By Brieanah Gouveia
Dr. Leslie Warden took her Encyclopedic Museums class to visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond on Saturday, Feb. 6. Beginning the tour at around noon, students were greeted by the curator of the VMFA’s Ancient Art Collection, Dr. Peter Schertz.
Dr. Schertz first took students to a room housing a portion of the museum’s 20th century art, specifically German Expressionist art from the collection of Ludwig and Rosy Fischer. This half of a once larger collection is special in that it was given as a gift-purchase to the museum in the 1930’s, fortunately evading the destructive grasp of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party’s “degenerate” art purge. Dr. Schertz pointed out a particular sculpture of a very simplistic human form within the collection, and told students to keep it in mind while they moved upstairs to the Ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan wing. There, a roughly 4,400-year-old Cycladic figurine from the ancient Minoan civilization strikingly resembled the simplistic form of the 20th century statuette. Dr. Schertz goal was to emphasize the value of Encyclopedia Museum’s in revealing the cultural influences in art over time, even between civilizations that may be millennia apart.
A fundamental goal to the work of a museum is increasing visitor turnout by appealing to the surrounding community. Dr. Schertz has been able to achieve this by relating Richmond’s history to cultures within the VMFA’s own collection. Just last year Dr. Schertz acquired a stunning Ancient Greek jug for the museum with a body in the form of an African individual’s head. He found this to be a valuable artifact because it has helped facilitate dialogue about the importance of different civilizations in the development of Ancient Greece. Its further importance is revealed when taking into account that Ancient Greece has been strongly emulated and appropriated by Europe and America, while other cultures that influenced the Classical World, such as Africa, are lost in the shadows. By publicly displaying this particular Greek vessel, depicting an African, in Richmond, VA –the once capital of the Confederacy — huge implications are made about Virginia’s own controversial history with these peoples.
In addition to the aforementioned collections, Dr. Schertz also guided students around the VMFA’s small but captivating Egyptian gallery, which houses one of the oldest surviving mummies, Tjeby, dating to Egypt’s First Intermediate Period, or roughly 2,000 BC. Here the 2-hour talk came to a close before beautifully carved figurines of Egyptian religious deities. Following this, students were gifted free tickets to the museum’s traveling exhibition featuring the sculptures of Auguste Rodin. Afterwards, the class was able to spend the remaining two hours freely roaming around the many other galleries.
The point of the tour was to give students an idea of the role of a curator and a museum’s acquisition process, and, furthermore, the legal and ethical issues concerning the purchase or display of unprovenienced artifacts. Additionally, students gained a deeper understanding of how a museum evolves over time in order to meet the demands of a changing society. Dr. Schertz impressed upon students in his closing statements that although “looting is bad, collections and museums are not”; and he hopes that in the near future there will be less critical rhetoric surrounding Encyclopedic Museums.