On a very rainy night in October, our Victorian Literature and Visual Culture class found themselves gathered at the Mount Holyoke art museum instead of their usual meeting place in Shattuck seated around a long table. The change of venue was welcome and everyone seemed to be in good spirits. After putting away our various belongings, including wet umbrellas and backpacks, we gathered in a semi-circle in the art building lobby around the two women who would be our guides for the evening. Ellen Alvord and Kendra Weisbin were lovely from the start and their excitement at the opportunity to share the museum pieces with us was contagious. After a quick review of the rules (no food or drink and no pointing with pencil tips), we all proceeded through the glass doors into the museum.
I had walked past the museum countless times on my way to various classes being held in Gamble Auditorium just down the hall. I usually peeked through the glass to try to catch a glimpse of the art inside, but could barely see anything of interest. Before that night, I had only been to the museum once before in an introductory Biology class, so visiting with the sole intent to view the art as art and not simply a tool to learn observation skills was exciting for me. Walking into the place where I really only had small glimpses of what was inside, I was tempted to stop and look at all of the art in the first few rooms, but we were led through to one of the middle rooms.
In this room, a few exhibits were set up especially for us, the most noticeable a very large image that we would end up looking at first. We all gathered around, some opting to sit in the little chairs providing, some sitting on the floor and others standing, and were met with a large print. It was a map of New York City with lines criss-crossing the image and small pictures of scenes in the city placed where some of the lines intersected. A very large image of a woman dressed in a suit of armor, which appeared to be drawn, and her face a photograph took up a good portion of the right hand side of the print. Ships appear behind her in the background and a large compass is on the other side of the map in the bottom left corner.
After taking all of this in, Ellen and Kendra guided us in a very deep and thoughtful discussion of the image. Each interpretation was incredibly interesting and listening to the conversation and thoughts of my classmates was very enjoyable. After many different analyses, our guides inform us that the artist’s name is Jane Hammond, an artist from New York City, which makes the map of New York City in the photocollage more understandable. The photograph of the woman’s face on the body of the woman with the suit of armor turns out to be a photograph of the artist. This gives the photocollage are more personal interpretation, perhaps that it is a map of her favorite places in her home city.
With the discussion concluded, Ellen and Kendra invite us to walk around and observe the various exhibits set up both in the room we had been in and also in a smaller classroom towards the back of the museum. I started in the first room at a long table set up with three or four pieces. One was another photocollage by the same artist that had done the larger photocollage we had just discussed. Another image was a photograph of a bedroom with a scene from outside the room projected upside down on the wall. It was confusing at first and I couldn’t stop staring at it, remembering learning about the technique back in a high school photography class. Another image on the same table was a photograph of a girl on what appeared to be a lily pad. In the smaller classroom, there were about four or five stations set up. Before I had a chance to look at them all, we were called back together and divided into groups.
I was assigned to the station with rather eerie photographs of children on lily pads. However, the image that immediately caught my eye was a Daguerreotype photograph of a person that, if you looked at it straight on, you could see the reflection of your face over the image of the person. You had to look at it from the exact right angle to see the person correctly. After analyzing the pieces ourselves, Ellen and Kendra handed out sheets of information about each piece to further guide our discussions. The photographs of children on lily pads were by the artist Binh Danh who developed a method called “chlorophyll prints” to achieve such an effect where he uses the sun to print images onto leaves. The children were victims of a massacre, which made the prints even more eerie and unsettling.
After a break where delicious cookies were provided, we returned to share our different discussions with the class. It was very interesting going around to each station and hearing the background information on the pieces and my classmates interpretations of them. After the last group presented their findings, Ellen and Kendra wrapped up our visit with some closing remarks and an invitation to return to look at the pieces more closely. We were led back out of the museum, gathered our belongings, and headed out into the night. The visit was not only incredibly interesting, but also thought provoking.