as both anti-capitalist and anti-institution because of their ephemeral nature. How exactly could a museum possibly collect an entire city block of wheatpasted posters?

    The posters of Fierce Pussy are an example of an artist thinking about public activism, where the large scale and volume of art objects reflects the scale of the intended audience. Contrasting this, Adrian Piper’s My Calling (Cards) #1 and 2 are examples of personal activism. Whereas Fierce Pussy’s posters are about 13 by 18 inches, these cards are each 2 by 3 and 1/2 inches. Their stark difference in size is underscored when these works are presented side by side. Calling cards like these were a performance piece by Piper in the late 1980s. She would hand out the brown card, for example, when someone made a racist joke at a dinner party, not realizing Piper’s race. And if a man flirted with her in a bar, she would hand him one of the white cards. She chose this material because of its intimate scale. This material is also connected to other social rituals such as business cards or even ‘calling cards’ of the nineteenth century. These references further point to Piper’s personal approach to activism in one-on-one contexts. 

    Similar to the Fierce Pussy posters, these cards are also anti-institution in their ephemeral materiality, but as these artists have become more well-known, their activism has been co-opted and recontextualized in an institutional setting. This can be seen as both artworks in our collection are reprints sold by major cultural entities twenty years after the work’s original conception and use. In reprinting the object, there is a disconnect from the original materiality and meaning. For example, the fierce pussy posters are on a firmer type of paper with a spiral binding, giving more ‘bookish’ qualities. At the same time, however, this reproduction allows them to be collected by multiple institutions, such as the Frick Fine Arts Library, in order for them to be more accessible to a wider audience and to be accessible for research such as mine. 

    The materiality of artist’s books is integral to their meaning, so, of course, reproduction of these objects presents challenges. Similarly, artist’s books present challenges in exhibition making. In my next stages of this project, I will develop a pop-up exhibition for the Frick Fine Arts Library which will be on view April 10 from 1-3 pm. Featuring artist’s books from the 1980s and 1990s as well as contemporary zines and activist art, I hope to materialize these social issues of the past and situate them in the present social climate.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Sylvia Rohr (Director, UAG) speaks to high-school teachers from the Pittsburgh area on including the Africans in India exhibition in their curriculum.

     

    Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers

    Authors:

    Mrinalini Rajagopalan, Associate Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture

    Neepa Majumdar, Associate Professor, Department of English and Film and Media Studies Program

    A seventeenth-century painting shows the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) standing on a globe as two angels hover above in the clouds. His bow is stretched taught, about to release an arrow at its target: the decapitated head of an African man. The darkness of this man’s skin, his hollow eyes, and the owls (symbolizing evil) that circle him contrast with the pale almost radiant skin of the Mughal emperor, his stately crimson robes, and his opulent crown. In this painting Jahangir is shown vanquishing his archenemy Malik Ambār—an Abyssinian who arrived in India as a slave, rose to the rank of general and later ruled a principality that challenged Mughal imperial domination and expansion. Like so many court paintings of the time, this representation of Malik Ambar was a fiction, one that reduced him to a powerless African slave at the mercy of an omnipotent Indian emperor.

    Compare this image of Malik Ambār to another from the same period that shows him dressed in simple yet stately white clothes. His profile shows his African features clearly—the color of his skin and his full lips. Unlike the above-mentioned painting, however, the regal dignity of Malik Ambār cannot be ignored here. Symbols of nobility—a long sword with an ornate handle and sheath, embroidered cummerbund and belt, and vibrant red shoes are combined with the sartorial effects of a devout Muslim—the plain white tunic and simple turban without ornament. He holds out a finger on his right hand—possibly indicating that he is uttering the two testimonies of the Islamic faith. In this image Malik Ambār is both pious Muslim and nobleman; unmistakably African while also Indian Muslim; simple devotee as well as formidable warrior. 

