Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

How to move a painting the size of football field

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

For a brief window in the 1870s and 80s, cycloramas were all the rage in the United States. The trend began with large-scale panoramas in the late 18th century. European artists pioneered the form, creating massive works that depicted famous battles, Biblical and mythological scenes, landscapes, famous explorers exploring exotic lands and more. This evolved into cycloramas, 360 degrees paintings installed in purpose-built circular buildings so that viewers on a central platform could have a full-immersion experience of being in the middle of the action.

Cycloramas caught on in the 1870s after the Franco-Prussian War inspired a proliferation of battle depictions. It was European artists who brought their techniques of creating massive 360 degree paintings to the United States. The Battle of Gettysburg, now at the Gettysburg National Military Park and the largest oil painting in the world, opened the cyclorama floodgates. French artist Paul Philippoteaux, who had been painting cycloramas in Europe since 1871, was commissioned to create the massive panorama by a group of Chicago investors in 1879. It took him two years and a couple of dozen of assistants to finish the piece. It went on display in Chicago in 1883 and was a runaway success, so much so that Philippoteaux was commissioned to make another three Battle of Gettysburg cycloramas.

The Gettysburg blockbuster started a trend, and the same year it first went on display, German-born Milwaukee resident William Wehner founded the American Panorama Company. He had little difficulty investors that there would be a market in the United States for massive-scale views of scenes from the Civil War. The Battle of Atlanta, fought on July 22nd, 1864, was the chosen subject for the American Panorama Company’s second and most elaborate work, and little wonder since one of Wehner’s patrons was Illinois senator and Union Major General John “Black Jack” Logan who had commanded the Fifteenth Corps in the Battle of Atlanta.

Wehner recruited a team of 20 artists from Germany, each experts in large-scale painting and specializing in certain areas — landscape, horses, human figures — and researched the battle assiduously. They had access to the sketchbooks and notebooks of Harper’s Weekly Civil War campaign artist Theodore Davis, official government documents and maps, spoke to veterans of the battle from both sides, and traveled to Atlanta so they could scope out the site of the battle with their own eyes. Even though the neighborhood where the battle took place (Edgewood, then an eastern suburb, now intown Atlanta) was completely unrecognizable just 20 years later, the artists were able to view tracks and landscape features by sketching from towers.

The Battle of Atlanta made its debut in February 1887 in Detroit. Senator Logan had died in December of 1886 and the work was advertised as “Logan’s Great Battle” in homage to him. His cavalry charge to reinforce the Union lines was a featured scene in the cyclorama. Believe it or not, this massive painting more than 370 feet wide and just shy of 50 feet high was designed to be moved. After it was shown in Detroit, vast swaths of the canvas were draped on wooden frames and taken on the road where it was shown in Minneapolis and Indianapolis. The Cyclorama opened in Indianapolis in May of 1888 and by then Wehner’s company was in trouble. He sold The Battle of Atlanta to a local exhibitor. In 1890, that company sold it to promoter Paul Atkinson of Madison, Georgia.

Atkinson put it on display in Chattanooga, taking it south of the Mason-Dixon line for the first time. It finally set foot in Atlanta in February 1892, where Atkinson put it on display in a wooden building on Edgewood Avenue, close to the battle site. In Atlanta, Atkinson promoted the one-time “Logan’s Great Battle” as the only painting of a Confederate victory, and he had it altered to make sure it fit the new pro-Southern narrative. A group of cowering Confederate prisoners were changed to retreating Union soldiers, for example.

(It’s true that the Battle of Atlanta ended with the Union’s failure to take the city and the death of Major General James McPherson, one of the highest-ranking Union soldiers to fall in battle during the Civil War. General Sherman had to besiege Atlanta for more than a month before the city finally surrendered on September 2nd, 1864. Still, the one-day Battle of Atlanta was something of a Pyrrhic victory given the 5,500 Confederate casualties they could ill-afford this late in the war, and since the final conclusion of the wider fight for Atlanta was a decisive Union victory that played an important role in revitalizing Northern enthusiasm for the war and in re-electing President Lincoln, Atkinson’s pitch was more than a little disingenuous.)

The days of the great panoramas in the round drawing crowds were over by then, however, and the Edgewood Avenue exhibition was financial failure. A year later, the painting was sold for a comparative pittance to Atlanta business magnate Ernest Woodruff. He quickly resold it to George V. Gress and Charles Northen. They had it repaired and installed in a new building in Grant Park, but again The Battle of Atlanta failed to attract visitors. In 1898, George Cress donated the painting to the City of Atlanta.

The city created a new building to house it in Grant Park in 1921. For some unfathomable reason, instead of just measuring the thing and making proper calculations, the new building which, once more for emphasis, was custom-built to house the painting, could not fit the whole painting. About eight feet of sky and a vertical section of the six feet wide were sliced out to squeeze it into the new Atlanta Cyclorama building.

In 1936, a Works Project Administration team completed a diorama covering the space between the bottom of the painting and the edge of the viewing platform. On a red clay floor evoking Georgia’s characteristic russet heavy soil, landscape features, artillery, railroad tracks and 128 plaster soldiers were added to bring the painted scene into three dimensions. The soldiers ranged in size from 20 to 50 inches high and were placed to ensure they’d be in proper perspective and scale with the painting when viewed from the platform.

