Last February, feet of snow obscured Yale’s walkways. But thousands of miles south, beneath ancient blankets of ice, Professor Thomas Near braved the Antarctic chill in pursuit of rarely-seen sea creatures — dead or alive.
A Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Assistant Professor, Near was on a Yale-sponsored expedition to the southern hemisphere’s icy tundras with nearly 20 other researchers to collect regional specimens and materials for the permanent collections of institutions around the world, including Yale’s own Peabody Museum of Natural History. Bringing back thousands of crustaceans, fish and other beasts of the frigid depths of Antarctic archipelagos, Near worked to expand Yale’s material possessions — providing the most recent additions to the University’s expansive stores of knowledge.
These stores are constantly growing, pervading Yale’s numerous interests and overwhelming its limited storage facilities. And while most Yalies remain unaware of the unceasing acquisitions made by Yale’s galleries and museums, the professional lives of these institutions’ curators focus on the management and application of Yale’s ever-growing collections.
And students should be shocked by the fascinating new pieces added to the University’s already impressive holdings.
THE PEABODY MUSEUM OF YALE UNIVERSITY
Near’s six-week expedition to the South Orkney Islands of Antarctica is not unique, according to him. He estimated the University participates in ten to twenty similar expeditions each year, along with professor-lead field studies in which students participate in collecting materials and specimens. But considering the additions made to the University’s collections, Near said these expeditions were “bargains” for Yale.
“Yale mostly just covered our travel expenses to and from the site,” Near noted, “and the shipping of the materials from the site to Connecticut.”
The expedition involved traveling to the southernmost point of Chile and departing from Punta Arenas for the Southern Ocean via a vessel manned by approximately 60 Russians. While Near joked that the relaxed focus on safety on the ship — and the peer-pressure to drink “a bottle of whiskey among six people” — may have contributed to a slightly dangerous work environment, the Yale team was able to collect 950 high-quality fish specimens and thousands of invertebrates — such as sponges, starfish and cnidarians — for the Peabody’s collection.
“It just goes to show the lengths people go to in order to collect these materials,” Near said.
While the materials are generally reserved for academic and research purposes, maintained in storage units rarely seen by casual attendants of the museum’s exhibitions, the Peabody’s Assistant Director for Collections and Operations Tim White said students have a variety of opportunities to access the materials of the museum. White said the museum hires approximately thirty to fifty students every year to help catalog and manage the collection. The jobs range from tagging butterflies to collecting samples from fish collections.
“Right now we have 10,000 bumblebees from a recent collection in southern Connecticut that we’re trying to catalogue,” White added. “Maybe we can put you to work.”
YALE UNIVERSITY ART GALLERY
At the Yale University Art Gallery, new acquisitions tend to reside behind the scenes, kept in storage units far from the Gallery’s patrons. But a few lucky pieces make it on display, incorporated by the curatorial staff to compliment already present works of art.
Some works integrate into the space more seamlessly than others, and the Gallery’s staff often struggles to find context for a recently acquired piece. “Cosmographical Painting of the World of Mortals”, a 15th-16th century Indian painting added to the Gallery’s collection this year, now resides among other images of the Buddha on the second floor Asian Art section. The large piece, a gift of private donors, necessitated extensive re-arrangement of the surrounding art in order to find an appropriate place on gallery walls.
Other recently acquired objects such as “Resurrection of Lazarus”, a highly-studied 1570 oil painting by Sienese master Marco Pino in imitation of Michelangelo, were purchased by the University Art Gallery using privately endowed funds.
The most effectively placed new art completes, rather than complements, pre-existing exhibitions. In the Gallery’s Asian Art wing, three newly obtained pieces of modern Japanese ceramics are displayed as both a visual conclusion and counterpoint to the older pieces within the same exhibit detailing Japan’s history, in art. The “Mountain Vessel,” a stoneware piece glazed with natural ash, was created in 2008 by renowned Hagi potter Kaneta Masanao and purchased this year with a gift from the B.D.G. Leviton Foundation. By echoing the Japanese artistic tradition of imitating nature with art and displaying new, angular tendencies in modern ceramics, “Mountain Vessel” has proven itself a crucial newcomer to a long-standing collection.
