By Melissa Zabel
Looking back at my first semester as a USF Museum Studies graduate student, I must confess that of all my completed coursework, I take the most pride in my contributions to one project—the creation of Reformations: Dürer & the New Age of Print. Opening on January 26, 2015, Reformations was collaboratively curated by the 14 students of MUSE 605: Curatorial Practicum. For me, Curatorial Practicum was a whirlwind of learning by doing. Early in the semester, exhibit designer and guest speaker Brianna Cutts explained to our class that exhibit design is like building a bicycle and riding it at the same time. Based on my first curatorial experience, I must agree.
On the first day of the practicum, Professor Kate Lusheck introduced the meaning of the word “curator” in the broadest terms. “Curator” comes from the Latin root “cura,” meaning to care for. In the most basic sense, that’s what curators do. They care about the overarching themes of their exhibitions and installations, and about engaging with their audience. They also care for the physical condition of the objects and the stories each object has to tell.
The objects that my classmates and I had the privilege to care for were 15th-16th century works on paper from the USF Donohue Rare Book Room. Our object list includes breathtaking works by the artist Albrecht Dürer as well as key printed books from the time, like a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, the Nuremberg Chronicles, and texts by Dante and Virgil.
There was no doubt in our minds that we ought to exhibit all of the Dürer prints, now newly framed. But we did not have the capacity to display all the books. After generating our “Big Idea” – Innovative Uses of Technology Hold the Potential to Contribute to Artistic and Social Change – we divided the books amongst ourselves to determine which books were needed to best tell that story.
Our third class period found us in the Rare Book Room, closely examining our volumes. One of the books in my purview by Jacob Verheiden roughly translates to “Several Outstanding Theologians” and contains both portraits and biographies of fifty philosophers such as John Wycliffe, Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Luther’s close collaborator Philipp Melanchthon. I knew this book warranted a place in the exhibition, but which pages ought to be displayed in keeping with our Big Idea? A small curatorial decision, perhaps, but one that required careful thought none-the-less.
I kept this curatorial conundrum on the back burner as we continued on with the semester. We divided responsibilities by forming four advocacy groups: Content, Design, Visitor Outreach, and Project Management. We dove deeper into our research, created floorplans, wrote labels and panels, designed posters and banners, and planned guest lists and events. All the while we visited Bay Area museums to learn from practicing curators at their own institutions.
During one such visit to the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Legion of Honor, we had the opportunity to view Dürer prints not included in USF’s collection. That’s where I saw (to my great surprise!) one of the prints from Verheiden’s book of biographies—a portrait of Melanchthon. “Impossible!” I thought, “There cannot be a Dürer print in a slightly-obscure book of biographies published fifty years later.” I hastened home from that site visit to make a closer comparison. The Melanchthon portrait in Verheiden’s was not a Dürer print, of course. It was by the engraver, Heinrich Hondius the Elder, who was clearly influenced by Dürer’s portrait of Melanchthon. Honduis even gave him credit with Dürer’s monogram in the upper left corner followed by inuentor (the Latin for inventor). Thanks to innovative uses of the printmaking technology, artists like Dürer were able to influence more than other artists. Access to fine art was spreading to the public, to the point where an engraver working in the Netherlands would recognize Dürer’s monogram. The ways in which artists’ designs were used, seen, and disseminated were forever transformed in the Renaissance.
Reformations: Dürer & the New Age of Print will be on view in the Thacher Gallery and the Donohue Rare Book Room in Gleeson Library from January 26th-February 22nd.
Instructor’s Note: Melissa Zabel was one of two Project Managers (with Hillary Eichinger) for the exhibition, and will participate on the “Scholars & Students in Conversation” panel at USF on January 27th. Her work – like that of many members of her cohort – has been instrumental in the success of the exhibition and related programming. I thank all of the students for their contributions. As a class, we would like to extend special thanks to Glori Simmons, Director of Thacher Gallery, and John Hawk, Head Librarian of Special Collections and University Archives, for their unwavering support and mentorship. – Kate Lusheck (Art History/Arts Management & Museum Studies)