Last summer, Kate Scott learned more than she ever expected to know about women’s hairstyles in the late 1700s and the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s. Scott, a Rutgers doctoral candidate in art history, hadn’t developed a sudden interest in Federal-era cosmetology or Anglo-Chinese relations; she was researching paintings owned by the university’s Zimmerli Art Museum, work that sometimes resembled an episode of CSI.
This research, undertaken during a summer internship funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, took Scott to marriage records, grave records, and family genealogies in pursuit of information that might establish the dates of paintings, identify their artists, or flesh out the backgrounds of portrait subjects. One painting immortalized a Zimmerli donor’s 19th-century ancestor, who, Scott learned, had moved from New York to California to support her many children as a hatmaker. To nail down the date of another portrait, thought to be by the 18th-century American painter Ralph Earl, Scott researched the frizzy hairstyle—the “hedgehog,” it turned out to be called—worn by the woman in the picture. To learn more about the background of another portrait subject, she read the journals he had kept as a missionary in China.
“It’s very much like detective work,” says Zimmerli curator Donna Gustafson. “You have to look for clues and go from place to place.”
The $500,000, five-and-a-half-year Mellon grant pays for two full-time summer internships at the Zimmerli each year, two upcoming exhibitions at the museum, two graduate art history seminars linked to the exhibitions, and related symposia and publications. The grant both promotes scholarship and gives graduate students invaluable training for careers as academics or curators, says Gustafson and art history professor Susan Sidlauskas, the department’s director of graduate studies.
Over the summer, Scott and her fellow Mellon intern spent their mornings measuring, photographing, and inspecting stored items in the museum’s American collection, making their way through perhaps a third of the 600 to 700 pieces. With magnifying glasses and flashlights, they examined every corner of little-seen paintings, looking for discoloration or cracking that might indicate problems needing immediate attention. Sometimes, they switched on an ultraviolet black light, looking for signs of overpainting or traces of earlier conservation efforts.
“Most aspiring curators don’t have the opportunity to learn about conservation or collections assessment during their graduate work, even though these are really significant aspects of curatorial work,” says Scott, who plans a museum career. “That’ll be a really valuable skill for me, both in my career in general and on the job market.”
In the afternoon, the interns went online or into libraries, tracking down missing information about the painters, subjects, and ownership histories of the stored works. Some of their discoveries were deflating (a Zimmerli-owned painting of George Washington, thought to be by the famous Gilbert Stuart, probably isn’t) and some were thrilling (the Special Collections and University Archives department of Rutgers University Libraries owns a cache of fascinating items: Civil War photos, silhouettes by the Colonial artist Charles Willson Peale, and Currier & Ives prints).
Some of the works the interns researched will probably end up in the first of the Mellon-funded exhibitions, One 2 Many, scheduled to open in January 2014, Gustafson said. The exhibition, which examines single portraits, double portraits, and group portraits, was conceived with the help of the 13 art history graduate students enrolled in the Mellon-funded seminar cotaught by Gustafson and Sidlauskas during the spring 2012 semester.
“It’s very important that academia and the museum world build stronger bridges together, because it’s no longer two different worlds,” said Sidlauskas. “When each side understands what the other wrestles with, mutual respect builds, and very imaginative collaborations can take place.”
Originally published in Rutgers alumni magazine. Photography by Matt Rainey.