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The Shuffle of Things: Rediscovering Goucher’s Lost Museum

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The past few years have seen a period of intense institutional introspection in the art world, as an initial flurry of efforts has become a blizzard of reworded mission statements, reconceived hangings, earnest initiatives, and curatorial attempts to come to terms with complex organizational legacies. And now Goucher College, with the compact but engrossing Rediscovering Goucher’s Lost Museum (through December 15), has joined the conversation by offering a rich and kaleidoscopic account of the genesis and dispersal of what was once a substantial natural history museum.

Let’s be clear, though: where many institutions have been driven towards self-examination primarily by a need to address specifically fraught histories, the Goucher show was born of different motivations. One key factor was the development, in 2019, of a Visual & Material Culture program by April Oettinger, a Renaissance art historian, and Tina Hirsch Sheller, a historian who focuses on material culture and preservation. Aiming to foster a collaborative, hands-on learning experience for their students, the two designed and led classes on historical collections and archival practices—and then turned their attention to what remains of a sprawling collection of 88,000 objects assembled by Goucher in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

At that point, Goucher was still the Woman’s College of Baltimore, located just north of North Avenue, and it was still steered by one of its founders, the prominent Methodist missionary and pastor John Franklin Goucher. In 1894, Goucher hired Arthur Bibbins, a geologist trained at Johns Hopkins, to teach and to curate the school’s museum collection—which soon began to swell, as sculptures Goucher acquired during his extensive travels and geological specimens Bibbins unearthed were supplemented by donations from amateur collectors, friends of the college, and scientific peers around the globe. Ranging from fossilized cycads to an Egyptian mummy and from an armadillo’s carapace to Mesoamerican artifacts, the collection was a veritable Wunderkammer, and it implicitly proclaimed the college’s arrival as an institution.

 

But even as the items multiplied, the times were changing, and by 1910 such collections had come to seem superfluous and eccentric. The college, too, was evolving; in 1911, it axed its geology program, and three years later Bibbins left his post, leaving the collection without an official curator. Over the next few decades, the collection was gradually scattered. Some objects were given to other institutions. Some were transferred to a biology laboratory; others were unceremoniously taken to the dump. And some eventually made their way into Goucher’s art and artifact collection—which thus constituted a rich field of material for Oettinger, Sheller, and their students. 

Their first goal was to understand just what has been lost: to reconstruct the contours of the expansive collection. In the process, the team turned to several precedents and practitioners. They leaned, for instance, on a 2014 exhibition called The Lost Museum (which conveyed the story of Brown University’s similarly long-lost Jencks Museum), and they learned from conversations with the artist Mark Dion (whose work often focuses on the ordering and exhibiting of objects, and the ideological aspects of display). But even as they mapped the past, students also found themselves confronted by thorny contemporary legal and ethical issues, as when they learned that several Native American artifacts still owned by Goucher are subject to federal legislation and deserving of careful repatriation—an involved process that is now underway.

Remarkably, much of this work took place largely in virtual space as a result of the ongoing pandemic. Over the course of months, those initial conversations began to yield plans for a concrete exhibition. Curator Alex Ebstein oversaw that process, and taught a related class on exhibition design, and eventually did most of the work of building and installing the show. But the collaborative nature of the research that drives the exhibition is also plainly evident, perhaps most clearly in its varied approaches to the visual display of information. The presentational mode, meanwhile, is a compelling mix of archival and artistic, as the show combines didactic texts with creative installations and works by several visual artists that offer a series of open-ended riffs on related themes. And the sum is a show that is every bit as complex and multifaceted as the collection that forms its subject.

 

Detail of Katie Wolfe installation

II.

From the start, the show nudges us to consider the central themes of deep time, preservation, and loss. Near the entry stands a vitrine holding plaster recreations of some of the fossilized cycads (or seed plants) that Bibbins excavated in Maryland soil. Executed by students, the forms are sizable and they feel at once solid and remote, both foreign and familiar. Fossils speak to a distant past that we now know only in fragments, and in their dull grayish-white tones and mute presence, these objects echo that sense of a merely partial recovered testimony.

Nearby, a substantial wall text offers a historical overview of the collection and a detailed account of the exhibition’s development. But we then shift gears, moving from a narrative tone to an allusive one, with a complex installation by Katie Wolfe that features recreations of the sorts of teaching tools and artist’s aids that might have been found in a studio classroom a century ago. Perhaps the most compelling element is a shelf that holds 38 3-D printed sculptures of canonical sculptural works, all reduced to a conveniently miniaturized scale—there’s the famous bust of Nefertiti, and there’s Duchamp’s Fountain, and on and on.

