Spotlight on Alumni: Allison Stielau

Allison Stielau (MA 2009) is a PhD candidate in the History of Art Department at Yale University, where she focuses on early modern art and material culture in Northern Europe. In 2012 she delivered a talk on German engravings of metalwork from around 1480 at the Frühe Neuzeit Interdisziplinär Conference at Duke University and co-organized a panel on the male nude for the Renaissance Society of America's annual conference. A short article on leather étuis appeared as "The Case of the Case for Early Modern Objects and Images" in kritische berichte 3 (2011). She is currently on a Baden-Württemberg Exchange Fellowship in Heidelberg, Germany.  

You received your MA from the BGC. What attracted you to the program?
In my undergraduate program I had known a few people who had either graduated from the BGC or were closely affiliated with it. They encouraged me. But I think what most drew me to the BGC was my curiosity about the subjects I could pursue there. In my last two years as an English major, I had developed a burning interest in English Gothic Revival and Pre-Raphaelitism, specifically in relation to furniture and the domestic interior. The BGC seemed to be the perfect place to study more directly fields I had been sort of only sidling up to as a student of literature—material culture, cultural history, design history. From the very first survey class I took at the BGC, I was completely hooked.  I remember, that first year, leaving the library when it closed at night, riding the subway home, and flipping through flashcards of medieval reliquaries, Baroque sugar sculpture, vessels found in ancient Chinese tombs, and just feeling so gratified and excited by what I was learning about. I still have a shoebox full of those flashcards from the Survey—I just can't seem to get rid of them!

What is your focus of study and how did you find yourself involved with it?
My studies at the BGC centered around the nineteenth century in America and Europe, but I took a wide variety of classes. Highlights included (among many) a survey of American decorative art taught by Kevin Stayton, whose concise, elegant arguments come back to me quite often; Catherine Whalen's seminar on the Colonial Revival, with her always-wonderful bibliographies and innovative assignments; Amy Ogata's Material Culture of Childhood, which allowed me to return to and write about a series of turn-of-the-century books I had been obsessed with as a girl; and Elizabeth Simpson's seminar on ancient metalwork, which I think about almost daily, now that my dissertation focuses on precious metal. She taught me how to give a presentation. It's one of the most important skills I gained at the BGC.

When I got to Yale I eventually decided I wanted to work a bit farther back in the past than I had before. Now my field is the early modern period in Northern Europe. I never took a class with Andrew Morrall when I was at the BGC, but since my shift to roughly his area of interest, he has been a great supporter. I regret not getting to know him much sooner!

Outside of the classroom, my time at the BGC was further enriched by weekly talks by distinguished scholars in the seminars in cultural history, etc., many of which I still vividly remember and which broadened my horizons greatly. Our fabulous Bard Term Abroad trip to Paris introduced me to so many important sites and collections that remain major reference points in my work. I had been to Europe before, but in many ways that trip was my introduction to Europe as an art historian, a lesson in how to exhaustively explore the museums, architecture, and neighborhoods of a city. Now that I'm living in Germany for the year, I try to recreate a similarly grueling schedule when traveling, so that I can see as much as possible while I'm here.

What are you currently working on?
At this year’s College Art Association conference, I delivered a paper on a panel about methodological approaches to inventories, and while working on that project I thought a lot about the BGC exhibition Dutch New York Between East and West, which I contributed to as a masters' student. My CAA talk considered inventories made in the face of loss, when objects have already been separated from their owners, as opposed to inventories produced when the objects are still at hand to be measured and recorded. The talk focused in particular on "Warning Notices," small printed announcements that were distributed by the Goldsmiths' Guild in London in the eighteenth century to warn smiths and pawnbrokers about lost or stolen objects. That topic is tangentially, if conceptually, related to my dissertation, which is about the fate of church metalwork between roughly 1480-1530. I am particularly interested in attitudes to the melting down of metalwork in this and other historical moments. It's a process that constitutes, unusually, a formal loss but a material preservation. A basic taken-for-granted fact of the study of metalwork, it deserves more research and historical contextualization, I think. I'll be giving a public programs lecture on this subject at the BGC in October 2013, as part of a generous grant co-sponsored by the Silver Society.

What ultimately is your goal once you've finished?
I'd like to teach and write in a university setting, but as I'm in the middle of my dissertation, that goal seems a bit far away at the moment! I keep a Word document of teaching ideas in a folder on my desktop called "Some Day," though, and I add to it when I come across a book or a concept that I think would make a great unit in a seminar or lecture. When I visualize teaching what I've just come up with, it's usually in one of the old classrooms looking out onto West 86th Street, probably because that's where I myself experienced the sort of rigorous, innovative seminars I'd someday like to teach! And a good friend and I often dream about sometime leading a summer trip to German Schlösser and museums that's certainly based on my Bard Term Abroad experiences.


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"Necessary provisions for a long day at the museum: notebook and pencil, camera, comfortable shoes, Mohnschnecke, and coffee. Outside the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg during the final week of the exhibition Der Frühe Dürer, August 2012." [Photo: Adam Eaker]