Have you ever seen a "shrunken head"? Did you know James Bowdoin’s set of dueling pistols are still on campus? And what about the Tiffany and Co. bracelet Joshua Chamberlain gave his wife in honor of his victories in battle?
Better yet, what do all of these objects have in common with one another?
The Bowdoin College Museum of Art is reintroducing campus to these pieces and more like them from the depths of 20,000 works of art in its collections with the new exhibition, “The Object Show: Discoveries in Bowdoin Collections.” The show opens on November 7 and will run through June 8, 2014.
While most art exhibitions focus on a specific artist, time or medium, this one will reach across centuries, continents and definitions of art so that the Museum can display rare and diverse pieces that have been in storage for up to two centuries.
“‘The Object Show’ is an opportunity for us to look into the nooks and crannies of our storage and to find out what we have that we rarely show because it is so unique and doesn’t fit into any of the categories that we usually apply,” said Joachim Homann, curator of the Museum.
“And because Bowdoin has been collecting for so long, there are a lot of things in our collections that are not compatible with our current understanding of what qualifies as art,” he added.
Orchestrating “The Object Show” is an experienced curatorial team comprised of Homann, Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow Sarah Montross, Associate Curator for the Ancient Collection James Higginbotham, Curatorial Assistant Andrea Rosen, Consulting Curator of Decorative Arts Laura Sprague, and the Co-Directors of the Museum Anne and Frank Goodyear.
“Everyone is very team-oriented here. It’s a surprisingly broad base of curatorial expertise that we can command for such a small museum,” said Homann. “And you have to add to that the scholarly expertise that we find on campus.”
Beyond this specialized team, staff members from the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, Special Collections and multiple academic departments across campus are involved in this exhibition as well.
“It is not only art history, but we are also talking to professors of mathematics, geosciences, biology, English and religion,” said Homann. “Whatever department you want to name, we have probably already engaged them in some sort of collaborative project.”
This collaborative atmosphere at Bowdoin has helped inspire the show.
“A lot of the questions that we file and respond to on campus in regards to our collection are not primarily filtered by the lenses of art. They’re interested in objects,” said Homann.
After Homann first suggested this exhibition, this team of Bowdoin specialists came together to decide what would be displayed. After visiting storage multiple times, those involved each presented an individual object for submission into the pool of options for the show. Eventually this pool was narrowed down to a final list, which includes objects such as Native American works, furniture from the Italian Renaissance and James Bowdoin’s velvet suit that he wore at a reception in Paris with Napoleon.
“We all sat together and talked about specific works that we’ve all thought about in the past and been amazed by. The idea of discovery was at the very point of this exhibitions conception,” said Montross.
Homann added, “We are trying to find compelling pieces and link them up with people who have expertise and might have interest in them. We are fostering a conversation between people and objects.”
While choosing the pieces for the show was one of the most compelling parts of preparing this exhibition, the curatorial team must also work through the technicalities of putting up an exhibition. Most shows are proposed or sought out by the curatorial staff and there is also a yearly calendar that structures most of their decisions.
Throughout the summer and fall, the Museum displays bigger shows featuring more established artists. Exhibitions in the spring are smaller in scope, and in the winter, the curatorial team tries to work within the Museum’s own collection for a more academically focused show.
Because the exhibition will be on display for the rest of the academic year, it will provide the greatest number of teaching opportunities.
“With this show we really want to bring faculty into the Museum to learn how to teach with art and objects. There are really interesting ways you can use any object and build an entire class around it. So this show is a perfect case study for this,” said Montross.
Since the show is not a typical exhibition, the curatorial team is organizing the objects into two themed galleries in the Bernard and Barbro Osher Gallery and Halford Gallery—the “windows” of the museum as put by Homann—in order to provide content. One gallery will present the extroverted or public objects, and the other will hold the introverted or private pieces.
“The structure comes out of the observation that objects can be used for outward communication in a way. At some point I realized that the pieces we are exhibiting are either used for exploration, discovery, or communication, outward-going ways of learning about the world. So there’s an extroverted gallery,” said Homann.
He added, “There’s going to be an introverted gallery that is more concerned with the private life, the domestic sphere with some religious aspects of our lives, and with plays and adornment.
“It’s going to be really wild. It’s going to be mind-bending and liberating. I think that we are going to make the point that these collections are offering insights and proposing questions that are as broad and as deep as your mind is willing to go. These objects are shaping our view of the world,” said Homann.
Next week, the Orient’s museum series will cover the technical preparations for The Object Show.
Full disclosure: A&E Editor Natalie Clark is a student assistant to the curator in the Bowdoin Art Museum, but is not involved in the planning of The Object Show.
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that the "shrunken head" pictured above was not made from human remains.