Interview with Jeffrey Collins

What brought you to the BGC?

I was intrigued with the idea of working in a nimble academic environment without fixed disciplinary boundaries. I had been the chair of Art History at the University of Washington in Seattle, and although I enjoyed the big campus environment, I was sometimes frustrated with the slow pace of change and the challenges of working across distant departments. I knew the BGC from conferences I had attended and from the journal Studies in the Decorative Arts, and I admired its vision. New York was also a big attraction. Having studied on the east coast and in Europe I was eager to get back to that environment.

What are your areas of interest?

I specialize in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, although my path was a bit circuitous. As an undergraduate I tried out both anthropology and biology before deciding that American Studies offered the best framework for melding ingredients from across the university into a coherent academic inquiry. Yale encouraged us to approach art as evidence rather than as an end in itself, and as a student I never saw a conflict between studying texts, paintings, buildings, or material objects. I then won a scholarship to Cambridge to learn more about the European background of the colonial period I’d been studying. From there I got more interested in England, and from England I got intrigued by France and the great Bourbon courts, which in turn required me to look south. Then when it came time to choose a dissertation subject, I realized I wanted to learn more about Italy. All that said, I have fairly broad interests and like to challenge myself: I’m researching a book on obelisks in the western imagination, and I’ve recently been writing about a contemporary Mexican surrealist painter. But my research still focuses on 18th-century Rome, a surprisingly understudied field where I feel I can make a contribution. It’s an interesting historical moment: on the one hand Rome remained a bastion of the old regime, but in other ways the popes were in the vanguard with progressive and enlightened projects such as founding art museums that inspired the rest of Europe. The Papacy, of course, has changed dramatically since then and I wanted to help clarify its history.

So my first book was a broad survey of papally-sponsored architecture, urbanism, painting, graphic and applied arts on the eve of the French Revolution. My new book zeroes in on the cultures of archeology and museology by following the fortunes of a group of ancient sculptures rediscovered in the 1770s and enshrined in the Hall of the Muses at the new Vatican museum. That means lots of work in archives chasing down payment records, correspondence by the curators, and some fascinating but revealing lawsuits. I spent part of this summer climbing under barbed wire trying to locate the Muses’ original find spot in a disputed olive grove. I’m also looking into the project’s literary reverberations and its influence on foreign collectors and designers. So in a sense it’s a microhistory that starts with a cartload of ancient statue fragments and immediately runs into conflicting personalities, ideas, and institutions. Few of today’s tourists to the Vatican realize that its key sculptures spent 18 years in Paris as trophies in Napoleon’s Louvre. My core interest is how these artifacts catalyzed a new type of historically contextualized museum display we often take for granted today. The contemporary parallels are amazing. Besides pocket guidebooks, 18th-century visitors could buy porcelain reproductions of their favorite statues and even scarves printed with the design of the floor mosaics. In a sense, the story of that one room is a window onto the birth of Italian Neoclassicism and of the modern museum.

How does your work fit in the BGC mission?

I see the BGC leading the way to a richer and more nuanced approach to the past by taking a wide, even eclectic approach to the ways humans have designed, manipulated, and adorned their physical environments. What meanings and values and beliefs are embedded in the images and objects civilizations have left behind? That involves the decorative arts as traditionally conceived, but it’s also much more. I see the BGC and, I hope, my own work, as growing from the history of art or design towards something more global and synthetic. For me the BGC is a much-needed link between the study of material evidence and the broader field of cultural and interpretive history.

What do you hope to pass on to your students?

In order to do sophisticated work students need visual and material literacy, and New York, with its spectacular collections and libraries, seems an ideal place to build that. They need to know how things are made, what they are made of, and how they were designed and produced. So I try to teach some courses in specific media like furniture or metalwork that aren’t offered elsewhere. Too many people think they know how to use objects as historical illustrations but they don’t really know how to interpret the artifacts or the related documents.

At the same time, BGC students need to engage the larger interpretive issues that interest the rest of academia, which means crossing boundaries and thinking broadly. So I also offer overview classes on the arts and culture of the 17th & 18th centuries. Finally, I like to balance these with seminars that slice the material in different ways—a course on Neoclassicism, for instance, that involves many media. My newest project is a seminar on monuments, ranging from ancient megaliths to American war memorials and commemorations of the Holocaust and 9/11. I want to situate these in a broader continuum including tombs, civic monuments, plague columns, or triumphal arches. How were they designed, sited, patronized, and received? How can we recover their meanings? It’s an integrated study that takes material things as evidence of institutions and ideas, and I’m really looking forward to it.


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