Condition issues proliferated over the decades at Grant Park. Twenty years of discussions from the late 1950s until the late 1970s considered a number of solutions to the problems, all of them rejected as too expensive. Finally between 1979 and 1982 the painted and diorama were conserved and the building renovated to include a revolving viewing platform.

Since then, the painting continues to struggle with condition issues. Meanwhile, Zoo Atlanta, which shares space in Grant Park with the Atlanta Cyclorama and draws far, far larger crowds than the painting could ever dream of drawing, is keen to expand. In 2014, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced that the cyclorama would be moved to a new state-of-the-art facility at the Atlanta History Center‘s 33-acre campus in the toney Buckhead neighborhood.

Moving a painting 359 feet wide and 42 feet high that weighs seven tons is not for the faint of heart. It has taken more than two years to plan and prepare the move. Earlier this month, the deed was done, in a painstaking series of steps.

Workers, Mr. McQuigg replied, will spend days rolling the painting, which is appraised at $7.5 million, onto a pair of 6,200-pound spools. A crane will slowly lift the spools — “We’re hoping paint-drying goes faster,” Mr. McQuigg said in an interview — through seven-foot holes cut in the roof of the nearly century-old building. Then, once the shrink-wrapped painting is resting aboard two trucks, the workers will let the clock tick.

“We’re going to wait until everybody goes home and the traffic dies down and there’s no more Atlanta rush hour,” Mr. McQuigg said in the musty room where the cyclorama has hung for generations. “Heck, it might be 3 in the morning.”

That’s pretty much what happened, although the two giant spools were raised on different days. The first scroll did end up being transported in the middle of the night to the new Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building at the Atlanta History Center. The second was moved during the day.

Now that they’re in the new building, the sections of the painting will be reunited and restored.

The restored painting will finally have the proper perspective: Until now, the painting hung like a shower curtain and there were folds and creases. When the painting reopens next year, the aim is to return the “immersion” effect.

The Battle of Atlanta will be displayed in its original hyperbolic, or hourglass shape. Through proper tension at the top and bottom, the painting’s horizon will appear closer to the viewer, restoring the original 3D illusion.

You’ll be able to see the whole painting: At Grant Park, patrons sat on a carpeted revolving grandstand, which kept them from taking in the entire painting at once. At the AHC, visitors will gaze from a platform 15 feet above ground. The diorama will be rebuilt. The idea is to remove as many obstructions as possible and let the painting make its own statement.

The Battle of Gettysburg is the same height as the Atlanta Cyclorama, but it’s 377 feet wide. When the restoration is complete, The Battle of Atlanta will get a little closer in width and beat it in height. The pieces cut out to squeeze Procrustes the Painting into the 1921 Atlanta Cyclorama building will be readded so that for the first time in almost a century, the complete panorama will be seen as the German painters created it. The restored cyclorama will be 371 feet wide and 49 feet high. The Atlanta Cyclorama will reopen to the public in the fall of 2018.

Here are timelapse videos of the two halves of the painting being scrolled up. The first half was scrolled on December 7th, 2016, the second on January 21st, 2017.

Here is the first scroll raised from a hole in the roof of the old Atlanta Cyclorama building and then being laid on the flatbed truck for transport to the new building.

This news story has film of the cranes lowering the massive scrolls into the new cyclorama building at the Atlanta History Center:

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Who’s a good Rembrandt? You are! Yes you are!

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

A drawing of a dog in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, Germany, has been identified as the work of 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt Van Rijn. The chalk sketch of a little terrier, believed to have been drawn around 1637, has been in the museum’s collection since the 1770s, but was mistakenly attributed to German animal painter Johann Melchior Roos. His father, landscape painter and portraitist Johann Heinrich Roos, his brother Philipp Peter Roos, two other brothers and a sister were all known for their drawings of animals. Philipp Peter even kept a mini-zoo at his villa in Tivoli just to have live models for his drawings. The Roos were so strongly associated with animal studies that for centuries if a Dutch/German Baroque animal drawing turned up without a clear attribution, it would by default be categorized as a piece by Roos. The Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in particular has a large collection of Johann Melchior Roos drawings because he spent the last years of his life in Braunschweig.

The dog study was noticed two years ago by the museum’s head of drawings, Dr. Thomas Döring, when he was going through their collection of 10,000 drawings for the Virtual Kupferstichkabinett, a major digitization initiative virtually reunited the collections of the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum and the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel which began life as the private art and book collection of the Dukes of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. The ducal collections were gradually split up between the two institutions between the 18th and early 20th centuries. The Virtual Kupferstichkabinett brings them back together online.

While cataloging the drawings, Döring saw the terrier and suspected there was a more illustrious hand behind the dynamic canine that previously realized.

“It’s been on display for decades under the name of Johann Melchior Roos,” he told CNN, “so the idea that this could be a Rembrandt was never considered before. But the boldness of the strokes, the variations in the shading from very gentle to quite violent and the expressive gaze [of the dog] — these are very typical idiosyncrasies of Rembrandt’s work.”

Doring said his experience cataloging drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils during an earlier project was key to the discovery.

“I was used to looking out for the differences between Rembrandt’s work and drawings by other artists,” he explained.

