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Kristina McClendon, Curating Feeling: Emotions and the Exhibition Space in Displays of Nineteenth-Century Art and Culture

2015 September 3

Kristina McClendon is a graduate student pursuing an MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her current areas of academic study and research interests include: fiction in nineteenth-century periodicals with a particular emphasis on feminist publications and women’s magazines, theatrical adaptations of Victorian novels, American women in Victorian London, and Queen Victoria’s connection to various Victorian artistic and literary works. Originally from Southern California, Kristina is thrilled to be studying in London and using every available opportunity to investigate all aspects of Victorian culture in the United Kingdom. She is a member of the British Association for Victorian Studies, the Nineteenth-Century Theatre Caucus, and Sigma Tau Delta International English Honour Society.

On Thursday, July 16, the Birkbeck Forum for Nineteenth Century Studies hosted a panel discussion entitled Curating Feeling with presentations by Michael Hatt, Victoria Mills, Lynda Nead, and Alison Smith. As a kick-off for the major international conference, ‘The Arts and Feeling in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture’, this discussion allowed scholars, students, and others from academia and the art world to gather for an enlightening dialogue exploring the role of emotions and feeling in curating exhibitions of nineteenth-century art and culture. Primarily focusing on the most recent exhibitions by these scholars and curators, the panel offered a fitting conclusion to the Tate Britain’s exhibition Sculpture Victorious as well as a captivating introduction to the Foundling Museum’s upcoming exhibition, The Fallen Woman.

John Bell, "The American Slave", 1853, bronze and silver, Cragside, Northumberland (Accredited Museum)

John Bell, "The American Slave", 1853, bronze and silver, Cragside, Northumberland (Accredited Museum)

Alison Smith, one of the lead curators for British Art to 1900 at the Tate Britain opened the panel discussion by describing the unique role curators play in directing emotional responses. Smith defined the curator as a keeper or custodian whose work develops a collection through interpretation and selection. She noted the necessity of slow looking and the relationship between image and text in offering these emotional responses and connecting viewer to painting.

Smith highlighted several factors that go into creating emotion between the viewer and work of art with particular reference to the Tate’s most recent nineteenth-century exhibition, Sculpture Victorious. Her key example from this exhibition was the display of John Bell’s The American Slave (1853) and Hiram Powers The Greek Slave(1851). She explained that for these statues, positioned in relation to each other, the background text was not enough to convey the context to the viewer in regards to issues of race. In navigating this topic, the exhibition organisers settled on adding additional text in order to explain the moral purpose and unsettling nature of Bell’s sculpture. Smith also brought attention to issues of distance between object and viewer with a specific discussion of the size of the plinths surrounding these statues and how this distance can have a dramatic effect on viewers’ emotional responses.

Hiram Powers, "The Greek Slave", 1851, marble, Yale University Art Gallery

Hiram Powers, "The Greek Slave", 1851, marble, Yale University Art Gallery

Drawing on her expansive experience in curating the Tate Britain’s Victorian art collection, Smith went on to describe occasions when she had been guided by emotion as a curator. For her, working with single artists has explored the role of feeling more thoroughly in her work. For example, she cited her experience curating the Tate’s Millais exhibition in 2007. In this exhibition, Smith was able to rehabilitate Millais as painter of feeling by showing his strengths at every stage of his career. The display of Ophelia (1851-2) during this exhibition afforded visitors a rare opportunity to see the picture unglazed; this difference offered not only a new way of seeing this beloved painting but also new emotional responses as well. This exhibition was punctuated with key info on Millais including a replica of his studio with his son’s portrait unframed and unglazed on an easel. This display offered a very emotional look at the artist following the death of George in 1878 from typhoid, moving many viewers to tears. Smith cited this exhibition and display in particular as an example of the communicative effect curators can have on creating emotional responses to artists and their work.

John Everett Millais, "Ophelia", 1851-2, oil paint on canvas, Tate.

John Everett Millais, "Ophelia", 1851-2, oil paint on canvas, Tate.

Smith then utilized Millais’s The North-West Passage (1874) to describe lighting and conservation efforts as part of the emotional viewing process. She noted how this painting in particular can elicit various emotional responses as a result of changes in lighting. Following conservation efforts, this painting will be displayed at the Tate Britain’s newest exhibition, Artist and Empire, running from 25 November 2015 to 10 April 2016. The painting has been cleaned and the touch of the conservator has brought the subject to life through light. Smith concluded her presentation by clarifying that curating includes inward feeling but it must be done at a distance.

John Everett Millais, "The North-West Passage", 1874, oil paint on canvas, Tate.
John Everett Millais, “The North-West Passage”, 1874, oil paint on canvas, Tate.

 

Michael Hatt, Professor of History of Art and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Warwick was next introduced to discuss his role in curating the Sculpture Victorious: Art in the Age of Invention, 1847-1901 exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art in Autumn 2014. He opened his presentation by asking a series of questions related to emotion and art: ‘Can feeling be curated? It is possible to convey emotional content and historical significant together?’ He explained that our modern tendency towards feeling is very public and visible which is often at odds with nineteenth-century sculpture. Rather, he clarified that Victorian sculpture is both impersonal in its materials and intimate in how it relates to our awareness of our bodies. Sculpture was used by Victorians to show how our feelings relate to the body politic.

