In Professor Patricia Simons’ special topics seminar "Materiality,” we consider material culture and visuality in the arts of Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Unfortunately, in the classroom we are forced to work with flat images, so our understanding of the issues we discuss in class are, to a certain extent, hindered. Fortunately, we were able to take a field trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts in lieu of one of our classes.
DIA Curator Yao-Fen You (U-M Phd 2004) was our guide during our sadly short trip. Not only did she give use in-depth information on a woodwork she was intimately involved with, she explained some of the processes the museum undertook to gain information on the object. She was also able to show us a possible missing piece of the work the museum had recently acquired, which was not yet on display to the public.
We were then taken to the basement of the museum where we were received by Director of Photography Robert “Shell” Hensleigh. He let us explore (invade) his studio and showed us screen caps of photos he had recently taken of the museum’s art. Then we inspected several maiolica objects that were down in the basement to be photographed.
Our final stop was the restoration lab, where Mellon Fellow Cindy Lee Scott took time out of her day to explain some of the measures taken to restore artworks. She told us of a previous restoration practice that involved stapling broken pieces of a maiolica dish back together. We then learned how she took the staples out of a dish, replaced it with glue, and touched the plate up with paint that would show up on scans as a different color from the original paint. She also showed the class scans done on the dish and described what extra information could be gained from them.
Each of these DIA staff exposed a side of art history we students had not fully considered previously. We were able to see materiality through daily museum practices on research, visual documentation, and restoration. Everyone seemed to especially enjoy exploring the basement of the museum, and the visit led to many questions on restoration in particular. For me personally, I gained a new understanding on how museums interact with artworks in today’s world. I greatly appreciate that we had the opportunity to break from the classroom mold and engage in on-site learning.