A new school year means new works, new classes and new discoveries being made at Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum, starting with an exhibition that simultaneously occupies the gallery space and cyberspace.
Bradley Bailey, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Postdoctoral Curatorial Teaching Fellow in Japanese Prints, with the assistance of Hampshire College student James Kelleher, has completed work on “Pain’s Pyrotechnic Spectacle: The Sino-Japanese War in Print” for display at the Mead, and for a dynamic experience via the Web, especially formatted for tablets.
This special exhibition, which draws exclusively from Ruth S. Nelkin’s donation of Sino-Japanese War prints to the Mead in 2000, offers a comprehensive overview of the military action of the war (1894–1895), as well as a survey of the subjects, ideas and attitudes conveyed in the prints of the era.
The Sino-Japanese War, according to contemporary accounts, saw Japan besting its ancient adversary, China, and emerging from the battle poised to assume the mantle of a modern imperial power. In Japan, artists and publishers told the tale of the conflict using the centuries-old tradition of ukiyo-e (woodblock printmaking), which was in decline against the rising tide of lithography and photography. In Manhattan Beach, N.Y., in 1896, capitalizing on the West’s fascination with all things Japanese, Pain’s Firework Co. staged a “superb pyro-spectacle” reenacting a battle from the war.
The exhibition’s website, www.painspyrospectacle.com, features several woodblock triptychs, the entire album of prints and a reproduction of the original pamphlet distributed at the Manhattan Beach “pyro-spectacle.” Visitors can view the site on their own devices or on the iPad provided alongside the exhibition at the Mead.
Even as this and other exhibits are being prepared, students and staff are behind the scenes making discoveries. Just this past summer:
- Amherst and UMass students working on a group of recently donated pre-Columbian vessels identified a curiously shaped pot as depicting a South American crustacean.
- Amherst students discovered new details about two unusual 17th-century European luxury chests, inlaid with precious materials and featuring tiny drawers and hidden compartments, to be on view in October.
- A scientific study of a silver perfume container engraved with scenes from classical mythology determined that it is an authentic antiquity from the Greek world of the fourth century B.C.E.
Another change afoot is the departure of Elizabeth Barker, who, after seven years as director of the Mead, has taken the position of Stanford Calderwood Director of the Boston Athenaeum. Pamela Russell, the Mead’s head of education, took over as interim director last month, and a search is under way for a permanent director. Barker’s contributions to the Mead and the college were celebrated at a Sept. 12 tea in her honor.
Under Barker, the museum expanded its operating hours and the number of free events, started offering complimentary iPod audio tours and added an espresso bar.
“On Lizzie’s watch, the Mead’s 19,000-object collection has become a fully digitized, Web-searchable resource, which is available not only to the Amherst community, but to scholars from around the globe,” said Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein. “Lizzie led efforts to expand and conserve the collection, enhance the staff, increase access to the objects, expand the museum’s audience and improve facilities, [and she] has introduced education programs and innovative collection-based presentations.”
You might expect that faculty in the Department of Art and the History of Art take most advantage of the Mead’s collection, but the museum is routinely host to courses from throughout the school’s catalogue: American studies, anthropology, Black studies, environmental studies, geology, history, mathematics and more are instructed using the Mead. This fall, courses taught partly at the museum include
- Black Studies 412: “Corporeal States: Body, Nation, Text in African Literature”
- Architectural Studies 242: “Material Culture of American Homes”
- American Studies 205: “Whose Game? Sports in America”
- First-Year Seminar 114: “Encounters with Nature”
- First-Year Seminar 123: “Drugs in History”
- Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies 310: “Witches, Vampires and Other Monsters”
- Political Science 347: “Nuclear America”
An accredited member of the American Alliance of Museums, the Mead recently won the top prize for its website from the New England Museum Association, and received second-place awards for the exhibition catalogue Picturing Enlightenment and the "Dig Into Art" activity totes for children at the museum.
The Mead and its gift shop and café are open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round, and until midnight on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday during the academic term.