    These paintings are only two examples of the rich corpus of images that make up the Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers exhibition. Between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, many Africans came to India as military slaves and some, like Malik Ambār, rose to become generals and rulers. Yet others were musicians, architects, wives, and traders and became an integral part of India’s courtly culture.The rich and long-standing contributions of Africans to Indian history, however, have been marginalized and woefully understudied. An initiative of the Schomburg Center at the New York Public Library, Africans in India showed at the UAG from February 15th to March 21st. The exhibition loan and related programming were organized by Pitt professors Mrinalini Rajagopalan (History of Art and Architecture) and Neepa Majumdar (English and Film and Media Studies). Their goals with this exhibition were to bring attention to the long histories of connection and exchange between Africa and India; to highlight the contributions of the African diaspora beyond the Americas and the Atlantic world; and to raise discussions around racial difference, migration, borders, and asylum—exigent topics in the contemporary world.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Faculty Work
    • UAG
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  •  

    Special Collections Trip for Introduction to Medieval Art

    Author: Sarah Reiff Conell

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    Taking an introductory class of 100 students with no recitation sections to Special Collections seemed, at first, a daunting task. My recent experience, however, radically shifted my perception of how feasible and rewarding this undertaking is. Professor Shirin Fozi coordinated with the professionals in Special Collections to organize small-group time slots for which students could register. The Special Collections team was exceptionally generous in their willingness to coordinate visits for students who were unable to make one of the scheduled windows of time.

    While it is often logistically necessary to use projected images to present objects covered in courses, these conditions can obscure the physicality of an object. Special Collections provides a space for different modes of contact. As a graduate student, it was instructive to witness how Dr. Fozi clearly described these works and their structure in a way that engaged the students. As the groups rotated through, I was able to hone my object descriptions through close observation of a masterful teacher and my own iterative practice. 

    Pitt’s fabulous facsimile collection supports meaningful interactions with objects, allowing students to turn manuscript pages, explore their contents, and discuss in small groups about the use of objects. It gives them real-world experience that informs their understandings and allows them to make better-informed inferences. For example, it was exciting to see students quickly drawing on their knowledge of purple codices from lecture when they encountered the Rossano Gospels. They were able to proficiently discuss the assertions of Pope Gregory the Great (that pictures are books of the illiterate) by toggling between the narrative illustrations in this manuscript and its purple-stained pages that betray a more elite audience. They then seamlessly moved onto the mixture of pagan and Christian imagery on the enigmatic Franks Casket, drawing on their exposure to other examples of composite objects from lecture. 

    Students engaged with a mixture of facsimiles, including three objects we had covered in class, three unfamiliar works that were comparable to things previously seen, and one artwork that we were going to discuss in the following class. Within this set, it was productive to have a variety of surrogates with which to engage. The diversely scaled manuscripts were paired with replicas from Dr. Fozi’s personal collection, the Franks Casket and a paper foldout of the Bayeux Tapestry. This collection provided punctuated moments for students to consider the role of form in beholding and use of medieval art. 

    Making the wonderful holdings of the University’s Special Collections visible to undergraduates early in their educational careers empowers students to engage with objects and enriches their time at Pitt. A brief introduction to the space and holdings of Special Collections is informative in and of itself, but it is clear that interacting with this rich corpus of facsimiles yields great rewards. 

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  •  

    Local Collectors and Global Gestures

    Author: Alex Taylor

    Assistant Professor and Academic Curator, History of Art and Architecture

    In a new collection display at the University Art Gallery (UAG), Pitt graduate students Emi Finkelstein, Rebecca Giordano, Adriana Miramontes, and Brooke Wyatt conducted object research on a group of abstract paintings from the late 1950s and early 1960s by artists from Britain, Japan, India, Italy and Venezuela. The result is an exhibition titled Global Gestures: Post-war Abstraction from the Lowenthal Collection, open until March 21, 2019.

