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From Excavation to Exhibit

“From Excavation to Exhibit: The Trajectory of Objects Between Site and Public” (ARKEO 6205/ANTHR 6205) was the first semester-long course offered at the Johnson Museum, in collaboration with the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies (CIAMS), as part of a Museum initiative supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Fall 2013 course was cotaught by Adam Smith, archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Cornell, and Ellen Avril, the Johnson Museum’s chief curator and curator of Asian art.

Focusing on the links that articulate archaeological and museological practice, and the controversies that divide them, “From Excavation to Exhibit” examined the paths that objects take in their journey from recovery at archaeological sites to their appearance within museum exhibits. Sections on archaeology, collections, and exhibitions, with a focus on provenance and related issues, formed the structure of the course. As the course proceeded, it became clear that the archaeological site and the museum are set within an extraordinarily complex set of institutions, legal frameworks, political struggles, economic exchange networks, and cultural practices, all of which shape how an object eventually engages the public. One of the goals of the course was to encourage dialogue and find common ground in the ways that both professions commit to preserve, care for and present objects in their fullest contexts for scholarly and public benefit.

Guest teachers included Cornell professors from archaeology and historic preservation, Johnson Museum staff, and three outside experts, whose participation was funded by the Mellon grant. Each outside speaker presented a public lecture as well as to the class. Geoff Emberling, assistant research scientist at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan, brought the combined experience of a practicing archaeologist and museum professional to encourage students to think beyond the frequently polarized perspectives of archaeology and museums. John Twilley, art conservation scientist at Stonybrook University, discussed the use of scientific analysis for preservation, to help determine provenance and to enhance understanding of cultural context. Jenifer Bosworth ’93, exhibitions conservator at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art, provided practical advice about the risks and rewards of presenting objects to the public and how to plan and implement exhibitions in ways that ensure preservation and protection of irreplaceable works of art and cultural heritage. A study trip to New York clarified for students how conservators and museum professionals grapple with balancing complex intellectual considerations and the practical requirements to sensitively treat and install works of art from different contexts and cultures.

A series of in-class debates, course readings, class discussions, and assignments were all aimed to equip students with the tools for completing their capstone project: the development of an exhibition proposal, complete with checklist, press release, floor plan, sample labels and text panels, and ideas for academic and public programming and technological enhancements.

Student exhibition proposals were based on their own areas of study, interest, and expertise. The proposals included several distinct ways of presenting and contextualizing Cornell’s collection of plaster casts of classical sculpture; archaeological-based exhibitions about Seneca Iroquois lifeways; vernacular building materials and techniques in nineteenth-century Ithaca; Bronze-age animal imagery of northwest Iran; a Chinese Shang dynasty royal tomb; the history of writing; imaginary constructs of the American Southwest; traditions of Chinese calligraphy; the Hindu epic Ramayana; and visions for the built environment of Roosevelt Island in New York City.

The course represents a vital new phase of collaboration between the Cornell Institute for Archaeology and Material Studies (CIAMS) and the Johnson Museum. Professor Smith commented, “We look forward to continuing to enhance the relationship between CIAMS and the Johnson Museum and continuing to augment our capacity to train students broadly engaged with the practices and institutions that shape how archaeology communicates with the public.”

Fall 2013 From Excavation to Exhibit seminar students
Anisha Arabolu
William Breitweiser
Qing Cheng
Emily Giacomarra
Cynthia Kocik
Arielle Levy
Alex Marko
Sean McGee
Louisa Nash
Erin Routon
Louisa Smieska
Yidi Yao