In the abstract, the piece nods to John Franklin Goucher’s taste for plaster casts. During a trip to Italy, he purchased a number of copies of famous sculptural works, which he then sent back to Baltimore—where they assumed pride of place high on the college museum walls and in the school’s reception area. But Wolfe’s piece also conveys the loss of meaning that accompanies the obliteration of original contexts. Stripped of their color, reduced in scale, and arranged in a random lineup, her forms constitute an accumulation of kitschy canonical forms: a weird chorus testifying, at once, to eons of history and the limited powers of reproductive technology.

The next few displays work to flesh out our understanding of the Goucher collection and the contexts in which it took shape. Two text-heavy exhibits lay out some of the ties between the museum and the broader scientific community and offer a sketch of the extensive social network of individuals with connections to the museum. A small grouping of scientific instruments grants us a sense of the tools available to Bibbins and his students. And a varied, colorful installation of geological specimens and photographs points to the collection of minerals loaned to the museum by John Wesley Lee, a personal friend of Bibbins.

Things get considerably more complicated a few feet over, with the densely appealing After John James Audubon (American Woodsman), a 2021 artwork designed primarily by Kaitlin Murphy. At its heart, it’s a testament to the hidden labor and extensive collaborations that lay behind Audubon’s celebrated paintings of birds. That theme emerges clearly in an accompanying zine that features a number of passages from recent books by Debra Lindsay and Gregory Nobles, scholars who have emphasized the role of the labor of enslaved people (in the production of raw materials) and Maria Martin (a skilled watercolorist) in facilitating Audubon’s work. But those dynamics also play out in the original toile wallpaper, which combines a range of period sources evoking slavery in the Old South, and in a vintage print from The Birds of America, in which Murphy literally excises Audubon’s work from that of Martin, who painted the stunning botanicals on which the birds rest.

 

After John James Audubon (American Woodsman), 2021, designed by Kaitlin Murphy

There’s even more to the work than that: We can also open a birdhouse to reveal a cluster of small items evoking Martin’s life—and trigger, in the process, recordings of a Bachman’s warbler, an extremely rare songbird. Cumulatively, these disparate elements suggest a fugitive quality, hinting at the obscured beauty of a native bird and the work of overlooked laborers. It’s a potent, haunting, and deeply thoughtful work, although it may go too far as a corrective. While the zine quotes a number of passages in Lindsay’s book, it makes no mention of several key assertions on the book’s first page. I’m thinking, for instance, of Lindsay’s observation that “Maria Martin was acknowledged more frequently than any of Audubon’s other assistants,” and the scholar’s claim that “modern sensibilities behind suggestions that she had aspirations as an artist or that she sought personal acclaim were antithetical to the ideals that shaped her: evangelical Lutheranism and Southern culture.” In baldly ignoring these fundamental passages, the zine feels less than fully responsible, weakening the work’s otherwise absorbing attention to complexity.

After passing through a small room that evokes what was once a sizable subcollection of lantern slides picturing specimens and architectural forms, we find ourselves before several shelves carrying some of the myriad items that once comprised the collection. Viewers familiar with the Walters Art Museum’s recreation of a chamber of wonders will have a sense of the wild variety of forms and surfaces that co-exist here: mounted beetles, pressed leaves, and posed chimpanzee skeletons all share space. Collectively, they evoke the sense of wonder and insatiable curiosity that often underlay natural theology and the formation of so-called encyclopedic collections. 

Nominally, Wunderkammern suggested a process of ordering and an implicit mastery of a complex world. (In such collections, Francis Bacon once observed, “whatsoever […] singularity, chance and the shuffle of things has produced […] shall be sorted and included.”) But the limits of such an approach were also apparent at an early date. Galileo wrote of “curious little men” who delighted in collecting “a petrified crab, a desiccated chameleon, a fly or spider in gelatin or amber, those small clay figurines, supposedly found in ancient Egyptian burial chambers…” Arrayed according to logics that can feel haphazard, such assemblies can border on the random and even the ludicrous.

