Although castles are becoming obsolete, they still retain historical value as time capsules of historical British moments.
The Yale Center for British Art’s exhibit, “The British Castle — A Symbol in Stone,” features paintings and sketches about British castles. While the theme is based on British castles, other works in the exhibition, which opened last Friday, include paintings of royal families connected to the structures. The exhibition was curated solely by undergraduate students, the first show of its kind to do so in the YCBA’s Long Gallery located on the fourth floor.
“It was wonderful working with various departments of the museum — Paintings and Sculpture, Prints and Drawings, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Conservation, really every department of the Center — in a way that was very new to me, from the curatorial side,” said Catherine Chang ’20, one of the show’s eight student curators.
Chang said her motivation for joining the event stemmed from her desire to experience a different aspect of art institution work aside from what she normally does as a YCBA student guide. She noted that it is exceptionally rare for an art institution, even a University-affiliated one with the YCBA’s emphasis on education, to give students an opportunity to curate an exhibit.
The student curators were all members of Art in Focus, a program for which YCBA student guides can apply after working for a year.
David Lewis, the YCBA postdoctoral research associate who led the student curators, said this exhibition was a chance for students to learn about “salon-style hang,” which involves suspending multiple works on a single wall. Lewis added that this method of curation is especially challenging due to factors such as spacing and composition.
“We collaborated as a group every step of the way — there were no unilateral decisions made about any aspect of the exhibit,” Chang said. “The student guides are very close as a group, and that really came through as we worked on [the exhibition] together.”
Daniel Leibovic ’17, another student curator, said the most interesting thing he learned from curating the exhibit was how to imagine what is absent in a museum exhibition. He described curating as a process of “cutting things out,” which includes deciding on an exhibition theme, leaving out certain works of art and deciding which objects to showcase. He added that other considerations which factor into the decision-making process include physical arrangement of objects and the best method of communicating text to visitors.
“Museums are even more intriguing when you consider their omissions, in addition to what they selectively included,” Leibovic said.
Chang recalled going down into the Center’s storage during the project’s early goings. She said the curators were able to look through the paintings there to select pieces for the exhibit, adding that it was breathtaking to see so many beautiful works of art but even more amazing to realize that she would bring some of them to share with the public.
Chang said her favorite painting is a small oil sketch of Hadleigh Castle by John Constable. The sketch almost seems to glow, she said, and it struck her as the perfect centerpiece for the exhibition’s theme as it represents the castle in the British imagination through the memory of one of Britain’s most revered painters.
Lewis said he chose the theme of British castles because he thought it would appeal broadly to students as well as be intellectually interesting. Castles are a particularly interesting building type because they became obsolete by the end of the Middle Ages, he said, and examining their meanings in subsequent periods is a good way to trace changes in British society.
The exhibition will be on display in the Long Gallery through Aug. 6.