Critical Perspectives and Pathways
Undergraduates in the Archives
Mapping the Provenance of Museum Objects
Student Commentary by Dakota Devos
1. Describe the sorts of work you did in developing your Google Earth presentation on this object. (You might consider both the unique forms of research involved and modes/methods of interpretation.)
This project required a diverse approach to research, including reading topical books and contemporary articles, conducting interviews with Walters conservators and curators, and making comparisons with similar objects from the period or in the artists’ oeuvres. However, an exhaustive physical examination of the objects themselves was the starting and ending point for piecing together the objects’ paths of alteration, ownership, and usage. Our final product was meant to offer a new way for viewers to connect with an object, so both our maps and audio clips reinforce our findings by continually asking the viewer to look closely at the evidence right in front of them.
2. What did you learn from this project that distinguished it from other academic courses?
This course offered three unique qualities. First, our research was meant for publication for museum visitors rather than exclusively for our professors. Second, we were able to do hands-on research with many of the Walters’ most revered objects while curators and conservators guided us in our examinations. Finally, this course encouraged an object-centric view of history, which was antithetical, conceptually, to the art history courses I had taken until that point. As an art history major I was accustomed to viewing specific art historical objects as close studies of broader trends that characterized the periods in which they were made. However, our assignment for Material Migrations was concerned not only with a study of the object’s creation and use in its own time, but also how its use changed throughout its history. I came away from the course with a greater appreciation for the power of contextualization. Art objects rarely remain static relics of a bygone era; rather, they continue to have vibrant lives and changing effects on their successive owners and audiences, not the least of which is their position as a tool for learning in the museum.
3. What was it like to create a final project that would be presented to the public?
The project was intended to engage as broad a scope of museum visitors as possible, including youths and viewers who might have no background on the object, while still interesting our academic peers. Part of what made these objects so fascinating was the very unwieldiness of their provenance. I decided on central themes for both of my objects and ultimately cut out much of my research in order to focus on their tortuous histories. Considerations of display also affected the content of the map and audio. For example, while some of the pages of the illuminated manuscript I researched had beautiful drolleries in their margins, it was impractical to cite specific instances because only one spread of the fragile manuscript could be on display, and it might not have any drolleries.
4. What did you learn from working in a professional museum and in conjunction with its staff?
I chose one of my objects, the Beaupré Antiphonary, specifically because I had the opportunity to work with Professor Tilghman and the Walters’ rare books curator, Dr. William Noel. Collaborating with two of the top scholars in the field on an object that they knew intimately remains one of the brightest moments of my undergraduate career.
5. What did this course/project and the opportunity to work with museum objects and their archival records mean to your education? your future plans? your general interests?
This course reinforced my ambition to work in the field of museums because I found the work rewarding and academically invigorating. It was meaningful and exhilarating to produce work for a class that would help enrich the presentation of the Walters’ holdings.