Two years of research ensued, including microscopic examinations of the drawing and extensive studies of comparable Rembrandts in museums and collections in Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. Döring then consulted international authorities on Rembrandt for their opinions. Dr. Holm Bevers, Chief Curator for Dutch and Flemish Prints and Drawings at the Kupferstichkabinett of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in Berlin was the first to officially attribute the drawing the Rembrandt. Pieter Roelofs, curator of 17th century Dutch painting at the Rijksmuseum, was the second. An Old Master specialist at the British Museum was the third. Dr. Döring published the drawing as an original Rembrandt in the quarterly journal Master Drawings and so far has received unanimously positive responses.

Dogs appear as secondary figures in many of Rembrandt’s paintings, see the little fellow excitedly play-bowing on the bottom right of The Night Watch, and several of his sketches of people have a dog in the scene as well. Other animals he drew — lions, pigs, elephants, camels, cats, horses — as studies for larger Biblical, historical, pastoral and mythological paintings. Not many of his drawing of animals survive. Rembrandt is believed to have collected most of them in a single volume he called “Animals, from life” (“Beesten nae’t leven”) which was listed in a 1656 inventory of his belongings but is now lost.

Rembrandt’s doggie will go on display at the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum starting April 6th in the Dürer, Cézanne, and Me: How Masters Draw exhibition. It runs through July 7th, 2017.

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Neolithic “enigma” out of storage and on display

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

The National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, has taken one of their most curious artifacts out of storage and put it on display. It’s a Neolithic statuette carved out of granite about 7,000 years ago. It is 36 centimeters (14 inches) high and has a pointed, beak-like nose, a rounded torso with a prominent belly and thick, irregularly cylindrical legs. There are no arms, no genitalia or breasts to indicate sex, no facial features other than the pointy nose. I think he looks like the secret illegitimate love child of Sam the Eagle and the Shmoo.

Its design, material, great age and unknown origin make it an intriguing archaeological mystery. Museum curators call the figurine a 7,000-year-old enigma.

“It could depict a human-like figure with a bird-like face, or a bird-like entity which has nothing to do with man but with the ideology and symbolism of the Neolithic society,” Katya Manteli, an archaeologist with the museum, told Reuters.

Experts also cannot be sure of its provenance, as it belongs to a personal collection. They assume only that it is from the northern Greek regions of Thessaly or Macedonia.

Unlike most Neolithic figurines made of soft stone, it is carved out of hard rock even though metal tools were not available at the time.

And while it is too short for a life-size depiction of the human figure, it is bigger than most Neolithic statues, which are rarely found over 35 cm tall.

“Regarding technique and size, it is among the rare and unique works of the Neolithic period in Greece,” Manteli said.

It’s possible that the lack of sex characteristics and detailed features are a practical limitation of having to carve hard granite with stone tools. It could also be incomplete, although the high gloss polish indicates this is a finished piece.

There are more than 200,000 objects kept in permanent storage at the National Archaeological Museum. This charming Neolithic fellow is one of the treasures pulled from the storeroom for The Unseen Museum, an exhibition that gives the bench players a chance to start the game for once. It runs through March 26th of this year.

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The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra online

Sunday, February 12th, 2017


Palmyra, the crossroads of civilizations, prosperous center of trade between the Silk Road and Europe from the 3rd century B.C. under the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom through the 3rd century A.D. under the Roman Empire, is no stranger to wartime destruction. Emperor Aurelian razed the city in 273 when it rebelled against his rule. He pillaged its temples and used their treasures to decorate his temple to the sun god Sol in Rome. Enough survived to make Palmyra’s monumental ruins some of the most extensive and dramatic in the Greco-Roman world, and when European visitors started writing about the spectacular remains starting in 1696 with Abednego Seller’s The Antiquities of Palmyra, Palmyrene structures like the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baalshamin, the tower tombs and the Great Colonnade became icons of classical architecture and inspired Western artists, poets and architects.

One of those artists was Louis-François Cassas (1756-1827) who made highly detailed drawings of the ruins of Palmyra in 1785. Cassas spent a month in Palmyra, recording all of the ancient ruins he saw. As an architect, Cassas had a keen eye for sculptural features which gave his renderings a precision matched by none of his predecessors in the voyage pittoresque tradition of illustrated travel accounts. His drawings of Palmyra, detailed views of ornamental features, architectural elevations and reconstructions illustrated his own travel account, Voyage Pittoresque de la Syrie, de la Phenicie, de la Palestine, et de la Basse Egypte, published beginning in 1799.

Following in Cassas footprints but using a new medium was Louis Vignes (1831-1896), a French career naval officer and a photographer. In 1863, Vignes was assigned to accompany Honoré Théodore d’Albert, duc de Luynes, on a scientific expedition to Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Luynes was an avid amateur archaeologist and antiquarian, an expert in Damascus steel and a patron of the arts with a particular taste for commissioning works in the classical style. The year before the expedition, the duke had donated his vast collection of antiquities — coins, Greek vases, medallions, intaglio gemstones — to France’s Cabinet des Médailles, and as an immensely wealthy aristocrat with a passel of big titles, when Luynes demanded that the French government provide him with a naval officer for his voyage, he got what he wanted.

Vignes was a particularly good choice for a mission that would encounter numerous archaeological remains, because he had been trained by pioneering photographer Charles Nègre and could be of as much help to the duke on dry land as he was on the seas. Luynes’ primary objective was to do one of the first scientific explorations of the Dead Sea. From the Dead Sea, the expedition traveled the Jordan River Valley, the mountains of Moab and the full length of the Wadi Arabah to the Gulf of Aqaba. Over the 10 months of the expedition, they also visited Palmyra and Beirut where Vignes took pictures of the ancient ruins.

