YCBA chronicles British history

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Photo by Joy Shan.

In keeping with a tradition of chronicling Britain’s material past, the Yale Center for British Art opened a new exhibit called “Making History: Antiquaries in Britain” on Thursday.

The exhibit features 100 works borrowed from the archives of the Society of Antiquaries of London, an academic institution founded in 1707 dedicated to the preservation of artifacts from Britain’s past, along with 50 selections owned by Yale organizations. The exhibit was based off a show put on by the Society of Antiquaries in 2007 at the Royal Academy of Arts in celebration of the organization’s 300th anniversary. Because Yale’s British Art Center is the largest study center and museum devoted to British art outside of the United Kingdom, it was a “natural partner” to host the society’s treasures stateside, said Maurice Howard, president of the Society of Antiquaries and a professor of art history at the University of Sussex.

“[The show] forces you to look at the role of chronicle carefully,” said Elizabeth Fairman, the British Art Center’s senior curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts. “It’s not just [about] country, it’s all mankind.”

Fairman worked with Nancy Netzer, the director of the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, to curate the show in collaboration with the Society of Antiquaries, of which Fairman and Netzer are fellows. Three years ago, Netzer approached the society about a possible U.S. exhibit, having seen the show at the Royal Academy, which Netzer said was meant to be the final stop on a three-year tour in Britain. Before coming to Yale, where it will remain on view through late May, the exhibit was displayed at the museum at Boston College.

Fairman said “Making History” is the British Art Center’s most complicated show to date, given the number of objects in the exhibit and a challenging two-week installation process. For instance, the mid-15th century “Roll Chronicle,” an illuminated ink-on-parchment work recording Henry II’s descent from Adam and Eve, required a case specially manufactured to accommodate its 40-foot length. Due to its age and size, Fairman said the “Roll Chronicle” has never been displayed before and will likely never go on display again.

The exhibit is divided into eight thematic sections, showcasing works such as a manuscript copy of the Magna Carta, a Late Bronze Age shield, William Morris woodblocks, the first aerial photograph taken of Stonehenge and Turner watercolors. Fairman said she wanted to prevent viewers from becoming preoccupied with viewing the artifacts in any particular order, eschewing a setup that would organize the rooms in a linear fashion.

Howard said his his greatest hope for the show is for American students and scholars to begin asking about the role of antiquaries in their home country.

In addition to works lent by the Society of Antiquaries of London, the British Art Center drew on its own collection, as well as from those of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the Elizabethan Club of Yale University, Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library and the Yale University Art Gallery.

The exhibit runs through May 27.

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