    These works were all donated to the UAG in the 1980s by Oakland-based collectors Anne and Alexander Lowenthal and their children. The Lowenthals were actively involved in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and enthusiastic art collectors, purchasing works from the Carnegie International and on their travels around the world. In addition to their donations to the University Art Gallery, their collection was also donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery in Washington, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

    Their eclectic collection included eighteenth-century furniture, nineteenth-century French prints, Persian ceramics and twentieth-century paintings such as those included in the exhibition.“It’s more than collecting pieces or donating,” Anne Lowenthal once told an interviewer, “it’s important to us because this leads to a global vision." The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) records held by the University Library System includes oral history interviews with both Alexander and Anne Lowenthal that explore their diverse cultural interests.

    The works that the Lowenthals donated to the UAG exemplify just such a global vision. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Painting (1959) by Indian modernist painter V.S. Gaitonde (1921-2001) which was cleaned and treated by Rikke Foulke Fine Art Conservation for the occasion. Gaitonde’s was the subject of a major retrospective V. S. Gaitonde: Painting as Process, Painting as Life organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2015, and was recently featured in The Asia Society’s exhibition The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India.

    As Giordano explains in her label on Gaitonde’s work, his is a “modernist painting that is no mere imitation of western modes, instead pursuing hybrid forms that engaged with the crises and questions of India’s newly post-colonial society.” Japanese abstraction too had, as Wyatt uses the work of Hiroshi Kunimata to explain, “emerged from a repressive wartime climate into a period of intense activity.” Across all of the works in the exhibition, the political entanglements of post-war abstraction emerge as a persistent thread.

    The social resonances of these paintings are further revealed by the titles of several works that exploit the boundaries between abstraction and figurative content. In her account of Saroni’s work, Finkelstein notes how the Sergio Saroni’s Natura Morta di Carne uses a thick impasto to suggest the “tactile, visceral effect” of its titular subject, while Bernard Farmer’s Meridian deploys sharp linear and curved forms to suggest the ‘divisions in time and space’ marked by the prime meridian at Greenwich.

    Other works point towards the engagement of their makers with the broader expansions of avant-garde practice in the post-war decades. In Alberto Collie’s Spatial Rhythm #7, for example, Miramontes connects its formal expansion beyond the limits of the frame to the artist’s own ‘floating sculptures’ and more broadly, to the embrace of space, light and motion by many Latin American artists of the period.

    Global Gestures: Post-war Abstraction from the Lowenthal Collection is open until March 21, 2019.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Graduate Work
    • UAG
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  •  

    Mapping Mobility in the UAG

    Author: Ellen Larson

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture and University Art Gallery graduate fellow

    As University Art Gallery (UAG) graduate fellow, I am collaborating with HAA Professor Michelle McCoy, along with five undergraduate students on a pop-up exhibition to take place in the UAG mid-March. This exhibition supplements Professor McCoy’s HAA 1010: Approaches to Art History undergraduate course, focusing on Chinese art objects within the UAG collection. Students selected Chinese work, as a means of initiating in-depth original research on themes and ideas related to the art objects themselves or broadly connected to socio-cultural contexts from which these materials emerge. 

    In my role as a curator and mentor to undergraduate students, I am working with the class to conceive a short-term exhibition that presents these objects as portable agents of culture, whose value lies not only within the realm of connoisseurship and museum collecting, but also as transient catalysts of new knowledge activated through their physical positions within an exhibition-setting. Rather than uncovering specific temporal histories, the exhibition seeks to extend spatial and thematic connections between works centered upon mobility and exchange. 

    Selected artworks include ink paintings by Chinese master painter, modern nomad, and notorious forger Zhang Daqian (1899-1983). Following the Communist takeover and subsequent establishment of the People’s Republic of China on the Mainland in 1949, Zhang Daqian traveled to Macau, Argentina, Brazil, and Carmel, California, before settling in Taipei in 1978. Other featured works include rubbings depicting seventh-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang, whose travels led him to regions throughout central Asia including parts of modern India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Xuanzang’s writings inspired the sixteenth-century Chinese classic novel Journey to the West. Additional objects include a selection of Chinese snuff bottles, whose aesthetic utilitarianism is juxtaposed with the non-utilitarianism of a ritual ceramic vessel displaying the abstracted character , meaning “good fortune.” This object references a common practice of pasting the upside-down character  in one’s doorway, allowing good fortune to descend upon the dwelling, as the words for “upside-down” and “to arrive” are homophonous. This is further suggested by the same Chinese term, which indicates the performative action of pouring liquid from a vessel. While the selection of snuff bottles and  ritual vessel are commodity objects, the latter serves as a striking example of totality found within the context of written language, material objects, and ritual practice. 