The scientific report of the expedition, Voyage d’exploration à la mer Morte, à Petra, et sur la rive gauche du Jourdain, wasn’t published until 1875, eight years after Luynes’ death. Vignes photos of the Dead Sea were included in the publication, but by then Vignes had long since cut to the chase. He hooked up with his old mentor Charles Nègre to develop and print the negatives Vignes had taken in Beirut and Palmyra. The albumen prints were given to the duc de Luynes before his death in 1867. The Vignes photographs are the earliest known pictures of the Greco-Roman remains in Palmyra.

They have taken on even more significance in the light of recent events. Palmyra’s ruins have been devastated in the Syrian Civil War, bombed and shelled by everyone, deliberately destroyed by IS ostensibly out of iconoclastic fervor, although their real motivation, I think, is to taunt the world into multiple impotent rage strokes; cultural heritage destruction as a brutal mass troll. The temples of Bel and Baalshamin were blown up, as were three of the best preserved tower tombs, the Arch of Triumph on the east end of the Great Colonnade and, if recent reports bear out, the tetrapylon and part of the Roman theater.

In 2015, with the monstrous savaging of Palmyra’s ancient monuments well underway, the Getty Research Institute acquired an album of 47 of Vignes’ original photos taken in Palmyra and Beirut. That album was digitized — the pictures can be browsed here — as were 58 additional Vignes prints from the duc de Luynes’ personal collection.

Now the Getty Research Institute has enlisted its Vignes photographs, Cassas drawings and other important sources in an online exhibition dedicated to history of Palmyra.

The online exhibition draws heavily from the Getty Research Institute’s collections as well as art in museum and library collections all over the world. The exhibition explores the site’s early history, the far-reaching influence of Palmyra in Western art and culture, and the loss, now tremendous and irrevocable, of the ruins that for centuries stood as a monument to a great city and her people.

“The devastation unleashed in Syria today forces a renewed interpretation of the early prints and photographs of this extraordinary world heritage site.” said Getty Research Institute curator Frances Terpak. “They gain more significance as examples of cultural documents that
can encourage a deeper appreciation of humanity’s past achievements. Understanding Palmyra through these invaluable accounts preserves its memory and connects us with its grandeur and enduring legacy.”

The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra is the Getty Research Institute’s first online exhibition and it’s beautifully curated. I hope it’s the first of many to come.

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Stolen Van Goghs on display before going home

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017

The two early oil paintings by Vincent Van Gogh stolen from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum in 2002 and recovered in Italy last fall will be heading home next month. When the announcement that the paintings had been found was released last September, it wasn’t clear when they would be returning to Amsterdam. As evidence in a complex international drug trafficking trial, the artworks could have been tied up in Italy’s Bleak House-slow court system for years. Italian authorities took quick action, however, and on January 19th, a judge in Naples released the paintings from attachment, freeing them to be returned to the Netherlands.

In gratitude for the efforts of the Guardia di Finanza, the financial police who spearheaded the raid on the apartment of drug trafficker Raffaele Imperiale the village of Castellammare di Stabia and discovered the stolen paintings in the basement, other law enforcement agencies, the judiciary and people of Naples, Seascape at Scheveningen (1882) and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884/85), have gone on display at the Capodimonte Museum for a short exhibition before their homecoming. The paintings went on public view for the first time in 14 years on Tuesday. The show ends on February 26th.

Axel Rüger, director of the Van Gogh Museum: “It is really a miracle that the paintings, which since 2002 were thought to have vanished from the face of the earth, have been found. The efforts of so many people have made the impossible possible. The fact that these two Van Goghs are again on public display after fourteen years calls for a celebration worthy of the occasion. As a ‘grazie mille’ for the efforts of all those involved in Italy in the recovery of the artworks, they are first being shown to the public in the region where they were found. Afterwards, our Van Goghs will return home, where a festive welcome awaits them and our visitors can once more admire them in the Van Gogh Museum. I cannot tell you how happy I am!”

The discovery of the paintings has inspired an upsurge of Van Gogh love in Naples. Vincenzo De Luca, the President of the Campania region, asked Joep Wijnands, the Dutch ambassador to Italy, to help arrange a new Van Gogh exhibition at the Capodimonte Museum. He also said they’re working on a loan of Van Gogh’s iconic The Starry Night, now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. That’s a lofty goal. The Starry Night has never been loaned to an Italian museum before.

The case raises an interesting question on the wider issue of art crime. This article quotes Giorgio Toschi, general with the Guardia di Finanza:

“More than ever we are seeing art works being used by criminals either as safe haven investments or as a way of making payments or guaranteeing deals between organized criminal groups,” he said at the unveiling of the two paintings on Monday.

This is the first I’ve heard of extremely valuable and recognizable artworks being used as a kind of black market currency in the criminal underworld. It’s fascinating. The most popular explanation, that major paintings are stolen on commission by shadowy private collectors in volcano lairs, almost never seems to pan out. When the paintings are found, they’ve been stashed in barns or sheds or moved all over the place because volcano lairs aside, it’s actually really, really hard to unload a world-famous painting whose theft made international news. It’s always seemed more likely to me that the most of the time thieves have no idea they’ll be saddled with unsaleable goods. Organized crime networks, on the other hand, are hardly cash-poor, so they don’t have to scrounge for buyers. Whether it moves or not, a Van Gogh is still worth tens of millions of dollars. Using it as a marker or a pension fund makes perfect sense.

