Facing The Past: A Student-Curated Exhibition
By Kassandra Ibrahim, FCRH 22'
The exhibition curated by students in Professor Jennifer Udell’s Museum Studies in Ancient Art course is particularly unique this academic year. Facing the Past will be on view from May 2021 until September 2021. Fifteen ancient Italian and Greek works of pottery within the Fordham Museum of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan Art have been selected for this exhibition based on one commonality: they are all under the microscope of the Carabinieri, the art crimes unit of the Italian law enforcement. Student curators investigated the provenance of their selected work of art for the exhibit in order to try to discern how Howard Rose, art collector and owner of the Arte Primitivo Gallery in Manhattan, obtained and sold them to William D. Walsh. As a proud Fordham alumnus, Walsh acquired his collection through Rose with honest intentions and then donated these works to the University in 2006. These antiquities range from elaborately painted red-figure Southern Italian works such as the Patera, attributed to the Maplewood Painter, to meticulously incised terracotta Etruscan pots, like the bucchero amphorae. This exhibition invites the viewer to consider the role of the museum within the controversy of antiquities with ambiguous provenance.
Ancient artworks and antiquities are displayed in museums, galleries, and private collections throughout the world, some thousands of miles away from their point of origin. On view, we tend to admire the work of art, but we usually do not question how it ended up in front of our eyes. This exhibition explores the legality and ethical implications of importing and exporting antiquities. Adequate provenance, the history of ownership of an item, is required for museums to acquire an item into their collection. New information can often complicate a work of art’s provenance, placing its legality in question. Patrimony laws regulate the sale and transport of works of art as well as criminalize the sale, possession, or purchase of an item that is deemed illegal. However, patrimony laws vary from country to country which often allows cases involving stolen items overseas to fall through the cracks.
The curatorial work for the exhibition was a group effort; each student was given one object to focus on over the course of the semester. Professor Udell asked us to search through art historical databases, auction catalogues, books, museum collections and more to inquire about our objects. The ultimate goal was to discover the “find spot” where the work was excavated as well as evidence of how the antique was possibly trafficked into the United States. This investigative process was successful for some, while others reached many dead ends and then hypothesized how their assigned objects ended up in the Fordham Museum. Students then wrote their accompanying wall label about their provenance findings or hypotheses along with their text audio about their research experience. Here is an example of a text audio about the research process for the Paestan Lekythos attributed to the Aphrodite Painter. In the exhibition, the wall texts are accompanied by the organigram which explains our collective inferences about the associations between key figures of black market antiquities. In addition to curatorial assignments, students also wrote 10-12 page research papers about their assigned object, exploring different themes including iconography, vase function, conservation, indices of broader historical trends, and more. With the guidance of Professor Udell, students curated each aspect of the exhibition from arranging the objects to choosing the wall color. Students collaborated to create an experience for the viewer that is aesthetically pleasing and interactive. During the installation, students also learned how to improvise and problem solve when they were faced with curatorial obstacles including fitting the artifacts within the transparent bonnets. This hands-on museum curatorial experience is a unique opportunity for Fordham students who seek to enter the art world after graduation.
Facing the Past is also designed to entice the viewer to engage with difficult ethical questions regarding the provenance and antiquities. The Carabinieri requested that we suggest replacement objects, any similar work in an Italian museum or gallery, in exchange for these works of art that will most likely return back to Italy. However, ambiguous provenance leads to other questions. What is the most ethical method of dealing with possibly stolen works of art? Should all works of art without provenance be subject to deportation to their country of origin? If the ancient civilizations who created these works no longer exist today, what reign does the modern country of origin have? What are the implications of diverse international patrimony laws? What are the ethical risks of keeping a stolen item? And, how innocent is the role of the museum in the sale of black-market antiquities?
The student curators for this exhibition are Elise Beck, Anthony Gambino, Bethany Greenho, Kassandra Ibrahim, Gillian Kwok, Kate Larson, Jack MdKernan, Tess McNamara, McKenna Mestan, Adrien Nguyen, Tea Perez, Chiara Sanscrainte, Erica Stanley, Emma Watson, and Samantha White. Be sure to stop by the exhibition at the Fordham Museum in Walsh Library on the Rose Hill campus!
Special Thank you to Professor Udell!