Connected \\ May 31, 2022
Internship experience “opened my eyes” to potential for art and history to tell new stories
My time at PEM has been a gateway into the creative and dynamic world of art museums. I came to my editorial internship in PEM’s curatorial department from the field of history and with experience primarily in history museums. Working with Rebecca Bednarz, Editor for Curatorial Initiatives, has opened my eyes to the possibilities of working across editorial and interpretation, two aspects of museum work that encourage visitors with varying levels of understanding to make meaningful connections between their lived experiences and the material presented. Thinking about language and how we communicate is important in all museum settings, but I had not yet seen how editorial and interpretation is practiced in a museum of art and culture. Over the past nine months, my sense of history and art as distinct disciplines has changed dramatically.
On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America. Photograph by Kathy Tarantola. © 2022 Peabody Essex Museum.
A highlight of my work was engaging with the gallery text for On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America, PEM’s newly installed Native American and American galleries. The installation features artworks from 10,000 years ago to today and includes a range of historical touchpoints, from early American conflicts to the Salem witch trials and the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Taking part in team meetings with co-curators Karen Kramer, The Stuart W. and Elizabeth F. Pratt Curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture, and Sarah Chasse, Associate Curator, and critically exploring the gallery presentation, I have come to see how history and art history are interrelated. When these vantages are used together, stories take on remarkable power.
Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait), 1796, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, acquired as a gift to the nation through the generosity of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. Alan Michelson (Mohawk member of the Six Nations of the Grand River), Hanödaga:yas (Town Destroyer), 2018, edition 1/3, museum purchase, by exchange, 2019.38.1AB. Courtesy of Alan Michelson.
Before my internship, I considered artwork a static testimonial of the time in which it was created, especially works made between the 17th and 19th centuries in America, the period of history I study. I interpreted various material objects through this lens when visiting art museums and at the historic house and site museums where I worked. For instance, when I viewed Gilbert Stuart’s towering portrait of George Washington at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., it was just that: a portrait depicting his likeness as leader. Likewise, when I led tours at the Phelps-Hatheway House and Garden in Suffield, Connecticut, I saw a painting that featured Greco-Roman architecture juxtaposed with figures in typical dress of the 18th-century American gentry as representative of republican virtue. At the time, my perceptions of art were sufficient enough as an aspiring historian of early America because my studies were focused on written texts and documents. With this approach, the art did not tell its own story. Rather, I infused it with scholarship and used it as an interpretive means to an end of presenting the public with an illustrative narrative of the past. My history background confined the art to its own time.
A view of On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
While immersed in the text and graphics for On This Ground, I came to see the enlivened ways that the curators, contributing writers, and editor were breaking out and contextualizing art — with history scholarship and more — and how interdisciplinary approaches can make an experience that much more impactful. My impressions of and thoughts on On This Ground were shaped by my history background and the ways we treat text in the field. What I had in mind when doing my first review of the labels and panels was the interpretation inherent in the practice of seeking “historical accuracy.” The sections of the draft script I engaged with in my early read were those connected to the early American history I know well. Several of the installation’s sections touch on themes I have studied, but, to my surprise, the text did not communicate the content one would find in scholarly writings. Through much discussion and exploration, I came to see exciting new depths for how to read these artworks.
Charles Osgood, Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1840, gift of Richard C. Manning, 1933, 121459. Photo by Mark Sexton. © 2006 Peabody Essex Museum.
Art and history have the power to reinforce one another. When text is not approached as either history or art but both history and art, a vast trove of opportunities is opened up to delve even deeper into the stories art and history can tell in conjunction with one another. Working with the team, I witnessed the curators and editor engage in a dialogue about how to strategically use text in interpreting works of art. I saw how their language choices simultaneously historically contextualized the art within its own time, introduced the meaning behind the artwork that the artist hoped to communicate to viewers, and previewed the story of the artwork while leaving room for the visitor to draw their own conclusions. Watching their collaboration and reading the text along the way has changed not only how I understand the intersection of history and art but also the role of text in art museum interpretation.
When I visited the newly opened galleries, one object that I was drawn to analyze through this new ‘history reinforces art lens’ was Charles Osgood’s iconic 1840 portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I realized the layers beneath Hawthorne’s likeness using my historical and literary knowledge of Hawthorne with the artistic elements of the portrait. Osgood’s depiction was meant to communicate the persona Hawthorne sought for himself as he embarked on his literary career. And haven’t we all sought good light as we begin new endeavors?
Art breathes life into the annals of history, and the annals of history adorn art with new meaning. This is the maxim I plan to take with me to my history Ph.D. program at The George Washington University, where I will incorporate this new background into my research and scholarship, integrating history with art, museum studies, and art history. My experience at PEM has shaped me as an emerging scholar and a museum professional. I plan to continue my work in the field and aspire to make a career in public history, a prospect I now include art museums in. PEM has diversified my outlook on the relationship between history and art and the opportunities available to me in the museum field coming from a history background. I see the power of interdisciplinary research, writing and interpretation. I hope you'll visit On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America and, like me, experience the interconnectedness of Native American and American histories as told through art.
Sam Dinnie (they/them) is an incoming doctoral student in early American history at The George Washington University and a museum professional whose work focuses on LGBTQ+ inclusion and accessibility of historical knowledge.