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Ashmolean secures Alfred the Great hoard

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

The Ashmolean Museum has raised the £1.35 million ($1.7 million) needed to acquire the Watlington Hoard. Discovered on October 7th, 2015, by retired advertising executive and metal detector hobbyist James Mather in Watlington, Oxfordshire, the mixed hoard of Saxon coins and Viking jewelry and ingots is modest in size but grand in historical significance.

James Mather’s cautious, archaeology-focused approach to metal detecting played a large part in preserving the hoard’s integrity. He first found an oval silver bar that he recognized as a Viking ingot similar to ones he’d seen in museums. Digging a few inches under the surface he found a small group of silver pennies. He realized he had a hoard on his hands, but instead of digging it all up, he reburied what he’d already exposed and alerted the Portable Antiquities Scheme. PAS archaeologist David Williams raised the hoard in a soil block so it could be excavated in laboratory conditions.

First the block was X-rayed to provide a roadmap of the artifacts within and where they were located in the thick clay soil. Conservator Pippa Pearce painstakingly excavated the contents of the hoard. The final count was almost 200 coins, some of them fragments, seven pieces of jewelry — three silver bangles, probably arm rings, and four broken silver — and 15 silver ingots. A tiny scrap of twisted gold is the first gold ever discovered in a Viking hoard in Britain.

But the wee bit of gold is overshadowed by the significance of the coins. The hoard contains 13 examples of an extremely rare coin type known as the ‘Two Emperors’ penny which show King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r. 871–899) and King Ceolwulf II of Mercia (r. 874–ca.879) enthroned next to each other under a winged Victory or an angel. Only two examples of these pennies were known before the discovery of the hoard, and both of those were struck in the same year. The coins in the Watlington Hoard were struck in different mints over several years. This is huge news because it proves that Alfred and Ceolwulf II were allies who worked closely together, at least on issuing currency, for years.

It’s a revelation compared to the very little information that has come down to us about Ceolwulf. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a history commissioned by Alfred the Great, dismisses the King of Mercia as “an unwise king’s thane,” who was placed on the throne of Mercia by the Vikings as a puppet. The evidence of the coins suggests Alfred erased their alliance from the history books.

In February of 2016, the Oxfordshire coroner declared the hoard Treasure after which the Treasure Valuation Committee assessed its value a £1.35 million. Since local museums are given first crack at purchasing archaeological treasures found in the area, the Ashmolean began a campaign to raise the money before the January 31st deadline. They went a long way towards achieving their goal last October when the received a grant of £1.05 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The Art Fund contributed another £150,000 and more than 700 private individuals contributed the rest. The museum reached its £1.35 million target just days before the deadline.

The Watlington Hoard will now go on display in the Ashmolean’s England Gallery along with another Alfred the Great treasure, the Alfred Jewel, a teardrop-shaped piece of rock crystal (likely recycled Roman jewelry) encasing an allegorical or saintly figure in multi-colored cloisonné enamel. On the side of the gold filigree frame is inscribed “AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN,” meaning “Alfred ordered me to be made.” It’s one of the most popular, if not the most popular, exhibits in the museum, and it’s one of the only surviving objects directly associated with King Alfred. It will make an ideal companion for the hoard which has rewritten the history of Alfred’s reign.


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Rare Han treasures at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

A new exhibition opening next month at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty will display 160 artifacts discovered in recent archaeological digs of Han dynasty tombs. Very few of these objects have never left China, and this is the show’s only US stop. The exhibition opens on February 17th and runs until May 28th, so don’t dally in making your way there.

The rule of the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) is considered the first Chinese golden age, a period of relative peace and great economic prosperity in which the arts, sciences and trades flourished. Most of what we know of the Han emperors and their courts comes from ancient chroniclers, but they tend to focus on major events — wars, diplomacy, political intrigue — paying little attention to the daily lives even of the rich and royal. Because Han nobles built large tomb complexes with multiple rooms filled with every necessity and luxury to ensure their high standard of living would carry over into the afterlife, objects discovered in tombs lend unique insight into the day-to-day of Han dynasty monarchs, their families, functionaries and courtiers.

Most of the artifacts in the exhibition were unearthed from the mausoleum of Liu Fei in China’s eastern Jiangsu province. Liu Fei was the son of Emperor Jing of Han (r. 157–141 B.C.). He ruled the valuable fiefdom Jiangdu from 153 B.C. until his death in 127 B.C. He was interred a vast tomb complex of almost 2.7 MILLION square feet that included the tombs of his wives, concubines and attendants, plus weapons and chariot pits. The tomb was discovered on Dayun Mountain in 2009. Even though it had been looted repeatedly since antiquity, the floors of the outer chambers collapsed early enough in the tomb’s existence to preserve artifacts stored in the chambers below. Archaeologists found more than 10,000 artifacts crammed into storage rooms.

