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Waddesdon Manor. Photo: Jane Killmar.
Students on a bench by Gitta Gschwendtner at the V&A’s Dr Susan Weber Gallery. Photo: Jane Killmar.
Students at Sir John Soane’s Museum with Stephen Astley, curator of drawings. Photo: Linnea Johnson.

Bard Travel Program, May 18–27, 2014

As in 2011, 2012, and 2013, this year’s destination was London. Nineteen MA students concluded their first year of classes with this trip to gain insight into the challenges and diversity of curatorial practice in one of the great centers of museum culture. Local curators took students through an array of historic houses, galleries, conservation labs, and storage rooms. Another highlight of the trip was a special event held at the Royal College of Art, where the group met with students and faculty of the V&A/RCA MA program in the History of Design. The trip was organized and led by Professors Amy Ogata and François Louis with the assistance of PhD students Joyce Denney and Sonya Abrego.

Our trip began in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s East Asian Galleries with presentations by Professor Louis and Joyce Denney. We then moved to the new Dr. Susan Weber Gallery of Furniture, where curator Nick Humphrey explained the installation’s concept, design, and novel interactive technology. In the afternoon, curator of designs, Matthew Storey, took us behind the scenes to the Print Room to discuss a selection of twenty prints and drawings from the fifteenth to the twenty-first century. Later in the day we met with the heads of the RCA design history program, Jane Pavitt and Christine Guth. Three RCA students and four BGC students gave brief presentations of their research and scholarly interests before we all moved to an informal reception.

Our next day focused on histories of private and public collecting (notably of Chinese ceramics and Mediterranean antiquities) at the British Museum, Percival David Collection, and Sir John Soane’s Museum. Students came face to face with significant artifacts they had learned about in the Survey course. Soane curators Stephen Astley and John Bridges took us on a memorable visit behind the scenes to see not only the collections and a selection of Robert Adam drawings, but also the ongoing renovation of the museum. We also discussed the unique conservation issues of this site with conservator Jane Wilkinson.

Day three was devoted to a variety of presentation modes of middle and lower-class homes. We started with the National Trust-owned Goldfinger House, a unique Modernist home designed by architect Ernö Goldfinger in 1939 for himself and his family. With surprising design details that were groundbreaking at the time and still feel fresh today, the house also contains the Goldfingers’ collection of modern art and innovative furniture. In the afternoon we moved from Hampstead to Spitalfields to the Dennis Severs house. Intended as a sensory experience of the home of a local family, this theatrical reenactment of history presented an intense contrast to museums, and yet was closely related to them. The day concluded with a visit to the nearby Geffrye Museum which illustrates English middle and working-class life through a series of period rooms.

The next day we left London for Buckinghamshire to see Waddesdon Manor, the former Rothschild mansion. BGC faculty member and former curator Ulrich Leben, along with curator Rachel Boak, gave a scintillating tour through the entire building with its rich collection of eighteenth-century furnishings, discussing curatorial challenges and highlights. The visit also included a walk through the gardens with garden curator Sophie Piebenga, and a visit of the new Rothschild archive and library, an environmentally sustainable passive building also used to display British contemporary art.

Friday morning was again devoted to the V&A with an extraordinary visit through the new textile storage facility and conservation lab at Blythe House at Olympia in London. Edwina Ehrman, chief textile curator, and Suzanne Smith, the center’s manager, talked about the thinking behind the structures while showing us a number of impressive artifacts. The afternoon was devoted to two contrasting nineteenth-century artists’ house museums. Daniel Robbins, senior curator of Leighton House, discussed the challenges of presenting a house without original furnishings, while we experienced quite the opposite at Linley Sambourne House.

The trip ended with visits to contemporary design exhibitions at the Design Museum, the historical displays at the Museum of London, and a tour through Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

In sum, this was an intense and highly successful trip. The students each gave a well-prepared brief presentation on sites or objects of their choice, and all the curators were not only eloquent and passionate, but also extremely generous with their time and knowledge.

—Professor François Louis