By Kiki Fox
As an undergraduate classical studies student with a passion for Greco-Roman archaeology, I am familiar with how artifacts are uncovered at sites around the Mediterranean. I have travelled to sites around Europe and seen the discovered remains proudly displayed in local and national museums, but I had very little knowledge about the curating of exhibitions and object conservation.
After taking professor Carla Antonaccio’s spring graduate seminar, Greek Vase Painting, in which we planned the “Containing Antiquity” exhibition for October 2010, I was awarded the Trent A. and Susan L. Carmichael Internship at the Nasher Museum to help with further preparation. My time spent in the class introduced me to the important steps that occur behind the scenes when planning an exhibition, and my internship has taught me the intricacies of organizing and designing exhibitions.
During the internship, I spent my first week shadowing and assisting Kent Severson, a talented objects conservator and a fellow of the American Institute for Conservation. In that time I learned a few details of conservation, but more significantly I understood for the first time how crucial conservation is in an artifact’s journey. Both on archaeological sites and in museum facilities, conservators restore objects to their former glory or as closely as can be achieved. Mr. Severson’s work has stabilized and protected a few of our pieces, in addition to making them more aesthetically pleasing. Learning from Mr. Severson was inspirational and my experience has persuaded me to seriously consider conservation as a future career.
I dedicated the remainder of my internship to writing and editing the object labels and wall texts that will be used in “Containing Antiquity.” In the beginning I greatly underestimated the complexity of this task. Because each object in the exhibition complements others in its grouping and enhances, however slightly, I had to take into consideration that a label was not an isolated, single item. I viewed the exhibition like a puzzle: The objects are interconnected and the alteration of any one piece or its information changes the final text. The challenge was to keep the web of label and wall text information connected while communicating the academic knowledge in a clear and appealing way. The final result we strive for is a meaningful presentation of the objects that will educate and entertain. Understanding the fluidity of an exhibition’s story helped me complete my writing project. In the end, I’ve learned a museum exhibition is not only about informing the audience about an object but also about giving the artifact back its voice: We tell the story that the object is sometimes unable to convey on its own.
My time at the Nasher Museum, both during the spring seminar and my summer internship, has given me a new appreciation of ancient material culture. Prior to this experience, I would always focus on single, stellar pieces in an exhibition and pay little attention to the rest of the objects. Now I have a new perspective: I want to look at a museum with a range of views, working my way from the smallest details rarely noticed by anyone other than a conservator, to the objects in their entirety, to the groupings and their meaning, to the exhibition and its intention as a whole, and finally to the museum itself. I should have known it would be just like archaeology, where the tiniest fragments contribute to our understanding of the whole site.
Photo by Lee Nisbet.
Kiki Fox is a rising junior at Duke.