The exhibition is divided into three galleries. The first, Everlasting happiness without end, displays objects that reveal the kinds of entertainment enjoyed in Han dynasty palaces: music, dancing, food, wine. Artifacts include musical instruments, most notably a set of bronze bells and stone chimes that would have been used only on formal court occasions, smoke-eating lamps to keep the party going well into the night and ceramic dancers captured in dynamic movement. Containers used to prepare and eat food held offerings that would nourish the Han ruler in the afterlife had ritual significance in tombs, and elegant dinnerware like jade cups, bronze bowls and tables inlaid with gold and gemstones ensured their heavenly food would be eaten in the high style to which they had become accustomed.

The second, Eternal life without limit, is set in a tomb-like space and features artifacts used to prepare the deceased for the afterlife and to prevent the decay of the flesh. There are medical implements and divination tools, but jade is the star player here. It was used in Chinese burials long before the Han dynasty (or any dynasty at all, for that matter) because it was considered to have the power to prevent the decay of the flesh. The Han took jade funerary artifacts to new heights. They believed that people had two souls, one that went straight to heaven after death, the other that stayed in the body. To keep the latter safe inside an intact body, the dead were covered in jade. Jade plugs were placed in all orifices and jade masks on the face. If the deceased was of high enough rank — emperor, king, important nobles — the body would be put in a suit made from hundreds of jade scales. An exquisite jade suit from the tomb of Queen Lian, Liu Fei’s second and likely favorite wife, is a highlight of this gallery.

The theme of the third gallery is Enduring remembrance without fail. It explores the private, personal spaces of Han palaces, exhibiting objects from people’s bedrooms and bathrooms. Artifacts in this gallery include personal hygiene and grooming tools, a silver bath basin, incense burners, lacquer cosmetics boxes and sex toys. There are gifts from kings to their wives and lovers — silver belt hooks, a bronze mirror, a jade pendant — identifiable as such from inscriptions. There’s even an earthenware model of a toilet from the 2nd century B.C. found in 1995 in the tomb of the King of Chu dug into Jiangsu’s Tuolan Mountain.

I’d like to conclude with a special note of thanks to Zac Rose of the Asian Art Museum for the beautiful photographs and wealth of information he was kind enough to share with me. I’ve written about ancient Chinese tomb discoveries before, and I would have written about more of them had there been any remotely usable pictures. There’s no relief once artifacts are in museums either, since most Chinese museums don’t have detailed pictures of their collection online. Getting such spectacular high resolution shots of recently excavated artifacts from Han tombs is an incredibly rare treat and I’m so grateful.

And now, even more pictures!

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George Washington’s field tent stands again

Monday, January 30th, 2017

George Washington’s Headquarters Tent was his most consistent office, following him on campaigns for almost the entire duration of the Revolutionary War. He slept there (for real this time!), planned battles, wrote letters, met with his staff and visitors. Washington’s portable headquarters was kept in the family with many other artifacts from his service in the Revolutionary War for generations. It was the Civil War that wrested it from the family. The tent belonged to Mary Custis Lee, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and wife of Robert E. Lee. After her husband resigned his commission in the United States Army on April 20th, 1861, he set out for Richmond within days, leaving Mary behind at Arlington House in Alexandria, Virginia, the estate she’d inherited from her father George Washington Parke Custis (Martha Washington’s grandson).

She, like many on both sides, was sure the war would be over in a matter of months. Mary planned to ride out the short-lived hostilities in the comfort and safety of her home. That fantasy was shattered in less than a month. With the Union troops rapidly approaching, Mary Custis Lee packed a small selection of family treasures, including as many pieces of her Washington collection as she could carry. The headquarters tent and other marquees (she had several Washington tents) were too large to pack, so she locked them in the cellar and gave the keys to her elderly slave Selina Gray. She left Arlington House on May 15, 1861. Union troops occupied it on May 24th, confiscating the Washington field tents and other artifacts. Arlington House became the headquarters of Union General Irvin McDowell and the 1,000-acre plantation became a camp for 14,000 Union soldiers. Mary would never again return to her beloved family home. After the war, the Arlington House plantation was turned into the Arlington National Cemetery.

Meanwhile, the cellar key was burning a hole in Selina Gray’s pocket. McDowell was sympathetic to Mary Custis Lee — he wrote her a very kind letter promising to help safeguard her home — and had the utmost respect for her illustrious ancestry, but as the war dragged on into the end of 1861, he was increasingly unable to keep his restive troops from breaking into the house and pocketing any valuables they could find. When Gray saw that the cellar had been broken into and some of the Washington objects were missing, she told McDowell everything. She told him how historically significant these treasures were, gave him the key and a list of the missing artifacts.

With no realistic way to keep his men from stealing the house blind by dribs and dabs, McDowell wrote to his bosses in Washington that Arlington House was no longer safe “for the preservation of anything that is known to have an historical interest small or great.” In January of 1862, the tents and all other remaining pieces of the Washington patrimony were sent to the Patent Office in Washington where they went on display within two weeks in an exhibition organized by former Congressman Caleb Lyon called Captured at Arlington. Lyon had visited with the Lees before the war, and he personally saw to the packing, shipping, inventorying and installation of the tents in the Patent Office’s main exhibition hall.

The tents remained on display at the Patent Office for almost 20 years. The disastrous 1877 fire which destroyed 80,000 patent models and 300,000 drawings raised concerns about the safety of the Washington artifacts. In 1881 they were moved to more secure facilities at the Smithsonian Institution.

