Welcome to WAM Updates

WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

We hope you like reading the Updates! If you are interested in learning about something specific, or have a suggestion for a WAM Update, please update us at wamupdates@worcesterart.org

Monday, November 4, 2019

Brief History of Photography at WAM

In preparation for our upcoming exhibition--Photo Revolution: Andy Warhol to Cindy Sherman--we asked WAM's Stoddard Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, Nancy Burns, to explain some of the background of WAM's world-class photography collection.

Honey Locust and Leaf Pod
Anna Atkins (1989.9)
The Worcester Art Museum organized its first exhibition dedicated solely to photography in 1904, in a time when the new medium had not yet become fully accepted into the domain of fine art. Few museums at the turn of the century demonstrated such a progressive approach to photography. The Museum’s founder, Stephen Salisbury III, deserves much of the credit for WAM’s early venture into photography. Salisbury was an avid collector of photography and impressed upon Museum leadership the importance of the medium nearly from the day the doors opened.

WAM acquired its first photograph, a daguerreotype—the earliest photographic process—as a gift in 1901 (Portrait of a Young Girl; 1901.1279). Six years later, the collection expanded significantly when it received a cache of 107 daguerreotypes, albumen prints, and tintypes as part of a bequest from Salisbury. Though the Museum continued to receive photographs as donations from benefactors, only one photograph had been purchased by the Museum before Stephen Jareckie was appointed as the first dedicated curator of photography in 1962. With Jareckie at the helm, the Museum began to collect aggressively.

There have only been three curators of photography in the nearly six decades since the department began: Jareckie, David Acton (now Curator of Photography at the Snite Museum at the University of Notre Dame), and myself. Jareckie and Acton deserve the lion’s share of praise for the Museum’s rich holdings. Between them, they acquired over 90% of the 4,000+ photographs over the course of fifty years. At present, WAM’s highly respected collection of photography spans the history of the medium, beginning with an 1840s cyanotype by British photographer Anna Atkins to a 2019 photo-relief by the Vietnamese artist Thế Sơn Nguyễn.

As the Worcester Art Museum looks toward the future of photography, we recognize a significant shift that has taken place in the past two decades. Photography is no longer solely a paper-based medium. Rather, with the advent of digital photography, it migrates instantly from screen to screen. Today, people engage with photography almost exclusively using digital platforms like tablets, cell phones, and computers. Society’s new “frames” are social media outlets like Facebook and Instagram. In fact, museums and galleries are some of the last places where one finds contemporary photographs on paper. As an encyclopedic collection, the Museum is always looking back and forward. Looking to the years ahead, WAM considers the exciting possibilities presented by photographs that exist beyond the page.

Our upcoming exhibition - PhotoRevolution: Andy Warhol to Cindy Sherman - will look at art from the 1960's 70's and 80's, including photographs, works incorporating photographs, and works inspired by photography. You can learn more about the show on our website.

Nancy Kathryn Burns
Stoddard Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs
November 4, 2019

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Five Questions about the Silk Road

1. What was the Silk Road?

The Silk Road was not a single road at all, but a network of trade routes connecting China to trade partners throughout Asia, Europe and portions of Africa. Depending on the time period, at least three overland routes operated at a time, plus the maritime (sea) trade routes.

2. What cultures were connected by the Silk Road?

China can be considered the “anchor” of the trade routes, and their oldest trading partners were likely the nomads of the central Asian steppes, and settlements in Thailand and along the Ganges River in India. Across the centuries, many other cultures became involved, including Persia, Parthia, Japan, Rome and other Italian cities, Vietnam, Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, Egypt, the Indonesian islands, and other civilizations in the Near East and the Arabian Peninsula. Because goods were traded indirectly – passing from merchant to merchant down the road – some wound up in surprising places, such as silks from China in a 6th century German burial.

3. What goods were exchanged on the Silk Road?

Silk was one of the major exports from China, which kept the secret of its creation (silkworms) carefully hidden for thousands of years, but arguably the trade of horses and camels was more important in sustaining and expanding the Road. China, unable to raise good cavalry horses for its army, exchanged silk for horses from steppe nomads, who in turn traded the silks and more horses further west and south for other desirable products, such as grains. Spices were also widely traded, especially along sea routes, as well as incense, glass and other luxuries. Precious metals and stones were exchanged – China imported a great deal of gold and silver from the west, and some of the oldest trade on the routes (dating as far back as 5,000 BCE) was of jade, a stone highly prized for carving.

