Debra Schmidt Bach (PhD 2015) is the Curator of Decorative Arts at the New-York Historical Society and a former Tiffany & Co. Foundation Research Fellow in American silver. She has curated several exhibitions at the Historical Society, including First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World, Superheroes in Gotham, The Grateful Dead: Now Playing at the New-York Historical Society, Treasures of Shearith Israel, and Beer Here: Brewing New York’s History. Bach has written or contributed to numerous articles and catalogues, and has lectured at institutions including Bard Graduate Center; Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Master of Arts Program; and Parsons The New School for Design. Bach, who has an MA from Columbia University, earned her MPhil and PhD degrees from Bard Graduate Center. Her dissertation, Makers, Masters, and Manufacturers, which examined the early industrialization of New York City’s antebellum silver trade, won the 2015 American Members of the Confédération Internationale des Négociates en Oeuvre d’Art Award for Outstanding Dissertation.

What attracted you to Bard Graduate Center’s program?

The interdisciplinary nature of the academic and exhibitions programs initially attracted me to the Bard Graduate Center doctoral program. I came to the program with a master’s degree in American Studies and some curatorial experience, and knew that I wanted to study the social history of New York City material culture. While it seemed logical to do that in New York City, BGC’s material culture-based orientation and curriculum seemed to be a natural fit.

What was your focus of study here, how did you find yourself involved with it?

When I applied to the program I was working for the South Street Seaport Museum and had just co-curated an exhibition called World Port New York. My work on that exhibition and with the Seaport Museum’s unique maritime collection left me hungry to learn more about the history of the material culture of New York City. With that in mind, my studies focused on the material culture of New York City along with that of colonial North America and the United States of the nineteenth century. I knew, however, that I desperately needed to expand my understanding about where American decorative arts and material culture fit within a global context. Professors such as Ken Ames, Andrew Morrall, Pat Kirkham, and toward the end of my time there, the late David Jaffee, taught courses and offered other educational opportunities that allowed me to consider New York City material culture through the study of Renaissance and seventeenth- to nineteenth-century European production and consumption.

Describe your position at New-York Historical Society and how you came to it. What sort of projects are you working on?

I initially came to the Historical Society as a Tiffany & Co. Foundation Fellow in American Silver, which was jointly administered by Bard Graduate Center. The fellowship afforded me the opportunity to closely study the Society’s silver collection in preparation for the 2011 exhibition and catalogue, Stories in Sterling.

During my time at the Historical Society, I have curated exhibitions that examine a wide variety of topics: Beer Here!: New York’s Brewing History, Superheroes in Gotham, Treasures of Shearith Israel, and Now Playing: The Grateful Dead at the New-York Historical Society. In the past year I curated the new silver hall, along with several interpretive niches, that will be unveiled when the Luce Center reopens at the end of April. In addition, I was part of the curatorial team that created the exhibition, First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New York. This exhibition included approximately 170 objects and documents that told the story of how Jews came to settle in the colonial Americas. It is gratifying to be able to interpret unusual or unknown artifacts and documents, such as the soon-to-be-repatriated, late sixteenth-century autobiography of a Mexican Crypto-Jew who migrated to the New World in the hope of escaping the long arm of the Spanish Inquisition, or one of the rare surviving pairs of silver rimonim made by the colonial Jewish silversmith and entrepreneur Myer Myers.

As the curator of decorative arts, I oversee a diverse collection of material culture that includes precious and base metals, fine and prosaic furnishings, ceramics, jewelry, maritime art, household and business tools, equipment, and ephemera, political memorabilia, carriages, archaeological material, and a growing collection of Judaica. In addition to overseeing the care of the museum collection, I also interpret those works as primary source documents to teach American history to our visitors as well as the public at large.

How has your experience at Bard Graduate Center helped you in your career?

The program was essential to my development as a curator and material culture historian. Still today, Bard Graduate Center continues to offer incomparable learning and teaching opportunities that allow me to grow further as a student, teacher, curator, and scholar.