Galileo would likely have nodded in unsurprised recognition at an adjacent display of Mesoamerican artifacts: the products of sophisticated cultures cheek by jowl with a cat’s pulmonary system. But the show has a more sophisticated point in mind, as the next few displays center on some of the complex ways in which other cultures were represented in the Goucher collection. Four watercolors of Native Americans by Frank Blackwell Mayer, originally executed in pen and pencil, reflect an inquisitive, sensitive observational skill: a quality also evident in Mayer’s journal entries from the time. A series of silhouettes refers to 18 artifacts that, when unboxed, turned out to be likely grave goods—and thus subject to federal policies. The school is engaged in an ongoing effort to understand the history of the works and to repatriate them where appropriate.

Equally complex factors also inform the show’s treatment of Egyptian antiquities. In 1895, John Franklin Goucher traveled to Egypt and, like many wealthy patrons of the time, purchased a mummy. That mummy eventually made its way into the Johns Hopkins University Archaeological Museum, where it was displayed and subjected to various processes of scientific imaging. As ethical standards surrounding the display of the remains of the dead have evolved, though, such practices have come to feel inappropriate, and JHU has thus removed the mummy and related photographs from display. 

Here, a wall text rehearses that history, and three large hangings by the artist Jackie Milad gesture, in busy layered collages of color, pattern, text, and ancient Egyptian forms, at these complicated overlaid histories. It’s worth noting that Milad is both Egyptian and Honduran, and that her practice links ancient images and symbols with contemporary languages and popular culture. In this context, Milad’s work questions the meanings of historic objects and complicates their legacy, suggesting visual and conceptual relationships between ancient objects and contemporary art, where meaning is constructed and hidden in symbolic hierarchies.

Finally, the last installations reiterate the importance of Goucher and Bibbins and allude to the way in which the collection formed a part of their quotidian world. An elaborate set offers yet another creative reframing of the material, integrating objects from the collection into a comfortable period interior. Wall texts emphasize Bibbins’ accomplishments as a teacher and a leader and his deep respect for Goucher and his “life-long love of nature.” The diverse show, having employed a wide range of narrative and exhibitionary strategies in telling an intricate history, ends more or less as it began, by positioning the Goucher museum as a sizable resource formed “for the purposes of education, preservation, and the advancement of scientific knowledge.” 

 

Detail of Jackie Milad painting

III.

Critically, though, that’s not meant to be the last word on the subject. Instead, this show is intended as a single, initial step in a longer process of analysis. Having now mapped the contours of the Goucher collection, the team can begin to pose further questions of the material. That process will be facilitated by a 2021 NEH grant that will fund the creation of a collaborative humanities lab in which students from various disciplines “gather, curate, produce, and present original scholarship centered on images, objects, and artifacts.”

Curricular initiatives will also play an important role. A course on the history of museums and collections is intended to focus in part upon the ethical and ideological questions that have long informed the exhibitionary complex. A second course, entitled Inventing Culture, will approach the natural history collection from a variety of perspectives, including the field of environmental ethics. In other words, the Goucher collection will serve as the basis of ongoing interdisciplinary inquiry. 

Naturally, such an inquiry can reveal uncomfortable truths. Indeed, even as they began to recognize the need for a serious conversation about repatriating certain objects, Oettinger and her team also came across evidence that pointed to the racist and Christian supremacist cultures in which Goucher and Bibbins operated—a context that arguably informed the collection in various ways. You can get a sense of this from an entry on Goucher in the 1912 publication Baltimore: Biography:

“As a collector Dr. Goucher has an interesting method, which is that each article in his collection, whether one of utility or for decorative purposes, must have a history of its own which renders it worthy of preservation. In this collection are to be found many rare books, gems, and idols, the latter kept as mementos of the uncivilized races who became converted to Christianity.”

In such a light, the Mesoamerican and Native American artifacts appear as something more than mere educational aids or tools in the advancement of scientific knowledge. Rather, they are part of what was once an implicit teleological demonstration: an illustrated argument for the global triumph of Western culture and Christianity. 

In conversation, Oettinger is emphatic that “we are committed to exploring the really hard conversations.” Obviously, such an exploration will take time. For now, Rediscovering Goucher’s Lost Museum represents a notable first step. In shedding light on an important collection, it offers a prismatic and engaging view of a local past largely unknown to many of us. And with that useful work now in place, the next step is arguably (as Julia Marciari-Alexander, the executive director of the Walters, has put it) to “unravel the challenging facts about our founders, our history as a public institution, and our collection.” Watching that process unfold should be both thought-provoking and instructive.

 

Photos by Vivian Doering, courtesy of Goucher College

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