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The Afterlife of Things: Art, Objects, and Collecting in the Museums of Philadelphia

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The Afterlife of Things: Art, Objects, and Collecting in the Museums of Philadelphia

By Olivia Horn.

The concept of a “field trip” fell off my radar sometime around my sophomore year of high school. After that point, all of my teachers seemed convinced that my academic growth depended exclusively on lengthy readings, writing assignments, and rigorous testing — all things that took place inside of a classroom. You can imagine my surprise when, during my first week of college, only a few moments after walking into the first meeting of Professor Bob Ousterhout’s freshman seminar, he invited his class to gather our things and leave the classroom. We were going on an excursion — the first of many that semester.

The class that I had enrolled in was ARTH 100 – The Afterlife of Things: Art, Objects, and Collecting in the Museums of Philadelphia, one of about thirty seminars that are offered every semester to first-year students. Of these, a handful are Art and Culture seminars, designed to introduce freshmen to intellectual discourse at Penn and cultural opportunities in Philadelphia in a more intimate setting than that offered by most large, introductory-level courses. My class had only ten students, meaning that each of us got to work closely with Professor Ousterhout, and that as the semester went on, we came to be a tight knit group. Student Caroline Clark described the benefits of the seminar format, “The size allows for close interaction with the professor, classmates, and the subject at hand. This provides the opportunity to make good friends with similar interests while developing a better understanding of the subject.”

Indeed, the size of the class is what enabled our group to, from the very beginning, truly immerse ourselves in the material that we were studying. After our initial departure from the classroom, return visits were few and far in between. Our first several meetings took place in the Penn Museum, where we explored the Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery exhibit and spoke with Kate Quinn, the museum’s Director of Exhibitions, about her curatorial choices and the challenges that she faced in designing the exhibit. At the Penn Museum we were also afforded the opportunity to explore part of the institution’s storage facilities, which actually house about 97 percent of their permanent collection. Here we saw artifacts from Near Eastern burial sites, such as Beth Shean, as well as several of the museum’s 30,000 Sumerian clay tablets. Two of my favorites among these were a portion of the original Epic of Gilgamesh and the earliest known record of the Great Flood.
 

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    • Left top-bottom: Exhibition logo and Photo of the Ur Ziggurat, 1930; Middle: Queen Puabi's headdress and beaded cape; Right: Ram Caught in the Thicket. From Ur, southern Iraq, about 2600-2400 BC. © Penn Museum.

From the Penn Museum, we moved on to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Here the diversity of the galleries shaped our class dialogue, which centered on the variety of manners in which art can viably be presented. After exploring some of the museum’s more conventional galleries, which are ordered by period and location, we met with Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Adelina Vlas. She explained the design process for her exhibit, “Objects of Desire,” the components of which are grouped together based on their thematic, rather than chronological, ties. We then had the opportunity to divide into teams and prepare for our classmates the “ideal tour” of any particular gallery in the museum. Our choices ranged from a replicated 16th century Hindu temple hall to a collection of paintings created by American artist Cy Twombly in the 1970s.
 

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    • Objects of Desire @ Philadelphia Museum of Art. Curated by Adelina Vlas.

Another class highlight included a weekend daytrip to Doylestown, where we visited both the Mercer Museum, a six-story treasure trove of hand-crafted artifacts collected by historian Henry Mercer, and Fonthill Castle, his personal residence. Student Jamie Atienza said of the experience, “…it was exploring the passion and the man behind the thousands of items that was truly amazing. This class provided us with an opportunity that really could only be experienced in person to even begin attempting to understand the creativity and the dedication of Mr. Mercer as well as the intellectual foundations of the museum.”

This sentiment — that what we witnessed at the Mercer and Fonthill could not be communicated through text or images, but had to be experienced firsthand — also prevailed at the numerous other institutions that we visited. These included the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, which houses its celebrated collection of nineteenth and twentieth century American art in a beautiful 1876 building by Philadelphia architect Frank Furness; the Barnes Foundation, known for its numerous Post-Impressionist and early Modern masterpieces; Glencairn, a museum of religious artifacts located in Bryn Athyn; and the Wagner Free Institute of Science, a Victorian era natural history museum.
 

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In November, on one of the few occasions that the group did meet in our Jaffe classroom, we were joined by a panel of professionals in the field of museum work – Virgil Marti, artist and guest Institute of Contemporary Art curator; Will Noel, Director of Special Collections at Penn’s own Van Pelt Library; the PMA’s Adelina Vlas; and Steven Conn, author of Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926, the supplementary text for our class. In an intimate three-hour session, our group was able to ask the panelists questions not only about their own work, but also about their perceptions of the evolving role of museums in society. This experience had a similar intellectual value as that of our many field trips — in much the same way that actually seeing the museums gave us a far better understanding of them than images ever could, actually having a dialogue with such prominent individuals in which we could offer our own thoughts and ask follow-up questions, rather than being confined to a published text, gave us much greater insight into the work that they do. 

For my classmates and me, the Art and Culture freshman seminar led us to a vastly improved understanding of collecting and curatorship. Perhaps more importantly, though, it threw us headlong into Philadelphia cultural life. I’m thrilled that so early in my college career, I’ve learned to move beyond the boundaries of campus and take advantage of all that our city has to offer. And now that I have been introduced to some of the coolest institutions in the city — PMA, PAFA, and the rest — I am looking forward to many, many more field trips.
 



Edited by Naomi Shavin.


Olivia Horn is a freshman in the College, where she is potentially pursuing a BA in Art History. On campus, she is a Fashion Editor for The WALK Magazine and is involved with the Theater Arts Council and Quadramics Theater Company. Olivia enjoys running and is an Indian food enthusiast.