Posted November 02, 2012 by Susan Day
When you go into a museum, do you wonder why certain artworks “make the cut” and are put on view? Why are they significant; how do they relate to other works in the gallery; why did the artist work in that medium; was the art popular or controversial?
The Golden Age of British Watercolors, 1790–1910 presents a beautiful selection of Victorian watercolors at the same time it explores some of these questions. Most museum exhibitions are put together by professional curators who have expertise in their subject areas. But how does one learn to be a curator? What’s the difference between an art historian and a curator? How does a curator select works for an exhibition? In organizing this exhibition, undergraduate and graduate students in Nancy Rose Marshall’s Victorian Watercolor Seminar got some real world insight into these questions.
The seminar also sheds light on the value of art historical research and how this scholarship can be shared with a general audience. Students faced behind-the-scenes decisions—like selection and arrangement of works, design elements, and label copy—in thinking about how to inform and communicate essential, engaging points.
Three students from the seminar offer their reflections on the process. Rachel Klimczyk (2012, Art History) talks about the value of historical research to inform a work and also provide a window into the period when it was created, making connections between the past and present.
Albert Goodwin (English, 1845–1932), Hastings at Sunset, 1885, watercolor, 11 3/8 x 17 3/8 in. Joseph F. McCrindle Collection, 2009.13.68
Working on The Golden Age of British Watercolors: 1790–1910 was a wonderful experience. Students don’t often get the chance to plan an exhibition or learn the practical aspects of curating. In planning content for the website and the layout of the exhibition space, we collaborated to tackle problems and create a successful show. We researched artwork individually, but as a class we identified the main themes for a cohesive exhibition.
When researching historical paintings, it is important to trace information about the artists and the works to their original sources. I used contemporary books and articles published about my artists to understand their roles in the late nineteenth century British art world. Albert Goodwin, for example, is mostly unknown today, but was praised by Victorian critics and made a successful living off of his craft.
Original sources are also valuable in understanding why certain styles of art were popular or prevalent at any given time. Purchasers of British watercolors were seeking specific subjects, messages, or styles when they toured exhibitions. Like consumers today, art buyers were inclined to purchase works that resonated personally in some way. Paintings that featured either patriotic themes or offered an emotional thrill (or both, in the case of Goodwin’s Hastings at Sunset) were very marketable.
Pinpointing all the mechanics behind a trend can be difficult, but it is also a rewarding experience. Eventually I discovered important connections between my artists and their society, and between the works I was studying and other works and artists in the exhibition.
Julia Griffith (2012, Interior Design and Art History) learned that research is not a solitary endeavor but one of networking that can lead to accidental and valuable discovery.
William Simpson (Scottish, 1823–99), Elephant Battery, 1864, Watercolor and gouache over graphite, 10 5/8 x 14 1/4 in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.3.264
The best part about researching and curating an exhibit is working not only with the people in the class but also connecting with others outside of our university.
I wanted access to a book that was too old to travel from the east coast so I got in contact with the curator of the collection at Brown University. He happened to be a scholar of the artist I was researching, William Simpson, and though the book did not hold the information I needed, he passed along some insight instead.
The curator helped me better understand the timing and purpose of Simpson’s Elephant Battery. The artist was creating images for a book about India, and he probably made this painting after returning to England, presumably to depict more war/military scenes than Simpson originally planned. That insight shed light on the subtle messages in the piece.
In addition, the curator shared a military painting from Simpson created during the Afghan conflict in 1879, which is very similar to the India painting in the exhibition. Elephant Battery didn't have a lot of accessible research, so connecting with someone who knew a great deal more than some of the available books was invaluable. This experience taught me that asking a simple question could bring a response you never expected.
Rebekah Rickner (adult student interested in Museum Studies) discovered how much teamwork and problem-solving goes into putting an exhibition together.
Hannah Palmer (English, 1818–93), Street of Tombs, Pompeii, 1838, graphite, watercolor and gouache, 7 1/4 x 10 1/2 in. Edward Blake Blair Endowment Fund and Walter A. and Dorothy Jones Frautschi Endowment Fund purchase, 2004.30
This seminar taught me how to think like a curator. While the two works I researched were aesthetically not my favorites, I enjoyed the challenge of creating narratives that would peak audience interest. Focusing on the female artists’ histories, including family life, social, and political constraints, and artistic background, I hoped to make a visit to the exhibition both informative and, ultimately, memorable.
In this class we learned how a museum plans an exhibition. The importance of grouping works together so the show ‘made sense’ and at the same time was visually pleasing was our primary effort. Of equal significance were issues of font design, wall color, size and placement of vitrines and audiovisual equipment, and lighting.
Perhaps my favorite part of this process was the collaboration between students and museum staff. A successful exhibition requires much more than a background in art history. I felt, in many ways, that the skills of teamwork, negotiation, and even time management—necessitated by print deadlines—were as valuable as our research.
Other assets were the diverse backgrounds of the students as well as the unwavering direction of Professor Marshall, who not only helped us navigate the museum’s internal systems but guided our research as well. In the end, the exhibition far exceeded my expectations.
The experience is enriching for museum staff as well. Says Jerl Richmond, Chief Preparator: “The collaboration of students, faculty, and museum staff makes for an always interesting process of turning concept into reality and theory into practice. Student participation brings fresh perspective and it is rewarding to see the results of all that hard work.”
Exhibitions like The Golden Age of British Watercolors, 1790–1910 fulfill the museum's teaching, research, and public service mission as we bridge campus and community. Students gain real-world experience and provide invaluable research. The museum, in turn, makes this knowledge accessible to everyone who walks through the door and visits the website. As our mission statement says: the visual arts enrich individual human experience and knowledge of art is essential to understanding diverse cultures, past and present.
The research from this exhibition is available at the Art History Department website.
UW–Madison students Julia Griffith, Rachel Klimczyk, and Rebekah Rickner contributed to this blog post.