Virtually no art object is without a complicated history concerning its creation and its journey from the artist to the museum. As repositories for art, museums no longer merely preserve the past—they must also actively work toward interpreting and uncovering tangled and often discomforting histories with a critical eye and open mind. During the prolonged period of working from home, and with the aid of snapshots taken by my colleague Maria Fredericks, Director of the Morgan’s Thaw Conservation Center, I embarked on a campaign to better understand and describe a group of miniatures on ivory that have been in the collection since 1991 but have not been thoroughly researched or interpreted.
An earlier post discussed some of the traditional colors that appear in the Morgan’s block books. In most cases, the hand-applied colors are typical of the dyes and pigments seen in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. However, a few unexpected pigments were discovered during the study of these fifteenth-century books, enabling a better understanding of how some of them were changed over the centuries.
What do you expect to see when you come to the Morgan? Rare books and master drawings? Cherished names like Austen, Tolkein, and Babar? Modern art, or contemporary photography? How about music?
It turns out that the first half of that list is more likely than the second. A recent survey showed that relatively few visitors think of the Morgan as a place for modern art or photography, despite our deep collections in those domains. And less than a quarter expect to see a music exhibition when they visit the Morgan.
In 2013 The Morgan acquired one hundred photographs by Peter Hujar and, along with them, a vast collection of material including correspondence, job books, and contact sheets. The contact sheets were made between 1955, when Hujar was in his early twenties, and 1986, shortly before he died of AIDS-related pneumonia, and they demonstrate the range of Hujar’s practice.
My attraction to Shiva Ahmadi’s Tower (2017) was immediate, but it is a challenging work in both its content and execution. In discussing it, I find it helpful to speak in terms of dualities: seduction and repulsion, translucency and opacity, chaos and control, background and foreground. Ahmadi has done this herself in quotations like the one above.
A print room—a space to house a collection of drawings and prints, the curators who are responsible for it, and the scholars that come to study the collection—has been an essential feature at the Morgan since 1906 when J. Pierpont Morgan closely collaborated with Charles Follen McKim on the interiors of the library housing his collections.
Every summer since 2015, a paid undergraduate intern from the University of Pennsylvania’s RealArts@Penn program program has joined the Literary and Historical Manuscripts Department staff at the Morgan. Two summers ago, Delaney Keenan (who graduated this June with a B.A. in Art History from Penn) spent part of her internship working on a project to survey and study the department’s holdings of the letters of women artists.
Without knowing its underlying historical context, a viewer is likely to find this print from the Morgan’s collection bafflingly obscure. Once you learn it was published in London during the dark days of the Great Plague of 1665–1666, however, the meaning and significance of “Welcome Home Brother” begins to come into focus and strike an uncomfortably contemporary note.
In early 2018, I received the welcome news that UCLA Library Special Collections would consider lending drawings by Rick Barton to an exhibition at the Morgan. Moreover, more than 600 drawings that had not been located at the time of my visit were now available to view. My next opportunity to travel to Los Angeles would not arrive until October of that year. But in the interim, I made a number of crucial discoveries.