The Silk Road also saw the exchange of ideas – from artistic styles to technologies to religious – and, occasionally, diseases.

4. When was the Silk Road established?

As stated above, some jade trade can be traced as early as 5,000 BCE, although the more extensive trade for horses likely began closer to 2,000 BCE. Other portions of the Road had their own histories, but many scholars date the Road to the 1st century BCE, when China consolidated routes to India and to Western powers, including Persia and Rome.

Trade along the Road rose and fell with the civilizations surrounding it. The major periods of trade occurred under Han Dynasty China (particularly 130 BCE – 200 CE), T’ang Dynasty China and the Byzantine Empire (especially the 8th century), and the Mongol Empire (13th-14th century).

5. How long did it take to travel the Silk Road?

The land route from Rome to the Chinese capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an) was roughly 4,300-4,500 miles. A single traveler could make the journey in around a year, and some diplomats and envoys are recorded doing this (though most took longer, due to the complications of travel). However, merchants generally only traveled short distances, exchanging goods at the next large city before returning home. Depending on how long an object waited to be bought and carried along the next leg of the journey, it could be in transit for years, even decades!

The sea route from Egypt to eastern China could be quicker, but was also much longer – ships needed to sail around the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Subcontinent, and Mainland Southeast Asia, a distance of at least 7,500 miles – and even more prone to disruption by weather. Traveling by sea took anywhere from 6 months to over a year.

Performers from India Society of Worcester at WAM's 2017 Diwali celebration
Curious to learn more? Come to WAM’s upcoming Fall Community Day – Travel the Silk Road! Held in partnership with the India Society of Worcester and the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts, this FREE* day will include crafts, music, stories, food and activit
ies from countries all along the traditional Silk Road. We hope you will join us on Sunday, November 3 and travel the Silk Road!

*Admission and most activities are free, though some workshops will have an additional charge.

- Sarah Leveille
Digital Media Specialist
October 17, 2019

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Trouble with Pregnancy: A Forum on Art and Reproduction

Held in connection with the exhibition With Child: Otto Dix/Carmen Winant, WAM's upcoming Forum, The Trouble with Pregnancy, reflects on the often troublesome imagery, literature, history, medical, and social issues surrounding pregnancy. To explore these issues, we have invited a range of speakers, including medical and health personnel, poets, art historians, and curators. Each will bring a unique perspective to the question of how pregnancy and childbirth are presented and discussed in our society, historically and today.

Marcia Lagerwey, guest curator of "With Child: Otto Dix/Carmen Winant."

One of the speakers, Sara Shields, MD and author of Woman-Centered Care in Pregnancy and Childbirth gives us a preview of what she will discuss during the Forum:

A woman-centered care approach to reproductive health including pregnancy, labor, and beyond, asks us to transform practices and systems that are currently provider-centered, fetus-centered, and technology-centered.  Talking about the unspoken parts of woman-centered reproductive care reminds us to listen for the issues that often lie just beneath the surface. This includes looking at all the ways the current US maternity system is not working well for all women in this country--the shocking disparities in maternal mortality and infant mortality rates along with the realization of how racism impacts these; the rising cesarean section rate and medicalization of the birth process; the recognition of postpartum mental health issues; the renewed conversations about sexual abuse across a woman's lifespan; and the increased awareness about how common pregnancy losses and infertility are.  All of these topics come up as we think about and react to this exhibition, With Child: Otto Dix/Carmen Winant.  While these topics are challenging and difficult, talking more transparently about them can be transformative and can help us find more holistic, healthy solutions to these issues.

Our hope is that these presentations will provide a basis for both celebration and thought, and drive conversation and discussion throughout the day. We will explore many themes, including: pregnancy in times of war and political turmoil; the absence of pregnancy and birth as major themes in art; the creative impulse in the visual and verbal arts; and, most relevant to today, the growing voice of women in making medical decisions about their own bodies.

Please join us on Friday, October 18, for either (or both) of the two sessions, morning and afternoon, in WAM's Higgins Education Wing Conference Room. Admission is free. RSVP to aileennovick@worcesterart.org or at 508.793.4341.