    Echoing the words of Susan Stewart, this particular presentation of objects replaces the notion of origin with classification, presenting “temporality as a spatial and material phenomenon.” [1] In addition to displacing one’s understanding of time, the collection’s relational organization highlights the exhibition’s function as a three-dimensional map into which gallery visitors are invited to physically enter. These objects represent points of exchange and connection; concealed and revealed only through their spatial relationships to each other. Thus, new knowledge is produced through space, and is further activated through the creation of multiple networks that traverse and transition from Pittsburgh to China, and beyond. 

    [1] Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1984), 153. 

     

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Graduate Work
    • UAG
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Figure 1

     

    The Clapp Drawings and “Object-Based Research”

    Author: Christopher Nygren

    Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Director, Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program

    In 1941, the University of Pittsburgh purchased an album containing about 300 old master drawings from George Hubbard Clapp. Clapp graduated from Pitt in 1877 and went on to make a fortune in the aluminum industry as the founder of Alcoa. He also served as the chairman of Pitt’s Board of Trustees for more than 40 years before his death in 1949 (Clapp Hall was built and named in honor of G.H. Clapp shortly after his death). How exactly he came into possession of these drawings remains unclear. All we know is that they entered the University’s collection of art in 1941 and became one of the foundation stones of the University Art Gallery (UAG). 

    I have been intrigued by the Clapp drawings since I first arrived at Pitt in the fall of 2014. Over the last year or so I’ve been spending a great deal of time looking at them in preparation for an undergraduate museum studies seminar that I am currently teaching in which students engage in hands-on, object-based study of these drawings in preparation for their exhibition next fall. This is part of the revised exhibition seminar schedule, which now spans two semesters and allows us to undertake more challenging topics that require prolonged research (This is Not Ideal was the first manifestation of this new approach and shows the wisdom of the extended production schedule). 

    With my class, I’m trying to answer a few very basic questions: who made these drawings? When? Where? Why were they brought together into a large, leather-bound volume? Was there a logic to the way that the drawings were collected and ordered in the volume? 

    In the early modern period, it was fairly common to bring disparate drawings by many different artists into a single volume. Giorgio Vasari had a collection of drawings that he described in his Lives of the Artists (and about which Erwin Panofsky has written an important essay). Perhaps the most famous collector of drawings is Padre Sebastiano Resta (1635-1714), whose collection habits have been studied by studied by Genevieve Warwick and others. One thing that distinguishes our album from many of comparable exemplars in European collections is that our album has been thoroughly deconstructed. Every page was removed from the volume so that we now have nothing but an empty leather binding. Additionally, most of the drawings have been cut off the pages to which they were pasted, sometimes in acts of aesthetic violence that border on vandalism – you can see in figure 1 how someone has used a razorblade to slice through the thick pages of the album to which it had been affixed. This makes the drawings incredibly fragile; they can easily be torn and damaged. However, if we are extremely careful to ensure the safety of the drawings, we can use a number of non-invasive techniques to come to a better understanding of the drawings in order to reveal when and where they were made.

