a talk with Ivan Gaskell...

posted on 12 Sep 2012 15:18 by Elena Pinto Simon
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Ivan Gaskell joined the BGC faculty in January, 2012, and is Professor and Head of Focus Gallery projects . I had a chance to speak with him during the first week of the new term…

EPS: Hello, Prof. Gaskell, and welcome to your first full year at the BGC! Tell us what you were working on over the summer break.

IG: It’s great to back in the dynamic world of the BGC! I spent the summer on a variety of projects. First, there was some urgent Focus Gallery work, mostly reviewing and editing copy for the next two exhibitions. Then I had a lot of reading and planning to do for my new fall semester seminar, Tangible Things: Observing, Collecting, Sorting. This class emerges from my work on Harvard University’s nearly fifty methodical collections—museums and libraries—over the last ten or more years, but covers a lot of ground that is new to me, from anthropology to zoology. In 2011, I taught a large undergraduate course at Harvard with my fellow historian, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich—our tenth year of teaching together using Harvard’s collections—and we are now preparing a book with three colleagues. The book—also called Tangible Things—is about how Harvard’s collections have been used over the last three hundred years to make knowledge claims. It comprises chapters on sorting things—from paintings to stuffed animals—the ambiguities of categories, and the sparks that fly when things are juxtaposed incongruously. For instance, we exhibited John Singer Sargent’s paint-encrusted palette next to scientific instruments designed for the investigation of color vision. Half of each chapter is a joint effort, while the rest comprises individually written case studies on particular objects. This summer I finished case studies on a dried orchid specimen from Panama, the head of a large bird—a Helmeted Hornbill—from southeast Asia, and an ornament made from iridescent beetle wing cases from the highlands of northeast India. Lots of variety!

EPS: As head of the Focus Gallery, you are in the middle of planning some exciting projects ahead. Can you tell us a little about the next three or four?

IG: With two Focus projects coming into public view each year, the books are full! These are not simply exhibitions, but exercises in a developing a form of academic practice that combines faculty research, teaching, Web and hard copy publishing with exhibiting—all with student participation. The fourth exhibition in the program—The Islands of Benoît Mandelbrot: Fractals, Chaos, and the Materiality of Thinking—opens on September 20 and runs through January 27, 2013. Organized by a visiting assistant professor from Berlin, Nina Samuel, the exhibition and its accompanying publication explore the work of one of the twentieth century’s most influential mathematicians. It takes the BGC into areas of material culture—computer-generated print-outs and models, hand-drawn diagrams, and Polaroid photographs—new to its purview. The result is amazing!

Then next spring, the project led by 2010-12 postdoctoral fellow—a joint appointment with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH)—Erin Hasinoff comes to fruition. Her topic is the material culture of an AMNH zoological expedition to northern Burma in 1935. She focuses not only ethnographic items collected by the expedition members, but on those many things used by those members themselves and the various local participants, such as the muleteers, whose work enabled the expedition to take place. This is our second collaboration with the AMNH, and two others are in the works.

Gallery assistant curator and former BGC student, Ann Marguerite Tartsinis is producing the first. She is investigating American designers’ use of textiles in the anthropology collections of the AMNH as sources of inspiration in the 1910s and ‘20s. Nicola Sharratt, our 2012-14 postdoctoral fellow with the AMNH, is leading the second. Nicola is an archaeologist, and is developing a Focus project on ancient Andean textiles. Further ahead, Kimon Keramidas, assistant director for the Digital Media Lab, is working on a project on changes over the decades in computer interfaces, called Computing Immediacy. This semester he is teaching a seminar, “Media and Materiality,” that leads into this project. What a rich variety!

EPS: Why are the Focus Gallery projects so important to the work of the students and faculty at the BGC?

IG: My belief is that the way of working represented by the Focus Project—combining faculty research, teaching, Web and hard copy publishing with exhibiting—embeds each of these components into a rich scholarly whole. This practice acknowledges that exhibiting—making arguments with actual things—can be an important aspect of scholarly work, leading to places that remain inaccessible by other means. This practice extends the intellectual range of our faculty in a very pragmatic sense, opening up means of investigation and expression that might otherwise not be available. Students are involved at every turn—in seminars, workshops, tutorials—learning skills from digital media and label preparation to new ways of conceiving and investigating scholarly puzzles. Students become deeply invested in these projects, contributing substantively under the guidance of faculty and specialist staff. Their enthusiasm is infectious!

EPS: You are also convening the Museum Conversations evenings for us this year. Tell us a little about the guests you have planned to come visit.

IG: I have invited two museum scholars to speak this academic year. The innovative archaeologist of Central and South America, Jeffrey Quilter, was recently promoted within the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Harvard to be its new director. He writes about his excavations in an engaging manner, not confining his accounts to the dry scientific norm. He is concerned with archaeological and anthropological work in a broad context, including how it relates to the consideration of art. In 2006, we jointly organized a conference on how anthropology museums and art museums might work together, and published the proceedings in the journal Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics. He is going to tell us about his recent work in Peru on December 12. On February 13, we are fortunate to be hosting the director of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at Oxford University, Christopher Brown. He will tell us about the renovation and extension of his museum, a huge project that has arguably set the standard for the reconception of university art museums internationally. Both are fine speakers, and I think these will be very lively events.


photo by Justin Ides