By Jennifer Udell, Ph.D., Curator of University Art and the Fordham Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art
When William D. Walsh (FCRH, 1951) and his wife, Jane, decided to give their collection of antiquities from the Mediterranean basin to Fordham University in 2006, the idea was to create a truly unique learning opportunity for students. What better way to learn about the Classical world, than through its material culture, in addition to texts like The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid?
Upon the opening of the Fordham Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art in December 2007, the collection was swiftly incorporated into the curricula not only of the Art History and Classics departments, but also those of the History, Theology, Philosophy, and English departments, demonstrating that 2,500-year old works of art are able to provide an important lens through which to study disciplines with a much more contemporary focus.
Since 2016, the museum and its collection have been the center of a Curatorial/Museum Studies seminar taught approximately every other year. Though the theme of each of the exhibitions to come out of these seminars has been different, the goals are the same: to introduce students to all aspects of curating an exhibition while examining how museums approach the display of ancient material; what makes for an effective installation (and, conversely, what detracts from the viewer experience); and how the particular type of institution impacts the way art can and should be displayed. The seminar also gives undergraduate students the opportunity to handle ancient art.
The first student-curated show, entitled The Classical World in 24 Objects, was, in essence, an exhibition of highlights from the collection. The objects chosen for this show formed a disparate group, which included Roman imperial portraiture, coins, utilitarian vessels for transporting oil, luxury bronze household items, and painted pottery in a variety of shapes. They came together not only under the rubric of “Highlights,” but also for the unique ways that each group reflects an aspect of life in antiquity. Importantly, by presenting this diverse array of objects together, without privileging one place, period, or civilization over another, the show provided a snapshot of the museum’s collection, along with a balanced visual history of the ancient cultures from which the museum takes its name.
In 2018, the museum received a generous gift of 118 objects, comprising figurines, ancient glass, and pottery vessels ranging in date from ca. 1450 B.C.E — 2nd C.E., from Rev. Oscar Magnan, S.J. The donation was the focus of the Museum Studies seminar of 2019, and the impetus for our second exhibition, Material Microcosms of the Ancient Mediterranean. The student-curators of Material Microcosms chose 36 objects to include in the show, drawing from the terracotta and bronze figurines in Fr. Magnan’s collection. By working together to decide how the cases were to be configured and why certain objects belong together, they demonstrated a clear curatorial vision that sought to pull out common themes from a rich and varied group of ancient artifacts. Some objects, for example, speak to the rich tradition of burial offerings, or relay the cultural importance of ancient myth, while others explore the importance of dress, or exploit the concept of movement in static figurines. Each object is, in its own right, an encapsulation – a microcosm – of a larger thematic or pictorial trend within the broader framework of the material culture of the ancient Mediterranean basin.
Our current exhibition is perhaps our most challenging and arguably our most important, from an ethical point of view. Facing the Past: Reexamining the Modern History of Objects in the Fordham Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art is the first exhibition to tackle the issue of provenance. As is the case with most, if not all, museums with collections of ancient art, the provenance (ownership history) as well as provenience (findspots) of a number of our objects is unknown. In other instances, works of art may have suspected connections to clandestine digs or unscrupulous art dealers (this was brought to our attention by the art theft division of the Carabinieri, or Italian state police force).
The student-curators of this latest exhibition took a hard look at 15 vases in the Fordham collection, about which significant questions exist. They sought to recreate the circuitous journey of these objects from tomb to museum vitrine, often without any solid information on the actual findspot. With scant accompanying paperwork for the vases, save for William Walsh’s own purchase receipts and the occasional auction record or bibliographic reference, they worked to determine how and if these objects fit within the muddled continuum of the illicit international antiquities market.
The students performed their research in the middle of the pandemic with limited access to resources, except for whatever could be located online, or obtained through interlibrary loan. The demands of the exhibition theme required them to wade through foreign databases, familiarize themselves with relevant international cultural patrimony laws, treaties, and court decisions, and to consider the question of whether the Fordham antiquities museum should display ancient objects that lack a secure archaeological context and documented history of ownership. In other words, a problematic situation for the Fordham Museum presented an ideal, real-life learning opportunity that confronts curators of ancient art every day.
Facing the Past redefined the pedagogical mission of the Fordham Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art in a way that is specific and suited to a Jesuit institution guided by issues of social justice and ethical practices. Specifically, the current exhibition is a case study in how to treat a formerly private collection, which has since been made public. This means confronting the potentially unsavory modern history of some of the material in our possession and, if necessary, returning the object back to its country of origin. In the past, Fordham has worked with the Italian government; the university transferred ownership of a cinerary urn back to Italy, but the object remains here on long-term loan. This exhibition, and the provenance research accomplished by the student-curators gives visual form to Fordham’s commitment as an ethical steward of the cultural heritage of objects in its collection.