    Pre-modern paper is much robust than the sort of paper we are used to using in everyday life around the university. Paper was made from linen rags which were soaked in an acid bath (often human urine) and then beaten into a pulp. That pulp was laid onto a wire mesh that gave the paper its shape and size. In the fourteenth or fifteenth century, Italian papermakers began affixing to this mesh small emblems crafted out of extremely fine wire thread; each papermaker developed his own emblem which was then “impressed” into paper and became visible only when examined against backlight (figure 2). Watermarks can help us determine when and where paper was made and thereby offer us a firm “post quem” (or “date after which”) for the drawings in our collection. Since our drawings have been removed from their backing album pages, it is quite easy to inspect for watermarks by laying the drawings on a light table (figure 3). It should be remembered that watermarks were quite small and isolated in one corner of a large, royal sheet of paper, meaning that if the sheet were cut up into, say, four or five sheets around 8.5x11 inches only one of those sheets would bear the watermark. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is rare to have a watermark in a drawing, but they are scarce enough that scholars get excited when they see one. A surprising number of our drawings have visible watermarks. In the fall of 2018 Randy Coleman, a specialist in early modern drawings from the University of Notre Dame, came to Pitt to help us work through the collection and determine a course of action for the exhibition (figure 4). He noted that our collection had a higher concentration of watermarks than he’d ever seen. My hope is that my students will be able to use the watermarks to help us determine when and where the drawings were made. Our working hypothesis is that the drawings are mainly Florentine of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We’ll see if the material evidence bears that out. 

    However, the course also tackles the much broader and more fundamental question: How do art historians undertake “object-based research”? Because the exhibition will be finalized by students in the fall of 2019, our goal is to leave them with an abundance of object-based research that will allow them to put together a show that reveals interesting things about the Clapp drawings, their history in the UAG, and how they fit into the broader history of collecting in Pittsburgh, among other things. This means asking the obvious questions of “who?” and “when?” but it also means probing more about the collection as a whole. What is the overall quality of the collection? What about its condition? Are there any parts of this collection that cannot be safely displayed? We also want to ask some other, less traditional questions, like: how do the constraints imposed on us by studying the Clapp drawings seemingly limit the sort of questions we might ask and are there any ways we can work against those constraints? Whose voices/bodies/experiences are elided when we study such a collection of old master drawings and are there any ways to compensate for those gaps/silences while still respecting our objects of study? Are there any works within the Clapp collection that might help us illuminate those gaps? Are there other resources in the UAG and ULS collections that can do some of that work for us? 

    Our initial findings suggest that the collection is extremely uneven in its quality. Certain works, like this profile head of a man wearing a turban (figure 5) are extremely refined and delicate in their execution. The cross-hatching used to demarcate the contour of the figure marks this as one of the oldest drawings in the collection and makes it perhaps my personal favorite. Another work of extremely high quality is this God the Father from a large composition probably showing the Coronation of the Virgin executed on paper that has been prepared with a blue ground, which gives the white highlight extra pop against the background (figure 6). Many of the drawings are much more pedestrian in their execution. However, our goal is not to simply exhibit the “fine” drawings but rather to exhibition the knowledge that we have produced by engaging in object-based research. Thus, over the course of the semester we will be discovering ways to group the drawings, both fine and pedestrian exemplars, in ways that reveal something fundamental about the practice of drawing in early modern art, the history of collecting drawings, and the history of the UAG. I honestly do not know exactly what we’ll discover, but that is the joy of engaging in object-based research with our students! Stay tuned for more. 

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Faculty Work
    • UAG
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Paul M. Farber, Artistic Director of Monument Lab and lecturer in Fine Arts and Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania

     

    Philadelphia’s Monument Lab reports to Pittsburgh

    Author: Kirk Savage

    William S. Dietrich II Professor of History of Art and Architecture

    “As a nation, we are in the midst of a long reckoning over our inherited monuments.” 

    So begins a report to the City of Philadelphia by Monument Lab, a team of artists, urbanists, public historians, and data experts working to “remediate” the memorial landscape. Since 2015 Monument Lab has captured national attention with research projects and artistic interventions that leverage the expertise and energy of diverse constituencies in order to address inequities in our existing monuments and imagine new solutions for the future. 