Despite her ailing health, Mary never stopped writing to anyone in the federal government who might help her get back her family heirlooms. She was ignored for years. Then for a moment in 1869 it looked like she might prevail after all when President Andrew Johnson approved the return the “relics of Mount Vernon.” He took it back when the press reported the story as the feds giving away all of the Father of Our Country’s stuff to rebel general Robert E. Lee.

Mary Custis Lee died in 1873 but the struggle lived on with her eldest son George Washington Parke Custis Lee. He petitioned successive administrations for the return of Arlington House and took it all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled in his favor. (Thousands of soldiers were already buried there, so Lee sold the property back to the government. It was the principle of the matter.) Then he hounded them for decades over the Washington memorabilia. Finally it was William McKinley, the last US President to be a Civil War veteran, who ordered the return of the Washington tents and artifacts to George Washington Parke Custis Lee. It was 1901.

After a struggle lasting 40 years, the family heirlooms were back in family hands. The Headquarters Tent was sold by Mary Custis Lee, Robert and Mary’s daughter, in 1909 to raise funds for Confederate widows. The buyer was Reverend W. Herbert Burk who spent a whopping $5,000 on it. An avid history buff, he was the founder of the Valley Forge Historical Society and of the Washington Memorial Chapel built at Valley Forge. He also founded the Valley Forge Museum of American History where the Headquarters Tent was erected outdoors in the snow, just like it was in George Washington’s Day. Burk’s extensive Revolutionary War collection, including the tent, became the core of the new Museum of the American Revolution’s collection in 2003.

Fourteen years later, the tent will one of the jewels of the new museum slated to open at long last this April. It needed a lot of care to make it ready for display. Textile conservator Virginia Whelan had to repair the linen’s 550 holes, a large missing piece (likely a victim of the practice of cutting souvenirs from famous textiles like the poor Star Spangled Banner) and numerous stains.

Wearing a thimble but no gloves, Ms. Whelan layered fine, nearly invisible netting over and under each hole, then used polyester thread finer than human hair to stitch around the damage to prevent further fraying. For large tears and the missing piece, she worked with the faculty of Philadelphia University’s textile design department to make high-resolution images of the fabric, which were printed on polyester with a digital inkjet printer.

The whole effort took 525 hours of handwork by Ms. Whelan and an assistant.

Then they had figure out to erect so fragile a textile. The original wooden poles and tent pegs are extant, but they’d be way too rough on the fabric these days.

Alex Stadel, a structural engineer from Keast & Hood, devised the custom base, which looks like two unfurled umbrellas, standing upright and connected by a ridgepole, adding some upright poles on tracks for additional flexibility.

To attach the walls to the tent top, the team avoided iron hooks and eyes that were used in the original design, and chose rare-earth magnets that tether the fabric in place.

The Museum of the American Revolution opens in the historic center of Philadelphia on April 19th, the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the opening salvo of the Revolutionary War.

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Fragments found of Amenhotep II box

Friday, January 27th, 2017

Recently identified fragments from an elaborately decorated wooden box inscribed with the cartouche of 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Amenhotep II have revealed new information about the original design of the box. The fragments were held by London antiques dealers Charles Ede. Egyptologist Tom Hardwick researched them and discovered their connection to the box in the National Museums Scotland. He alerted the gallery and the gallery alerted the museum. Thanks to financial support from the Art Fund and the National Museums Scotland Charitable Trust, the museum acquired the fragments for £25,000. The reunited box and fragments will go on display at the National Museums Scotland where they will be part of the exhibition The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial which runs from March 31st through September 3rd, 2017.

Made from Lebanese cedar wood, the cylindrical box was made around 1427-1400 B.C. with the finest of raw materials and craftsmanship. It is inlaid with ebony strips and ivory plaques with copper alloy and faience accents. Some of the gilding on the central figure of the god Bes and on three bands encircling the cylinder has survived. Ivory cartouches on the top half of the box contain the throne name of Amenhotep II. Underneath the cartouches are the Egyptian hieroglyph for “gold,” a symbol of the divine and eternal life. Notched ribs from palm tree branches, symbolizing the passage of a year and therefore the portent of a long reign, stand on either side of the cartouches. The cartouches and royal symbols festooned around Bes, fierce protector of hearth and home, suggests the box invoked the protection of a very personal, homebody god to ensure a long reign and life for Amenhotep.

The box has been in the collection of the National Museums Scotland for 160 years, but its origins are nebulous. The first time the box appears in the museum records is in the 1890s when it was first reassembled from fragments by archaeologist and museum director Joseph Anderson. According to an article written in 1895 by renown Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie, Anderson found the fragments in a box of odds and ends from the Rhind Collection.

Alexander Henry Rhind was a Scottish archaeologists who excavated Egypt in the mid-19th century and who pioneered detailed archaeological documentation. He brought back hundreds of artifacts now in the collection of the National Museums Scotland, including the full contents of a tomb he’d excavated in Thebes which was built in 1290 B.C. for the Chief of Police, looted repeatedly and reused for more than a 1000 years. When Rhind discovered the tomb, its last occupation from the Roman Egyptian era was undisturbed. Until he took it all to Scotland, of course. This is the tomb that is the focus of the National Museums Scotland’s upcoming exhibition.

