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The BCMA’s 3000-year-old connections

April 15, 2022

On Friday, April 1, around 600 students in their evening best walked down the steps of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) to experience its content in a night intended just for them.

“It feels like a really special occasion where you have a sense of community and of campus coming together to enjoy a moment of celebration,” Post-Baccalaureate Curatorial Assistant Sabrina Lin ’21 said.

The occasion marked the second Student Night at the Museum of the 2021-2022 school year and involved campus more than in previous years given the addition of the Student Ambassador Program.

Each of the eight student ambassadors, who are primarily first years and sophomores from across all academic departments, were stationed at an exhibit that piqued their interest and that they had researched in depth beforehand.

“My favorite part of student night is seeing the students talking with one another about the objects,” BCMA Co-Director Anne Goodyear said.

The program’s focus on encouraging student involvement is one of the reasons why some of the current student ambassadors were attracted to the position.

“We work on making the museum a more accessible and inviting space for students on campus,” Ingrid Astley ’24 said. “I’ve always enjoyed going to the museum, especially [There Is a Woman in Every Color: Black Women in Art] that was on display last semester. I thought it was extremely impressive and one of the most amazing things Bowdoin has done so far that I’ve seen, but not a lot of people that I’d talked to had actually gone in and seen it.”

Lin, as a recent Bowdoin graduate, had been planning to launch the ambassador program since the beginning of her tenure in July 2021 with these intentions in mind. She worked with Education Assistants Ramiro Storni ’23, Jingyi Wang ’23 and Sinclaire Ledahl ’23 to start the program, which has only been going for roughly a month but whose team is planning many events for the future.

“The idea for [the program] was not only to expand the number of students who get engaged in the museum, but also an opportunity for us to listen to students and to create an opportunity for student leadership in the Museum,” Interim Curator and Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow Sean Burrus said. “The student ambassadors are working on student-led, student-oriented programming and we’re just really excited to have that chance to listen and learn from student leaders.”

The student ambassador program just scratches the surface of the ways that the BCMA engages with the Bowdoin community. Goodyear explained that her understanding of the Museum’s role developed through a conversation with Tom Rosenblatt ’16, founder of the Bowdoin Journal of Art and the Bowdoin Art Society, when he was a student at the College.

“[Rosenblatt] did a survey of Bowdoin students for the Museum to get a sense of their impressions,” Goodyear said. “He said, ‘You know, the museum is a place where people can escape the Bowdoin Bubble.’ That was the first time I heard that expression ‘The Bowdoin Bubble.’ I love the idea that the Museum can be a conduit for students to connect with eras and cultures that are very different from their own. And, it’s also a portal through which the public can enter the campus.”

Students have the opportunity to work directly with the museum in curating events and contributing to its exhibited information. The “Antiquity and America,” exhibit, which opened the Thursday before Student Night and was curated by Burrus, is a prime example of this.

Burrus worked with four current and former students on this exhibition. Brooke Wrubel ’21 returned to campus from her MA Art History Program at the University of Pennsylvania to celebrate her work in the exhibition, the Edward Perry Warren Collection.

“She took a real leadership role in selecting the works, thinking of how to display them and researching the works and Warren’s history,” Burrus said.

Classics major Darien Gillespie ’24 used archival research he had previously conducted on campus to create a digital timeline of teachings of the ancient world and classics. Lucy Siegel ’22 has spent this school year doing provenance research into the history of Bowdoin’s collections.

“[Her research] has really helped us tell the stories of not only the antiquities in our collection but the collectors as well,” Burrus said.

Lily Weafer ’23 collaborated with Burrus this past summer in thinking through and writing texts for photographs that are included in the exhibition. Shealso worked alongside Co-Director Frank Goodyear to develop an exhibit of about thirty pastel drawings from the last three centuries that is currently on display.

Anne applauded Burrus’ ability to weave together the work of these students into a cohesive exhibit.

“[Burrus] did a really nice job in working with students and colleagues here on campus in identifying where there were intersections so that the amazing work that [Wrubel] was already beginning to engage in on E.P. Warren could be something that was both really satisfying to her as an academic project and something that intersected nicely with the work that was going into this exhibition,” Anne said.

Cross-era, interdisciplinary collaboration was a common thread of Antiquities and America.

“One of the exciting things about a project of this scope, that I like to say brings together three centuries of American history with three thousand years of ancient history, is the way that it really engaged faculty and students from across the campus,” Burrus said. “It brought together faculty in art history and literature and the classics together with students who were studying art and art history, students who were interested in law, students who were interested in the classical world and classical literature.”

These crossovers are even apparent in the architecture that houses the exhibition.

“[The BCMA] is a beautiful, ancient-inspired building filled with ancient objects,” Burrus said. “When you think about the reasons for that being the case in a place like Brunswick, Maine, teasing apart the different layers of American history, that’s what the exhibition is all about. And, it’s about how Americans of all races, of all genders and of all economic statuses engaged with the ancient world in the past.”

During Student Night, guests engaged—knowingly or unknowingly—in this very tradition by posing as some of the classical figures on display.

“There are two portraits in the exhibition upstairs of a Native American, Reverend Samson Occom [of the Mohegan nation] and Caroline Sanders Truax, one of the first graduates of the New York University women’s law class,” Burrus said. “They’re depicted as a Roman senator and as the ancient author Sappho. So when students are posing in these poses that are inspired by statues of ancient figures, there’s a long tradition to back that up. It’s exciting to see how that tradition lives on.”

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