YALE CENTER FOR BRITISH ART
Across the street from the Gallery, the Yale Center for British Art has accrued pieces focused tightly on its very particular theme — British art. While this subject may seem stifling, judging by the Center’s 134 new acquisitions during the 2009 fiscal year, the collection has had no trouble expanding. In fact, the sweeping majority of the newly acquired items are currently in storage, waiting for an opportunity to be incorporated into an exhibition or simply to be hung on the walls of the gallery’s permanent collection. Like the University’s other art collections, the Center depends heavily on gifts, according to Ricardo Sandoval ’06, a public relations coordinator at the Center. Sandoval added that, while the Center normally purchases several paintings a year, the proportion of purchases is overwhelmed by the number of donations made to the Center in any given year.
“We’ve had to forgo considering many pieces because we simply can’t afford them,” Sandoval said.
But that’s not to diminish the value of the Center’s collection. On its walls hang a number of works by the likes of Constable, Turner, Hogarth and Gainsborough. And just last year, a rare print by Gainsborough titled “A Moonlit Landscape with Cattle by a Pool” was added to the gallery’s collection with the help of the Paul Mellon Fund — an endowment left to the Center at its founding. While the Gainsborough is currently not on display, similar to the rest of last year’s acquisitions, a newly acquired print by Grayson Perry was put on display during the spring in recognition of Perry’s visit to the Yale campus. For many students, whether or not the pieces are ever presented on the walls of the Center is not a matter of importance because they rarely enter the gallery’s glass doors. But Sandoval said that each piece will nonetheless be featured on the presentation floor of the Center at some point in the future.
YALE FURNITURE STUDY
From its underground offices on York Street, the Yale Furniture Study is an active collector of clockwork, woodwork and furniture included under the umbrella of American Decorative Arts. A former bakery, the meager-sized warehouse space of the Study — with its white paint peeling and its fluorescent lights flickering — does not aggrandize significant furnishings in the history of American art.
Kevin Adkisson ’12, a Nancy Horton Bartels Scholarship Intern at the Furniture Study, is responsible for researching furniture manufactured or designed between 2006 to 2007 to determine which pieces are important enough to pursue purchasing. Some items he said he is currently considering include Ikea’s Poäng chair, which Adkisson called the “ubiquitous dorm-room chair and probably one of the best-selling chairs of all time.”
Though, Adkisson added, there’s nothing from Ikea in the Study at the current time.
These researched items proposed for purchase, however, do not make up a great proportion of the materials in the collection. During the 2007-2008 academic year, the Study became the owner of nearly two dozen pieces of furniture and woodwork, most of which were bequeathed by Yale alumni. Among the pieces is a side chair completed in 1850 given by Stephen Parks ’61. Its red velvet upholstery, worn with age, is a sign of American luxuries from a past time. Meanwhile, a Thomas Hucker chair completed in 1996 currently sits at the head of an aisle of the Study, still waiting for the necessary paperwork of its acquisition to be completed. Museum Assistant for the Department of American Decorative Arts Katherine Chabla said that while the piece has yet to be officially acquired by the university, it will not likely be returned in the acquisition process.
Though, Friends of American Arts curator Patricia Kane said the 2007-2008 year was an anomaly. On average, she said the University Art Gallery’s Department of Decorative Arts acquires at least fifty pieces, with approximately 10 percent of them having belonged to the Furniture Study.
While these collections continue to grow, none of the officials involved in the acquisition process were willing to discuss the finances. Rather, they stated that they have access to limited funding and depend mostly on private donations to fill their galleries. Still, there’s no doubt that the University has made its collections a top priority, regardless of whether or not students are aware of their prominence or expansion.
“I meet a lot of people who say they’re now in the sciences because they went to Yale’s Peabody Museum when they were younger,” Near said. “These are really important institutions on our campus and we really have to make sure they continue to improve.”