The Forum is organized in partnership with the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester County Poetry Association, and Worcester State University.

More information can be found on our website, and on WAM's Facebook Event for the Forum.

- Marcia Lagerwey
Guest Curator, With Child: Otto Dix/Carmen Winant
October 10, 2019

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Smelting Iron with the Vikings

I recently had the opportunity to take part in a medieval-style iron smelt organized by Hurstwic, a locally based but internationally active group that reconstructs Viking Age culture. During the past year Hurstwic has been working to rediscover the Vikings’ techniques for extracting iron from iron ore. I couldn’t pass up this rare opportunity for a hands-on experience of medieval ironworking. The techniques of smelting iron ore had a major impact on weapons and armor in the Middle Ages, and I have often spoken about ironsmelting in my work as a curator. But there’s nothing like hands-on to learn how something really works!

Jeffrey Forgeng (center) with Hurstwic members at the furnace.
It was a hot summer day, not the friendliest weather for tending an ironsmelting furnace. We all helped mix clay, sand, water and manure to build the furnace, and we took turns feeding iron ore and charcoal into the top of the furnace so that the flames could work their magic. Bit by bit, the heat converted the iron oxide into pure iron while melting out the silicates in the ore. There was a tense moment near the end of the smelt when the furnace cracked under the intense heat, but our expert Vikings patched it up quickly, and at the end of the day we were rewarded with a fine, workable mass of metallic iron.

Carefully adding ore and charcoal to the furnace.
I can guarantee I will never look at a medieval sword quite the same way again!

Have a look at the technology of Viking Age ironsmelting and learn more about Hurstwic.

--Jeffrey L. Forgeng
Higgins Curator of Arms & Armor and Medieval Art

Don't miss our Arms and Armor Presentation "The Viking Age" on October 12th!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

WAM Represents USA on International Museum Board

Earlier this month, I had the honor to be reelected to a position on the board of ICOMAM, the International Committee for Military and Arms Museums and Collections. The ICOMAM meeting took place as part of the triennial gathering of ICOM, the International Council of Museums, which was held in Kyoto this year. ICOMAM is one of many specialist groups under the umbrella of ICOM.

Seven of the ten ICOMAM board members were present in Kyoto. See names below.

ICOMAM has hundreds of members from around the world. The organization serves to build networks and foster communication among professionals in the field. We meet every year in a different location, hosted by one of our member organizations. Our annual conference combines presentations from members with site visits to local museums. We also publish a biannual magazine—I coedit the magazine, along with a colleague in England, formerly of the British Royal Armouries.

All of these activities are steered by the ICOMAM board, on which I am now serving my second 3-year term. This photo of the new board was taken in Kyoto. As you can see, we always try to have a wide geographical range, with particular representation from large and influential countries. I am very honored to be representing the United States amidst this distinguished group of colleagues!

You can learn more about ICOMAM here: http://network.icom.museum/icomam/

--Jeffrey L. Forgeng
Higgins Curator of Arms & Armor and Medieval Art
October 1, 2019

Pictured from left to right above:
Gozalov Parvin Fakhraddin Oglu, Public Union "CASTLE" for the Protection of Cultural Heritage and Historical Monuments, Baku, Azerbaijan;
Elena Lazareva, Central Armed Forces Museum, Moscow, Russian Federation;
Michał  Dziewulski, National Museum, Krakow, Poland;
Paul van Brakel, National Military Museum, Soest, Netherlands;
Andreja Rihter, Forum of Slavic Cultures, Ljubljana, Slovenia;
Ilse Bogaerts, Royal Army Museum, Brussels, Belgium;
Jeffrey L. Forgeng, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester MA, USA

Not present in Kyoto: 
Prem Singh Basnyat, Military Museum, Kathmandu, Nepal;
Mark Murray-Flutter, Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, UK;
António Manuel Diogo Velez, Military History and Culture Directorate, Lisbon, Portugal)

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Modernizing Modern Art in the Donnelly Gallery: The Art of Museum Reinstallations

Seven months ago, Erin Corrales-Diaz, WAM’s assistant curator of American Art, asked me to devise a new display of American Impressionist works, in preparation for the reinstallation of the Museum’s James Corcoran Donnelly Gallery. This long-term installation would trace the development of Western art between 1890 and 1945, a period of societal change fueled by industrialization and the two World Wars across America and Europe. I welcomed the opportunity to revitalize the gallery and enhance WAM’s exceptional collection of American Impressionism through Modernism.