Unfortunately, Rhind’s archaeological recording skills did not extend to documenting the discovery of the box fragments, and since he died in 1863 when he was just 29 years old he was no longer around to answer any questions by the time Joseph Anderson stumbled on the pieces. Museum curator and expert in Egyptian art Cyril Aldred studied the box in the 1940s. He made a detailed line drawing and watercolor of it in 1946 and proposed that Rhind had discovered the box in a tomb next to the recycled Roman Egyptian tomb. This tomb held the mummies of Amenhotep II’s granddaughters, among other princesses. They would have had good reason to have an extra fancy box dedicated to the grandpa, and since this was not the mummies’ original resting place but rather a second, less visible location used by priests to spare the royal remains from looting, the box’s fragmentary condition could be explained by the move.

The box was restored again in 1950s, and while it was less terrible than the 19th century attempt (the back is missing, but they still curved into a cylinder even though it was too skinny and the ends didn’t meet or match), conservators had to fill in blanks without references to what it might have looked like when whole. The newly surfaced fragments answer some of those questions and confirm that the last restoration was not accurate.

The decoration on one of the fragments features a motif representing the façade of the royal palace, tying in with the rich royal symbolism on the box, and confirming the object’s royal association. Furthermore, where the decoration of the box differs from that of the fragments, it reveals that the part of the box was incorrectly restored in mid-20th century.

The box is a much more elaborate version of the types of wooden containers often found in ancient Egyptian tombs, other examples of which are in National Museums Scotland’s collections. It was probably used in the royal palace to hold cosmetics or expensive perfumes and likely belonged to a member of the king’s family, most probably one of his granddaughters.

Even with its missing bits and questionable past restorations, the box is widely considered a masterpiece of ancient Egyptian decorative woodwork. Petrie described it as “a very interesting example of the fine work of that most wealthy and luxurious period, the 18th Dynasty.” After their stint on display in the new exhibition, the box and fragments will be kept in storage while the museums constructs a new Ancient Egypt gallery to house it. The new gallery is scheduled to be completed in 2018-2019.

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Early aviation collection goes on display for the first time

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

Evelyn Louise Way was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1893. She graduated from nursing school in 1916 and worked as a nurse. In 1926 she married Massachusetts industrialist Henry Plimpton Kendall who had turned a small, unsuccessful textile mill owned by his mother’s family (the Plimptons of Walpole, MA, whose scions include journalist George Plimpton and actress Martha Plimpton) into a hugely successful textile manufacturing company of national scope. Bought by Palmolive in the 1970s, the Kendall Company still lives today through brands like Curad bandages.

Both Evelyn and Henry were avid philanthropists and collectors with a broad range of interests. Together they assembled museum-quality collections that would eventually become the kernels of more than one museum. Their collection of early South Carolina maps and prints they donated to the University of South Carolina. Evelyn put her collection of dolls on display in the Kendall Doll Museum, now alas closed and the collection dispersed at auction. She donated her collection of antique clothing to the Royal Ontario Museum. The Way’s extensive, world-class collection of whaling artifacts went on display in the Kendall Whaling Museum in 1950, also now closed. The collection was donated to the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 2001.

Perhaps Evelyn Way Kendall’s greatest feat of collecting was the three decades she spent assembling the largest private collection of early aviation memorabilia. We don’t know what inspired this passion for aviation in Evelyn. One possible catalyst was a widely publicized rescue mission of lost balloonists that her father William Beal Way, a regional supervisor with the Canadian National Railroads, had participated in. In December of 1920, two U.S. Navy balloonists had been blown way off course from Long Island to the frozen hinterlands of Hudson Bay. The balloon was lost in the crash but the balloonists survived, braving hunger, Canada’s inclement December-January weather, and long distance travel on foot and by dog sled. William Way wrote a detailed account of their month-long ordeal and rescue which Evelyn apparently found riveting.

Whatever the origin story, from the 1920s until the 1950s, Evelyn amassed 78 original artworks, more than 400 prints, 330 books and manuscripts, historic photographs, portraits, aircraft designs and decorative objects from fans to snuff boxes to jewelry, all relating to ballooning, aeronauts and aeronautical history. Aviation was a popular subject for collectors at that time, thanks largely to the explosion of interest in the use of aeronautics — the Red Baron, the Zeppelin raids — during World War I. The likes Harry Frank Guggenheim and Vanderbilt relation William A.M. Burden collected aviation material, but even with their endlessly deep pockets, they came nowhere near breadth and quality of Evelyn Way Kendall’s collection. As early as 1931, scholars were already beating down her door for access to it.

The collection remained in the family after Evelyn’s death in 1979. In 2014, her descendants donated the Evelyn Way Kendall Ballooning and Early Aviation Collection to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. After documentation and conservation by Smithsonian experts, the unique collection is now going on display for the first time.

When the first balloon rose over the rooftops of Paris in the late 18th century, enormous crowds gathered to watch. This phenomenon spurred a new age of aeronauts dreaming of what else could fly. The excitement of this achievement was captured much like it would be today—in artwork and on memorabilia; objects such as decorative fans, china, snuff boxes and prints will be on display. “Clouds in a Bag” explores the fascination of the first balloon flights through these pieces.

“The invention of the balloon struck the men and women of the late 18th century like a thunderbolt,” said Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum. “After centuries of dreaming, we were airborne at last! Visitors to the exhibition will be able to share some of the excitement experienced by those who watched the first aerial travelers rise into the sky.”

The Clouds in a Bag exhibition opens at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, on Saturday, January 28th, and runs through 2018.

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