Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery

Rows upon rows of clear glass cases stand inside the brightly lit Margaret and Angus Wurtele Study Center, an open-access storage facility at West Campus. Within the vitrines are shelves lined with ceramic objects spanning diverse cultures and time periods. Walking alongside the shelves, one can step from intricate African sculptures to ancient Greek vases to Chinese porcelain to a collection of Picasso ceramics. Opposite the entrance and behind glass display cases are a series of white, metal sliding shelves. They are filled with, among other things, wooden staffs, tea cups and wall fragments excavated from Dura-Europos, Syria.

On Jan. 26, Professors Edward Cooke and Denise Leidy held the first class to be taught exclusively at the Wurtele Center. The class is a graduate course called “Lacquer in a World Context” and will meet for two hours every Friday in the spring.

Leidy, the Ruth and Bruce Dayton Curator of Asian Art at the Yale University Art Gallery, described the focus of the class as exploring the development of lacquer in East Asia and its spread across the world through global trade.

“What I’m hoping to do is set up a structure about what is lacquer, how is it used, and where is it used, and then to develop language for talking about how things start one place and move elsewhere,” she said.

The Wurtele Center is nestled within Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, an over 500,000-square-foot building located at West Campus. The Institute houses art collections from the YUAG, the Yale Center for British Art, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, along with cutting-edge research laboratories.

Though primarily an open storage facility, the Wurtele Center also serves as a study and teaching space. The inclusion of seminar spaces and classrooms speaks to the centrality of teaching to the Wurtele Center and the YUAG’s mission.

Director of the YUAG Jock Reynolds said, “When the students come in and start to be entranced by the power of which art can communicate when it’s really terrific stuff, it starts to excite people. It gets them involved, and we want to support that kind of active learning and enjoyment.”

The Wurtele Center, which opened in October, has long been in the making. The establishment of the center was originally made possible by the donations of Margaret and Angus Wurtele, who were among YUAG’s most generous donors, according to Reynolds. Though Angus Wurtele has since passed away, Margaret Wurtele will attend a celebratory ceremony in April.

The endeavor to create a new storage facility began 10 years ago when Yale purchased the Bayer Pharmaceutical campus, which is composed of large warehouses and smaller laboratories. Then, former University President Richard Levin gave a 40,000-square-foot space to the YUAG in order to more actively integrate the art collections with the humanities and sciences.

Before the Wurtele Center opened, the YUAG collections had been stored completely in the Library Shelving Facility in Hamden. Though the LSF organization was state-of-the-art when developed in 2003, there were significant shortcomings, including accessibility.

Carol Snow, deputy chief conservator and senior conservator of objects at the YUAG, described the old organizational system as “close to inaccessible.”

“When [the collections] were stored previously at the Library Shelving Facility, it was sort of an Ikea-model of storage, where everything was on racks and crates and boxes, and you couldn’t see anything. You had to have power equipment and special equipment to bring things down,” she added.

In order to decide what to do with the newly designated 40,000-square-foot space, formerly a pill production plant, the YUAG chief curator assembled a task force spanning several departments across the art gallery, including John Stuart Gordon, the associate curator of American Decorative Arts who served as the curatorial lead on the project.

In addressing accessibility and visibility concerns, the task force decided to restructure the organizational system into one that would allow for high density, compact storage, much like ones in libraries. “We decided to go from a vertical model to a horizontal one where everything is on one plane,” Gordon said. “Everything is in easily accessible cases that a curator or staff-member could open on their own, and everything is visible.”

This highly compact storage system takes up two thirds of the Wurtele Center, with the final third composed of glass exhibition cases. Additionally, all objects in the space are items that one person acting alone should be able to hold. This constraint reinforces the user-friendly focus of the Wurtele Center.

What Gordon is most proud of, however, is the new way of sorting objects. Rather than sorting objects by size, as had been done in the LSF, the new system would sort by medium. Not only would this allow for the better preservation of objects, but it would also provide interesting juxtapositions between objects that would not normally sit beside one another in typical museum spaces segmented by cultural groups and nationalities.

“There’s so many continuities between our collections, and there’s so many continuities between craft practices across the globe,” Gordon said. “The way someone in ancient Greece is thinking about pottery is not that different than the way Mesoamericans were thinking about pottery, but those cultures have little actual overlap. There is just some kind of innate use of how you use a material.”

This ready juxtaposition of diverse objects is central to the class being taught at the Wurtele Center, as lacquer has so many permutations and can be found in different cultures across the world.

“Objects have always been rather global,” Cooke said. “What’s really nice about being able to use that collection is that if all departments are out there in terms of their collections, it makes it easier to make those kinds of comparative and connective kinds of interpretive moves.”

In addition to comparisons made across collections within the YUAG’s holding, the proximity of collections within the ICPH easily facilitates the potential for comparisons and connections across institutions on campus.

In speaking about the closeness of the YUAG and Peabody collections within the ICPH, Snow said, “For students and scholars, it’s a really useful way to have access to both collections, whether you call it anthropology or natural history or works of art from the Art Gallery. There’s a lot of crossover. In fact, some of the exact same kinds of objects are in both collections, but you know one might have been collected by an anthropologist and one by an art historian.”

Another advantage of the Wurtele Center is that it can provide a very hands-on and immersive classroom experience. In class, students are encouraged to handle the art. Though initially worried by the idea, Snow said that after watching Cooke’s students handle some objects — seeing how careful students were and how much more students got out of the experience — she was “completely converted to this kind of hands-on classroom.”

In terms of teaching an object-driven course such as Lacquer in a World Context, Leidy emphasized the importance of seeing and handling the objects in person, rather than learning about them through a book or a slide in a classroom.

“These are three-dimensional objects,” Leidy said. “They live very much in the world, and seeing them is really useful to knowing them and holding them is really useful to knowing them.”

Shweta Raghu, graduate student in the History of Art department and a student in Lacquer in a World Context, also subscribes to a hands-on learning experience. “You can sense [an object’s] temperature, the way it sounds, so you can learn a lot about the medium, whether it’s wood or metal and how it’s made by actually using that haptic-sensibility,” she said.

Transportation, however, serves as a significant obstacle to taking classes at the Wurtele Center in the first place. West Campus, located around 15 minutes from the Central campus by car, can be reached using the Yale University Shuttle through the Green or Purple lines. The shuttle service, however, leaves from the Medical School campus, makes many stops and can be irregular.

“A number of classes and departments have moved out there, so it’s a much more vital place than it was when we began working on this project,” Gordon said. “Still, it’s a big hurdle for us, especially given the current course structure, where there’s such little time between courses that most students are struggling to get from one side of campus to the other, much less to get to West Haven to downtown New Haven between classes.”

Despite the added difficulties of commuting to West Campus, Anna Piwowar ’18, an intern in the Conservation Department at the IPCH, argued for the benefits of making the trip to West Campus.

Though the Wurtele Center is less accessible than the YUAG, Piwowar described the global perspective and the immensity of the collection as worth the trip. She added that the collection on display in the art gallery is meticulously selected and inherently biased, so the open storage space provides a better idea of what and how things are actually collected.

Gordon, too, remained optimistic.

“Our goal was to create something that was so dynamic and so exciting that then it would overcome the hurdles of distance and overcome the hurdles of people’s schedules, and I’m confident that we’ve done that part.”

Selena Leeselena.lee@yale.edu