New collection, new curator

Three weeks ago, Ruth Barnes assumed her position as the first curator of Indo-Pacific art at the Yale University Art Gallery.
Three weeks ago, Ruth Barnes assumed her position as the first curator of Indo-Pacific art at the Yale University Art Gallery. Photo by Lauren Motzkin.

Ruth Barnes was exposed to Indonesian culture for the first time when she accompanied her then-fiancé, an anthropologist, on a trip to Indonesia while he conducted research in the region. The couple’s first home was a bamboo hut on the side of a volcano in Eastern Indonesia.

Now, as a collection of Indonesian textiles, gold Javanese jewelry and Southeast Asian statuettes begins to arrive at the Yale University Art Gallery, Barnes is settling into her new job at Yale as the Thomas Jaffe Curator of Indo-Pacific Art at the art gallery.

Last March, the gallery created a new department for Indo-Pacific Art and appointed Barnes its first curator. Just three weeks ago, Barnes, who was previously the curator of textiles in the department of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, moved to New Haven to assume her position. Barnes said she will prioritize increasing interdisciplinary cooperation among different University departments, such as the Peabody Museum, the Council on Southeast Asia Studies and Sterling Memorial Library. Professors and administrators who work with Barnes said her expertise in the field and her curatorial work will bring to the attention of the Yale community both the newly acquired Indo-Pacific art at the gallery and Yale’s largely unknown resources from the region.

“[Yale has] a really, really important, superb collection [of Southeast Asian art],” Barnes said. “This could really be an opportunity to expand and open up that field again.”

For example, Barnes noted that Sterling Memorial Library has one of the largest collections of Southeast Asian books in the country. The Peabody Museum also has extensive collections from the Philippines, Indonesia and New Guinea in particular, said Roger Colten, the senior collections manager for the department of anthropology at the museum. Colten, who was on the search committee that selected Barnes for the curatorial position, said she came to the Peabody to see the collection during one of her visits to Yale last year.

The Indo-Pacific department at the art gallery was created last March through Thomas Jaffe’s ’71 gift of 500 ancient sculptures from Southeast Asia, along with an endowment for a curatorial chair. The department will also be home to a collection of Javanese gold jewelry and ritual objects, a gift from Hunter and Valerie Thompson, and nearly 500 pieces of Indonesian textiles.

It is the Javanese gold that Barnes will first put on display, she said. Although the permanent collection will not be displayed until 2012, Barnes said she plans to curate a small show of these gold pieces in the Asian art gallery in the spring of 2011 to honor the gift made by the Thompsons. The exhibition will be accompanied by a symposium and a performance of Javanese music, Barnes said.

David Sensabaugh, curator of Asian art at the gallery, said he will be happy to reinstall part of his gallery space with the gold pieces, in part because of the close links between Indonesia and the Asian continent. And when renovations at the art gallery are completed in 2012, the two departments will share the second floor of the Louis I. Kahn building.

Barnes has also been appointed to the Council on Southeast Asian Studies at Yale, an interdisciplinary group that brings together faculty members and students in different fields who are interested in studying Southeast Asia. Joseph Errington, professor of anthropology and the chair of the council, said Barnes’s knowledge will be invaluable to the group as Yale’s only art historian who focuses specifically on Southeast Asia. Through the council, Barnes will have access to professors and students who are interested in music, history, economics, anthropology and environmental science, allowing her to cross disciplinary boundaries. Barnes said she would like to teach classes as well, though she is not teaching this semester.

“That is something that excites me,” Barnes said. “I love culturally specific galleries, but when you can make contacts and connections, that is what I find really interesting.”

The name Indo-Pacific once referred to a family of languages from Southeast Asia and the Pacific, though the term is no longer used in linguistics. The Indo-Pacific art collection at the gallery currently comprises Indonesian and Javanese art.

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