Utilizing his experience in curating Sculpture Victorious Hatt went on to elucidate this relationship between Victorian sculpture, feeling, and the body politic. He explained that the exhibition was not explicitly about feeling but that’s not to say that feeling was not present. Again citing John Bell’s The American Slave and Hiram Powers The Greek Slave, Hatt described how the exhibition dramatized the differences in these two sculptures, eliciting piety and pathos. The positioning of these statues was key in expanding on the emotional process as well as hinting at the complexities behind their relationship. Hatt also noted how reproductions of The Greek Slave reveal how objects and emotional responses change, specifically in regards to stereoscopic and panoramic reproductions.

Model for the "Wellington Monument" in St Paul’s Cathedral, Alfred Stevens, 1857, Victoria & Albert Museum.

Model for the "Wellington Monument" in St Paul’s Cathedral, Alfred Stevens, 1857, Victoria & Albert Museum.

Hatt’s second example from this exhibition focused on commemorative statues. Monuments were particularly important for the era as political and national forces. To illustrate this point, Hatt used the Wellington Monument by Alfred Stevens located in St. Paul’s Cathedral. He went on to describe the Duke’s funeral procession as monument as well as panoramas of the event. The Duke’s death mask was also included in the exhibition, however Hatt clarified that it was not intended to be just another object. He hoped that visitors would register the differences between the crowd of the public funeral in contrast to the physical intimacy of creating the death mask. In this way, the strategy behind Sculpture Victoriousin this instance was to demonstrate these complex feelings by placing the viewer between the poles of glorious and spectral. Overall, Hatt explained that the exhibition asked viewers to reflect on these intricate historical formations, feeling, and the Victorian meditation of art.

"Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington", George Gammon Adams, 1852 plaster cast of death-mask, National Portrait Gallery.

"Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington", George Gammon Adams, 1852 plaster cast of death-mask, National Portrait Gallery.

Victoria Mills, Research Fellow at Darwin College, University of Cambridge opened the second half of the panel discussion by describing her work on the highly anticipated upcoming exhibition The Fallen Woman. Running from 25 September 2015 to 3 January 2016 at the Foundling Museum, this exhibition will focus ‘on the myth and reality of the “fallen woman” in Victorian Britain.’ [1] Mills’ presentation went into great detail about the origin, research, and content of the exhibition specifically in relation to the real life experiences of fallen women from 1830 to 1870. Researching the written petitions of women applying to the Foundling Hospital, she described the relationship between the archive and emotion.

 

Mills explained the process of admittance to the hospital as well as the organization of archive. In order to be admitted to the hospital, women had to complete a petition, meeting the listed criteria, rules, and regulations. For example, in order to be admitted the child must be no older than twelve months and the mother must appear in person. Once the petition was submitted, the all-male hospital committee interviewed the mother, asking highly detailed and invasive questions regarding the mother’s sexual relationship with the father. The mother also had to supply references from employers, friends, and family members. The petitions were organized in bundles of acceptances and rejections, some even appearing in stacks on metal spikes.

 

Mills described the archive as a sort of repository of emotion. She was interested in finding first person testimonies amidst the petitions and committee notes.  Mills explained that the archive was both moving and disturbing due to the nature of detail. For example, many of the descriptions divulged traumatic experiences, seductions that would be classified as rape and sexual assault, feelings of despair and hopelessness, and even attempted suicides. In working with the archive, Mills admitted it was possible to become desensitized to the trauma and real life experiences due to the expansive amount of petitions and stock situations and descriptions. Following the investigation of this archive, Mills interrogated the idea of presenting this information in relation to emotional responses. ‘How do we interpret and present these responses? How can we bear witness to this emotion? What do we ask of museum visitors? Is such knowledge a burden for visitors?’. In light of these difficult questions, Mills concluded her presentation by illustrating this predicament of concealment in an exhibition setting and how to expose these stories appropriately in the intimacy of the museum context.

"The Fallen Woman"

"The Fallen Woman"

The final presentation by Lynda Nead, Pevsner Chair of History of Art at Birkbeck College, University of London, concluded the panel with an illuminating discussion of the role of feeling and emotion in the study of history, art, and the humanities by drawing upon her experience curating The Fallen Woman exhibition. She explained, that as a scholar of theory, she approached the archive at the Foundling Museum as a representation of a familiar narrative in scholarship. In this exhibition though she wanted to break down the barriers between myth and authenticity. In examining the archive, it was clearly evident that women knew the specific ways to manipulate the system in order to gain admittance to the hospital. They were reacting to certain assumptions, strategically accommodating the institution, and using feeling for their own needs. More specifically, Nead pointed out how the petitions and first-person accounts never contained expressions of sexual desire or suggestions that the women had undertaken these risks for sex. The language and stories typically always described attacks and assault. Thus Nead explained that it is difficult to be certain that these are real life stories and accounts. I found Nead’s examination of these strategies and ideas to be a particularly captivating way of not only engaging with the archive but also questioning how to convey these complexities to exhibition visitors.

Nead closed her presentation with a final description of a sound installation that was commissioned for the exhibition. The installation by musician and composer Steve Lewinson will feature women reading the petition questions and responses. Nead described how this unique installation will not only activate these stories but also elicit emotional responses by haunting and disturbing the exhibition.

Overall, Curating Feeling offered an in-depth and insightful look at how feeling and emotion are crafted and utilized in contemporary exhibitions of nineteenth-century art. Audience participation and questions at the end of the panel presentations expanded on many of the themes discussed in relation to emotion and the body as well as the noticeable lack of positive feeling in both exhibitions and scholarly discourse. I found the dialogue between these curators, scholars, and audience members to be especially engaging and relevant to my own experiences with the exhibitions mentioned above. As a student of Victorian Studies, the multifaceted responses to how emotion and feeling can be incorporated into the exhibition space, scholarship, and archival research has also allowed me to assess my own research interests and emotive responses.

 


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