Welcome to Learning from Things

have scholars, will travel...

posted on 26 Sep 2012 16:44 by Elena Pinto Simon

BGC Faculty have been busy, participating in conferences and workshops at the start of the new academic year. Here are some of the papers /workshops they’ve been giving, just from the month of September:

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Andrew Morrall presented a paper entitled "Inscriptional Wisdom and the Domestic Arts in Early Modern Northern Europe." The paper was for the Routine and Ritual in the Post-Medieval Home Conference , at York University in the UK.

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Deborah Krohn presented a paper entitled "Reflections on Catherine de Medici's Copy of Scappi's Opera.” at a conference at the Chateau Royal de Blois.

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Paul Stirton participated in a workshop and discussion on Design History Journals, talking about our own West 86th, at the Design History Society conference in Brighton, UK. He is joined by our Managing Editor of the Journal, Dan Lee. Pat Kirkham was also a part of a workshop at the same conference.

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Michele Majer presented a paper on “Ester Williams and the Swimming Pool as Spectacle”, also at the Design History Society conference in Brighton.

Nicola Sharratt presented a paper entitled "Living and Dying through Political Turmoil: excavations in a terminal Tiwanaku (AD 950-1150) village in the Moquegua Valley, Peru". She also gave a guest lecture in the Department of Anthropology, at the University of Wisconisn-Madison, on September 21st.


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meet one of our Americanists...

posted on 24 Sep 2012 19:21 by Elena Pinto Simon

EPS: Hello, Prof. Ames. Welcome back from your leave. Can you tell us a little about what you worked on while you were away?
KA: Of course. But not all of my time was directed toward research. The exhibition phase of the Christmas card project kept me busy into September. That was succeeded by the circus extravaganza, which needed attention on and off throughout the year. I went to Rome in the fall and Paris in the spring, in part to refresh my memory of those places, in part to study them as tourist destinations and accumulations of extraordinary material culture, and in part to understand them as urban societies both like and very unlike New York. In the spring I wrote a short chapter for a book about iconic objects, then started generating an index of hotels in Manhattan.

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EPS: Circus and the City just opened in our Gallery, and we’ll all excited about that. You were one of the curators for the exhibition, and also did a lot of work on one of the two catalogues. Tell us why you think the American circus is a good subject for the BGC microscope.
KA: Ah, yes, the circus. Not traditional fare for the BGC and useful for that reason, I think. The circus project took us outside our comfort zone and was never easy. But the positive results were at least three-fold. First, the project demonstrated that the BGC is an innovative institution, willing to take on under-studied topics of obvious historical significance and give them the serious treatment they deserve. Second, the circus venture brought us into contact with scholars who previously knew little, if anything, about the BGC. We gained some new friends and advocates. Third, we were fortunate enough to hire Matt Wittmann, fresh out of the University of Michigan with a dissertation on the American circus abroad under his belt, to play a major role in all three parts of the project. In the end, the BGC gained two fine publications and an engaging exhibition and Matt an impressive and enviable vita that should serve him well. I hope that we can craft similar double-win situations in the future.

EPS: You are one of the pioneers in the field of American material culture studies. What drew you to the field?
KA: Simply put, a fascination with the material world. I am attracted to things – as materials, as designs, as generators of sensory experience and aesthetic response, as evidence of inner workings of the mind, as historical evidence, as manifestations of what matters and has mattered, and for all the countless other reasons one might enumerate. Beyond that, the field of material culture is effectively infinite. I will never run out of material to study. And finally, because everything really is connected to everything else or nearly so, there are few limits on the directions scholarly inquiries might take. All that said, however, my decision to study material culture was not wholly rational, any more than someone else’s to become a musician, an actor, or an antiques dealer. I think we are born with certain orientations already implanted. If you are lucky, you fall into something you are biologically wired to enjoy and, perhaps, are tolerably good at. I have been lucky.

EPS: Can you tell us what your newest interests are, and what you will be working on next?
KA: Yes, happy to talk about that. Research, at least for me, falls into two categories: direct and indirect or, perhaps, directed and undirected. The first refers to project-specific study, the second to more generalized gathering of information and sensation. One follows the needs of a specific project; the other can be more free-form and serendipitous. During my leave, I took both courses and, in this instance, they coincided. The topic that emerged is hotels; it turns out that I have been studying them for years without fully recognizing it. Hotels, however, is a very large topic and needs narrowing. My inclination is to confine myself to Manhattan but even that terrain is immense. At this point I am now purposefully gathering data but the exact focus of the study still is not clear. Nor, at this stage, does it have to be. It is obvious, however, that studying the hotels of Manhattan over time means examining local manifestations of a transnational phenomenon. We will see where that leads.