    On November 28 & 29, 2018, the University of Pittsburgh was very fortunate to be able to host Paul Farber, artistic director Monument Lab, for a series of fascinating discussions and workshops over two full days. In a lecture at Pitt’s Humanities Center, Farber walked us through the curatorial program of Monument Lab – most spectacularly in a citywide exhibition of twenty artists intervening in ten parks and sites in Philadelphia in the fall of 2017, just weeks after the tragic events in Charlottesville. Equally important, however was the research activity paired with these artistic projects. In specially outfitted shipping containers, passersby were invited to answer the question, “what is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?” These answers, written and sketched on cards, were then scanned and tagged and entered into a database that itself constitutes a unique treasury of ideas, insights, and critiques about their city.

    Farber and his colleague Laurie Allen, Monument Lab’s Director of Research and Director of Digital Scholarship at Penn, who participated remotely, also led a workshop at the Office of Public Art attended by arts professionals and representatives of local foundations and nonprofits. We filled out cards on an “appropriate monument for the current city of Pittsburgh,” discussed the process surrounding the Stephen Foster monument, and speculated on how a Monument Lab approach might be adapted to the unique conditions of Pittsburgh.

    Finally, Farber led an inspiring session with graduate students in art history and several other departments on changing careers for humanities PhDs. As a professional who combines curatorial work and part-time teaching with research, writing, and social activism, he shared his own personal experiences with collaboration, community engagement, fundraising, and managing work-life balance.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Faculty Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Musée Yves Saint Laurent, installation detail, Paris, France

     

    Fashions Far Afield and Close to Home

    Author: Emily Mazzola

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture and 2018-2019 Mellon Fellow in Curation and Education

    I arrived three years ago at Pitt, just as excitement over fashion exhibitions began to take hold here with the opening of Killer Heels at The Frick Pittsburgh. Due to my interests in gender, identity, and museum display practices, I was encouraged to research and write about the clothing exhibitions happening across Pittsburgh. I quickly discovered, however, how unprepared I was to take up this research. I needed to read, see, and experience more. So I created a grant proposal and travel itinerary that took me to some of the largest fashion collections and fashion exhibiting institutions in Western Europe. Four weeks, ten cities, and thirty-five museums—I spent the month of July fully immersed in fashion displays and clothing history. Exploring how museums across London, Paris, and Amsterdam tell stories using clothing, create spaces for audiences to imagine new bodily experiences, and position fashion in relation to the history of art. 

    But, as is often the case when we leave home in search of something new, I discovered upon returning to Pittsburgh, something fashionable and novel just beyond my own front door—The Frick Pittsburgh’s latest exhibition Isabelle de Borchgrave: Fashioning Art from Paper (open through January 6, 2019). Fashioning Art from Paper is an exhibition of meticulously crafted paper gowns spanning the history of art and dress. Reveling in the materiality of its objects and witty trompe l’oeil that transforms paper pulp into silk, velvet, and pearls—Fashioning Art from Paper offers a compelling meditation on the ways fashion exhibitions continue to connect with museum audiences. 

    Chief Curator Sarah Hall’s display strategies facilitate object movement, an approach that replicates the ways fashion and dress history exhibitions empower viewers to imagine engaging with garments beyond their bodily experience. But in Fashioning Art from Paper the garments are not clothes, and the spaces opened up by the exhibition for viewers to image new tactile experiences give way to questions and desires about creativity rather than consumption.  Upon entering the exhibition viewers are greeted with the costumes of the Ballet Russes gently twirling in the air. Paper tutus mounted from the ceiling dance with the audience when they move around the rotunda in a captivating call and response. Paper, however, does not flutter the way tulle does, and the interest usually sparked by garment movement in fashion exhibitions to wear, feel, and possess the clothing gives way to new curiosities regarding the transformation of paper, tape, and glue into dazzling garments. In fact, Hall revealed during a private exhibition visit, that one of the primary audience responses was not the urge to touch or wear the garments, but a desire create paper fashions of their own.  