Three of our American Impressionism paintings,
including Girl Playing Solitaire (right).
In the project’s beginning stages, I collaborated with Erin—along with WAM’s Director of Curatorial Affairs and James A. Welu Curator of European Art Claire Whitner and Curatorial Assistant Olivia Kiers—to create preliminary gallery mockups and compose wall text.  These tasks were jointly divided between me and Olivia, who focused on telling the story of twentieth-century American and European Modernism.* Meanwhile, I selected twelve to fifteen Impressionist paintings and created different options for their placement based on size, visual symmetry, and themes posited. For instance, I decided to place John Twachtman’s contemplative Waterfall (ca. 1890) next to Childe Hassam’s sunny seascape Sylph’s Rock, Appledore (1907). Both works “flow” with one another, and at the same time demonstrate how American artists looked to New England’s untouched landscapes for inspiration.

Additionally, I helped unite on one wall three portraits depicting elite cosmopolitan women, particularly Frank Weston Benson’s angelic figure in Girl Playing Solitaire (1909). Each portrait significantly captures the diverse ways American Impressionists romanticized modern, feminine beauty of the twentieth century. After finalizing the preferred gallery mockup with curatorial staff, I crafted corresponding labels for each artwork, along with one larger wall text to provide context, and so helped curate a cohesive, streamlined display of American Impressionism that joins together modernist works. As a result, visitors entering the gallery are welcomed with a balanced arrangement of canvases that seamlessly transition from radiant portraits of young women in white to uncanny Surrealism.

As the curatorial staff brainstormed display ideas, we focused on exhibiting key works that not only aesthetically and chronologically complemented each other on the walls, but also promoted inclusivity and diversity in WAM’s collection. Cecilia Beaux’s Helen Bigelow Merriman (1908) – one of the Museum’s few paintings by Gilded Age female artists – resided in storage for years. Furthermore, Beauford Delaney’s Portrait of Gaylord (1944) and Sir Jacob Lawrence’s The Checker Players (1947) were chosen to highlight the cultural impact of African-American artists, writers, and musicians on New York City’s Harlem Renaissance. We believed these works deserved more gallery representation.
Paintings in the Donnelly Gallery, including City Interior (center).

Other museum staff members made significant contributions to the gallery refresh. Credit goes to WAM’s Director of Education and Experience Marnie Weir for editing rough drafts of labels by curatorial staff. Her guidance helped us refine our language and create relevant content that would boost audience engagement with the art. Rita Albertson, WAM’s George H. and Sybil F. Fuller Term Chair in Conservation and Chief Conservator, provided information on each painting’s condition and frame, some of which were incorporated into labels for American Impressionism. The registrar and exhibition design teams, led by Chief Registrar Gareth Salway and Exhibition Designer and Chief Preparator Patrick Brown, pulled off a variety of tasks: these involved moving artworks to and from storage, mounting wall vinyl, and supervising over the beautification of the gallery, which was repainted white for an updated, spacious look. Art handlers Wes Small and Trevor Toney diligently worked behind-the-scenes to ensure the initial preparation of the gallery went smoothly. These aesthetic improvements show that curators aren’t the only people involved in the setup of museum exhibitions—it truly takes a village!

Through each individual’s efforts, the new display successfully weaves together multiple perspectives—those of expatriates, women, and people of color. Cross-cultural influences abound throughout the gallery, with the wall text narrating how American and European artists spread their ideas. As a result, hidden connections between Impressionism and Modernism are revealed. One could even argue that Childe Hassam’s The Breakfast Room, Winter Morning, New York (1911), while featuring an ideal modern woman as the subject, reflects the rise in early twentieth-century urbanization, a major theme in Charles Sheeler’s City Interior (1936), which looks across from Hassam. Despite embodying distinct styles and interpretations of modernity, each painting in the gallery speaks to the other.** By bridging the gap between Impressionism and Modernism for contemporary audiences, the re-installed Donnelly Gallery fulfills WAM’s core mission of “connecting people, communities and cultures through the experience of art.”