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on the road....

posted on 24 Sep 2012 19:16 by Elena Pinto Simon

I spent some time in New England last week, the first big trip of the new year.
The Grad. School Fair in Boston (at BU) was a really wonderful one, with a very large turnout.

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Later in the week came the fair at Brown — equally great response for this fair as well.

BGC will be at many more fairs ahead….in the coming weeks. So if you have an interest in finding out more about what we do, please come to a fair near you!

Upcoming in September and early October:

Baltimore (at Johns Hopkins, on Sept. 27
William and Mary, on Sept. 27
Cornell University, on Oct. 3
Syracuse University, on Oct. 3
Univ. of Chicago, on Oct. 4
Univ. of Illinois at Chicago Circle, on Oct. 5
Princeton University, on Oct. 5


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a talk with the Chair

posted on 17 Sep 2012 17:12 by Elena Pinto Simon

Jeffrey Collins is Professor and Chair of Academic Programs at the BGC. His appointment as chair began in July, 2012. I caught up with him to find out his thoughts for us at the start of the new semester …

EPS: Hello, Professor Collins…I hope you had a good summer break, and best wishes as you assume the Chair of Academic Programs. Can you tell us what your research work has been for the summer?

JC: Yes, it’s been a good summer! And busy on many fronts. Over the past few years I’ve been increasingly involved in the BGC’s textbook project with Yale—I’m covering Europe from 1600 to 1830, and Spanish and Portuguese colonial America from 1492 to 1830. Part of my task this summer was to go and see and study some of the objects and spaces I’ve been or will be writing about. That took me to London and Paris, for instance, on the heels of study trips last year in Mexico and Peru, which certainly increased my understanding of traditions I was less familiar with. Distilling so much diverse information into concise and readable chapters aimed at beginning students is a real challenge, not to mention selecting appropriate case studies in areas that are still not well known or well published. But I’ve learned a great deal in this project, and that’s invaluable.

Besides that, I pursued my larger project on the intersecting worlds of archeology, the art market, scholarship, museology, cultural politics, and education in eighteenth-century Italy. I made an important discovery late last year, an unknown project drawing by a major architect for a novel exhibition of plaster casts after Roman antiquities for a projected art academy in Venice, and I spent much of the summer learning more about that episode and its historical implications.

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EPS: It looks like our entering class is just settling in nicely. Any advice for them as they start their careers at the BGC?

JC: Yes, definitely: explore! We’re very aware that BGC is unlike many other grad programs in that we welcome students from a variety of undergraduate majors and disciplines. Most have never studied what we study here, or approached it from this perspective, for good reason—there simply is nowhere else like BGC. So I would tell entering students to think like a sponge: keep your eyes and ears open to ideas and material and perspectives that may be quite new. One of them may catch your sails in ways you don’t expect. In that sense our survey course is like a microcosm of the BGC, a key that opens doors to a wide range of cultures, objects, materials, techniques, and scholarly approaches. Plunge in, but plunge in critically—ask why we’re hearing what we’re hearing during these visits, what that tells us about the constellation of approaches we host at BGC, and how those contribute to a larger scholarly project.

Second, as I said on the first day of orientation, I’d remind students that they’ve joined not just a degree program but an active scholarly institute. Go to our evening lectures and seminars, study our exhibitions, attend our symposia, read our publications. Few academic departments offer anything like this, so make the most of it.

EPS: Can you tell us a little about what you have planned for us for the Selz Lecture series this year?

JC: It’s an exciting slate. This year’s roster focuses on themes of encounter and exchange. In October, Daniel Harkett will be coming from RISD to talk about how the physical and conceptual environment of the artist’s salon provided space for new ideas of masculinity and sociability in early nineteenth-century France. In November, Laura Auricchio is coming from the New School to talk about the Marquis de Lafayette as both hero and villain—that is, how he was understood, portrayed, and sometimes caricatured on both sides of the Atlantic, part of a book project she’s just finishing on Lafayette and his legacy in Franco-American relations. Then in February we have Tobias Locker coming from Madrid to talk about his work on French designers and bronziers at the court of Frederick Great of Prussia—he’s found fascinating new documents that help us reconstruct how Frederick imported French taste to Potsdam, and how those innovations made their way back to Paris itself. I can’t wait.

