Despite having donating over 500 pieces to Bowdoin’s collection, Edward Perry Warren’s name was not known by most students—that is, until Brooke Wrubel ’21 decided to delve deeper into the career of the prolific American antiquities collector. On Wednesday, Wrubel presented her independent research on this collection during the third installment of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) webinar, “Art Up Close.”
Inspiration for the project initially came from Wrubel’s class with Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History Kathryn Gerry to develop the exhibition “New Views of the Middle Ages” at the BCMA.
“In the fall of last year, I was in a course on medieval art and the modern viewer and had the incredible opportunity to work with Professor Gerry,” Wrubel said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
Fascinated by class readings on art collectors and how they are studied, Wrubel then connected that passion to her independent study when she worked as a Student Curatorial Assistant for Sean Burrus, Andrew P. Mellon post-doctoral curatorial fellow at the BCMA.
“Part of my work for [the assistantship] was that we were beginning to prepare for highlights of the ancient collection show,” Wrubel said. “It was a really exciting opportunity to use my independent study to merge both of those two interests.”
In studying some of the 557 pieces that Warren has donated to the BCMA, Wrubel also came across one of his letters about his collecting.
“Sealed letters buried in various libraries to be unearthed later will probably suffice,” reads the letter. “Someone after our deaths will understand why I did or didn’t do what was expected and the knowledge, this is what I hope for.”
When reading this letter, Wrubel was moved by the fact that Warren’s donations seemed to serve multiple purposes.
“I kind of felt like Warren was donating all of these objects to provide for exceptional opportunities for the education of Bowdoin students and hoping that someone might look into him at some point,” Wrubel said.
Wrubel believes that it is important to compare Warren’s collecting priorities with those of other collectors. While she could not fit it into her presentation, Wrubel’s work examines how we define collecting, what it means to collect and why people collect. Wrubel drew on the example of renowned art collector Isabella Gardner, who was very particular about how her collection was to be treated after her passing and insisted that nothing be moved from her house.
“A lot of things are about desire for control in a chaotic life and hoping to create a legacy—something that outlives you,” Wrubel said.
Warren donated many of his items with the intention of them being used as hands-on learning tools for Bowdoin students.
“[Bowdoin students] must have specimens on hand,” Warren wrote in a letter to former BCMA Curator Henry Johnson in 1915.
While the BCMA is currently not as accessible as it usually is during the academic year, Wrubel had taken photos of some of the collection before departing from campus in March, but not having in-person access to the BCMA has been a challenge for her.
“[Getting] to really engage with those pieces made it different,” Wrubel said. “In courses, you have the ability to look at slides of the Sistine Chapel, but to get to work with the art yourself in a hands-on capacity was something that I really appreciated.”
In addition to Gerry and Burrus, Wrubel also worked with Jim Higginbotham, associate professor of classics and curator for the ancient collection at the BCMA, as well as members of the BCMA staff. She believes that studying Warren’s donations has connected her to their message. The intensive scholarship, combined with an intimate knowledge of the objects, has allowed her to engage and interact with the academic community outside of the College.
“It felt like I was like doing the work that [Warren] hoped somebody would do and … recognizing all of his donations and their potential to really enhance my education,” Wrubel said. “It was a very meaningful experience.”