    The seeming accessibility of de Borchgrave’s process and materials is amplified by the ways Fashioning Art from Paper plays with fashion curation’s emphasis on craftsmanship and handwork, replacing academic appreciation of technical skill with wit and clever visual illusions. Fashion exhibitions, especially haute couture shows, highlight the skills required to uphold the traditions of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Fashioning Art from Paper’s embrace of trompe l’oeil turns this element of fashion display on its head. It is not the intricate embroidery or beadwork that draws the viewer in, but de Borchgrave’s mimicry of it. Tongue and cheek details reveal the artifice of the paper garments. For example, in de Borchgrave’s Medici Series, the trappings of Renaissance wealth, such as gold pendants and chains, are rendered as single pieces of cut paper. By refusing to model the heft and weight of Florentine gold, the artist lets the viewer in on the joke, revealing her sleight of hand.    

    Fashion exhibitions continue to draw museum audiences in part because they create spaces for engaging with objects that are once relatable and familiar yet sensorially foreign, providing opportunities to imagine bodily experiences beyond the realm of our everyday experiences. But in Isabelle de Borchgrave: Fashioning Art from Paper the viewer is not asked to imagine the tactile sensations of Baroque silk, but rather how paper can be painted, torn, and embellished to emulate it. 

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Dinosaurs in Their Time - The exhibit that I worked on during my first several days as conservation intern

     

    Conservation: Preserving the Past for Future Generations

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Fall 2018

    For the last four months I have worked as a Conservation Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. During this time, I have been exposed to a wide range of practices common among natural history conservators that I can apply to my future career. While before the internship I maintained a keen interest in the field of conservation, working under head conservator Gretchen Anderson has given me a newfound appreciation of conservation work. I have learned that conservation encompasses a wide range of responsibilities and expects that the conservation team work closely with many other departments, including exhibits, collections, and curatorial.

    Over the course of the semester I had the opportunity to clean and preserve taxidermied specimens, package and send out loans, assist with scientific imaging, and create a housekeeping plan for the entirety of the museum of natural history. Interspersed between these hands-on activities were cross-departmental meetings, instructional readings, and even classes to further teach me about the science of conservation.

    The housekeeping plan was the most urgent and important task of the semester, requiring that I met with staff from each section of collections, maintenance, and facilities. All of these departments worked together to set a standard that would keep the museum clean and all collections safe. Without the dedicated work of a conservator, museum collections would not last nearly as long as is now allowed.

    I appreciate the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s willingness to teach and willingness to give true responsibility to their interns. I have learned more than I would have ever expected, and I am excited to one day establish myself in the conservation field.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Photograph of myself in front of a fossil diorama at the CMNH, a topic of discussion at a meeting.

     

    Ethics: How Museum Policies Are Made

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History—Fall 2018

    This semester I worked as the Ethics Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH). My experience opened my eyes to what goes into policy and decision making for a large institution. As an avid museum-goer my whole life, I never considered what goes into making exhibits and installations that the public gets to see. The work I completed over the course of this semester exposed me to the other side of museum work and gave me an appreciation for how museums function. 

    During my internship, I was responsible for researching Codes of Ethics from American Alliance of Museums accredited institutions and compiled all the information into recommendations for the CMNH’s Code of Ethics revision. This unique internship provided me with opportunities to grow as a researcher and allowed me to partake in meetings with various museum staff and faculty members. 

    During my internship, I had the opportunity to attend three meetings with senior museum staff. I met with the Director of the Museum, Director of Science and Research, and the Chairman of the Ethics committee, as well as two staff members who work in the collections department. My final meeting was with my mentor and the Chairman of the Ethics committee to present my findings. During these meetings, numerous museum issues and regulations were discussed, including whether or not fossils should be treated as minerals or human remains, and even how to display ivory in the animal dioramas. Through these conversations, I learned about the ethical considerations of curation and display in natural history museums. My internship experience gave me a new perspective as a museum-goer.  When I walk into museums now, I can no longer look at intricate animal dioramas or Native American artifacts passively. Now, I have an understanding of the ethical issues and procedures that go into displaying these objects.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

Pages