EPS: Later in the fall you will be leading a workshop for students on HOW TO SUBMIT A PAPER FOR AN ACADEMIC CONFERENCE. Can you tell us why you think it is important for students to do this, even relatively early on in their academic careers?

JC: Sure: participating in a scholarly conference means joining the intellectual conversation not just as a listener but as a contributor. Of course the precondition is having new discoveries or insights to share, so it can’t come until the time is right. But I’m struck at how quickly our students become skilled creators of knowledge—perhaps because of our nature as a research institute, or perhaps it’s because we tend to explore bodies of material and types of questions other scholars have overlooked or don’t know how to formulate. Student-organized conferences and colloquia are a great place to start sharing these discoveries with a broader academic community. Also regional meetings of scholarly groups, where travel costs are more manageable—in my own field, I think of the Northeastern American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, for instance, where some of my students have spoken in the past. But New York itself hosts numerous opportunities.

As for the intellectual benefits, I know from experience that distilling a research project into a conference talk or even a proposal helps take the work to the next level—stepping back and deciding what are your most important new insights, and how to communicate them to a broader audience in just 20 or even 15 minutes. That requires discipline, clarity, and logical structure, all good things to cultivate. There’s a professional aspect as well, since knowing how to present complex ideas—and yourself—is one of the most useful and important skills to have out in the world. And finally, by sharing those ideas one often gets useful feedback for further research or publication. And that process of give and take, writing and rewriting, arguing and refining, is what scholarship is all about.


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a trip to the circus

posted on 17 Sep 2012 15:32 by Elena Pinto Simon

On the evening of September 12th, in the midst of the major install operation for Circus and the City, New York, 1793-2010, the Gallery staff took time to offer a warm and insightful installation workshop for current BGC students.

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We gathered in the lobby of the gallery space, filled with crates, posters, and all the trappings of an exhibition-in-progress, and watched with enormous fascination as the Gallery team , led by our Director, Susan Weber, Chief Curator Nina Stritzler-Levine, exhibition curator Matt Wittmann, Exhibition Designer Ian Sullivan, Registrar Eric Edler, Art Director Laura Grey, and some of the BGC art handlers,walked us through a behind-the-scenes look at putting together this ambitious project, which has been several years in research and preparation. The show opens September 20th.

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Susan Weber talked about the project’s inception, which came after a visit with the staff of the Shelburne Museum, who showed her their collection of circus objects. That put the idea of a look at the American Circus into motion. Nina Stritzler set out the whole exhibition process for us, step by step, as she talked about curatorial practice for an exhibition of this scale, starting from assembling the object list through design and final execution. Matt Wittmann shared some of the stories and challenges of hunting down some of the pieces we got, and some that got away, and also spent some time talking about the issues involved in coming to a final check list of the objects (there will be over 220 in the exhibition). Ian Sullivan, Eric Edler, and Laura Grey talked about everything from color choices – the lobby walls will make us feel we are entering a circus tent — to the roles of each of the Gallery staff in the collaboration process, and the artisanal approach we take in mounting all our exhibitions.

Susan Weber spoke about bringing exhibitions into our lovely townhouses, reminding us that “…we always have to think about space and scale, and what will fit into this intimate setting”. Ian Sullivan noted how carefully he looks at the objects themselves for ideas about how to set them for an exhibition, and Laura Grey similarly observed that “ sometimes the smallest detail can spark an idea for a graphic” – whether it be for a display card or a visual theme for a whole room.

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Several objects were unpacked, unwrapped, and put into place, as we discussed issues about lighting, preservation, shipping and storage issues – we had some insights into the full process from the design box projection of what the exhibition would look like to thinking about the contract and legal issues.
It was a lively evening, informative, useful, practical and engaging – and it kicks off what will be a series of such installation workshops for our students going forward.

Circus and the City opens next week and runs until February in our Main Gallery ….but our sneak preview, aimed at students who are themselves training to do exactly this kind of work , as curators and researchers, showed us the ’show behind the show’ – before the curtain goes up. A night at the circus that we will all remember – thank you, BGC Gallery Staff!


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