Elizabeth Fox
Curatorial Assistant
American Art Department
September 26, 2019

*Olivia's article, titled "Celebrating Modernity in the Donnelly Gallery," can be found in the most recent issue of access magazine.

**Ironically, Charles Sheeler studied drawing and painting under the American Impressionist William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1903-6).

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Spotlight: Meet the Gardeners of WAM's Art Garden!

If you've visited the Worcester Art Museum this summer, you've probably seen the Art Garden growing in our Stoddard Courtyard. A joint project with the Southeast Asia Coalition of Central Massachusetts (SEACMA) and the Regional Environmental Council, WAM's Art Garden features Southeast Asian edibles grown in a milk crate structure designed by artist Andrew Mowbray. The plants grown this summer include purple perilla, fish mint, mustard greens, and especially Vietnamese lettuce!

Earlier, I sat down with three of the volunteer gardeners from SEACMA, elders in Worcester's Vietnamese community who take care of the three community gardens (the other two are located in downtown Worcester). These gardens are repeatedly harvested and replanted throughout the summer; the produce is sold in small shops and farmer's markets in the city, or shared as gifts in the community. After our conversation, they provided me with a good deal of lettuce (which is like Romaine, but with a buttery, slightly bitter taste) and several serving suggestions - lettuce with rice noodles, lettuce spring rolls, or using cut-up steak to make lettuce wraps with fish sauce.

Volunteers, artist and WAM staff gather to celebrate a successful summer!
"The gardens are helpful," says Son Ho. "It gives people a job to do, it connects them back to the community and their roots, and it's beautiful."*

Son Ho moved to Worcester from Saigon six years ago, and for the last five has worked at SEACMA. Warm and friendly, she does much of the talking, saying that her work with the Vietnamese community "matches her personality." Formerly a farmer, she loves working in the gardens especially, and looks forward to the planting every spring. "It feels good to have something I know, from my homeland."

Quyen Truong, Dong Nai province, arrived in Worcester four and a half years ago. He also works part time at SEACMA, where he interacts with the Vietnamese community, and is very enthusiastic about the gardens. "Having a garden is like having a child," he explains. "You nurture it and watch it grow. I'm very happy to have it."

On the other hand, Cam Tu Le grew up in a city and doesn't know much about gardening. "They just tell me where to water," he says. "It's very fun." Cam Tu teaches Vietnamese as a second language at SEACMA, and recently completed a course at QCC; he is now continuing his studies in mechanical engineering at WPI.

All three have been working in SEACMA's community gardens for the past few years. "When things are growing, there's a lot of pride that comes out of those moments," says Quyen.

"It's beneficial to the community as a whole," adds Cam Tu.

Anh Vu Sawyer, Executive Director of the Southeast Asian
Coalition of Massachusetts
One of the most important benefits is the opportunity for the elder volunteers to work closely with the younger, bridging the generational gap. Whereas Son, Quyen and Cam Tu are relatively recent arrivals, many of the youths have lived most, if not all, of their lives in America. They go to American schools, and grow up speaking little or no Vietnamese, leaving them feeling disconnected from their family and their past.

Sharing the gardens creates an opportunity to build those connections. "We work with the youth volunteers, actively teaching them how to tend the garden and water plants," says Son. These seemingly simple tasks serve as a gateway to deeper conversations, giving the youths a chance to learn about the community's history and culture.

Thu Nguyen, Director of Projects for SEACMA, explains that the program is also vital to the mental health of the older members of the community, who can come to feel isolated in the unfamiliar city. "This is active, socially engaging. It helps them feel normal, familiar, at home." Many of the elders have gardens of their own and come alive every summer when the time for planting arrives. The community gardens give them a chance to share this love, and interact socially with other gardeners.

"It's good to have exercise, to go out and be with people," says Quyen.

"I love having the gardens," adds Son. "It makes you healthy, it makes you happy, gives you clarity of the mind. It's so meaningful."

Over the course of the summer, all three have visited and worked in WAM's Art Garden. "It's very pretty compared to the other places," says Son. "Not just a patch of dirt. It has a vibe and energy. You get to decorate the place and have it look beautiful."

"Let's make an appointment," she laughs, "and come back every year!"

-- Sarah Leveille
Digital Media Specialist
September 24, 2019

*Translations provided by Thu Nguyen.

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