Elizabeth Rodini works on cross-cultural encounters in the early modern period, recently focusing on matters of object mobility, recontextualization, and reuse in early modern Venice. Her publications in this field include “Imitation as a Mercantile Strategy: The Case of Damascene Ware,” in Typical Venice? Venetian Commodities, 13th–16th Centuries(Brepols, at press), and “The Sultan’s True Face? Gentile Bellini, Mehmet II, and the Value of Verisimilitude,” in The “Turk” and Islam in the Western Eye (1453–1832) (Ashgate, 2011). She is currently writing a book-length study of Bellini’s Mehmet portrait, constructed as an object biography and methodological reader. She received her PhD from the University of Chicago. As Founding Director of the Program in Museums and Society at Johns Hopkins University, Rodini works between the museum and academia and has published on museum and collection history, museum scholarship, and cultural landscapes. Her work at Bard Graduate Center will build on a forthcoming article, “Mobile Things: On the Origins and Meanings of Levantine Objects in Early Modern Venice” (Art History, 2018), extending its documentary investigations into the sphere of the museum and exploring strategies for re-activating once peripatetic collection objects. This work will be grounded in artifacts in New York City collections that spanned the Mediterranean literally or conceptually, in order to bridge material, historical, and institutional approaches to the study of early modern mobility.

Tell us about your academic/professional background and how you became interested in your research area.

My teaching and research interests are wide-ranging but are held together by my ongoing fascination with mobility: the ways things move, why they move, and what the implications of movement are for understanding them. I can trace this interest back to my dissertation, which I wrote in art history at the University of Chicago. I examined the way that different kinds of objects—maps, portraits, and architecture—shaped and were shaped by Venetian understandings of the Levant in the late medieval and early modern period. After I completed my PhD I headed into a curatorial career and ended up at Johns Hopkins University where, thanks to some great mentors and supportive administrators, I had the opportunity to start a new program, Museums and Society, that takes a humanistic approach to the history of museums, broadly defined and across the disciplines. I found myself teaching the history of museums and paying more and more attention to how objects got where they are—and asking why. I guess I became interested in what we now call the “afterlife of things.” My favorite courses to teach have been centered on these questions, and my research and writing have as well, even as my subject matter ranges from the meaning of Islamic objects in Venice c. 1500-1600 to changing interpretational strategies at the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris. My biggest project of the moment is a “biography” of a painting, Gentile Bellini’s portrait of Sultan Mehmed II (National Gallery, London), from its production in 1480 at the Ottoman court to the present. It provides a shifting lens on a range of historical and art historical topics, including authenticity, verisimilitude, ownership, cross-cultural exchange, and political identity. But still—it is the matter of mobility that ties it all together.

What attracted you to the Bard Graduate Center fellowship?

Bard Graduate Center feels like a natural home to me. My earliest curatorial position, at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, crossed museum/academic lines, and that intersection has become a focus of my professional work. So the synergies that define the BGC really speak to me. Even more, I was drawn to the BGC’s varied intellectual community and the excellent cross-disciplinary work that takes place here, especially the careful attention paid to objects in socio-historical contexts. Well before my fellowship, I frequently tuned into BGCTV for lectures and programs—my students at Hopkins can tell you that I often put them on my syllabi. So it’s wonderful, now, to be able to pop downstairs and attend them whenever I want.

What is the focus and result of your research here?

My interest in mobility has a flip side, that is, a frustration with a museological approach to objects that too often treats them as static. Museums, for all their wonders, contribute to the sense that objects have only—or primarily—a beginning, where and when they were made, and an end, as a thing of wonder in a gallery. The intervening life of the object is far less evident to most visitors, even as scholars are increasingly engaged with this longer object trajectory. To some extent this emphasis is a result of the late 18th and 19th-century origins of art museums, which laid out their galleries according to nation states and national identities as they still tend to do today. But many things, such as hybrid objects or those made to travel, don’t sit neatly within these maps, and neither do their stories. So I am investigating this matter and thinking about how museums might “dislodge” objects and better present them in the full complexity of their histories. I’m reading lots of works on spatial theory, talking to museum professionals and academics, and studying exhibition and digital strategies. I anticipate several outcomes: an article, possibly as part of a series of essays on the decolonized art museum; a set of presentations and an eventual publication as part of a British research network, Mobility of Objects across Boundaries, 1000-1700; and possibly some sort of digital project tied to a few objects or a small collection. I would love to be able to explore some sort of intervention—interpretive and maybe even artistic—in a museum collection as well. In fact, artists might have the best answers the questions I am posing, and that is another investigative angle I plan to pursue.

What are your plans after the fellowship?

Most urgent is to finish my Bellini/Sultan book. I’m trying some new approaches to writing here, including working outside the familiar academic formula and reaching out to a broader audience. I think the story merits this treatment, but it is a new kind of work for me and (happily) challenging. From there I will turn to realizing my BGC research. One thing I am focusing on, as I just indicated, is a more public form of writing. I think academic humanists are not doing a great job of explaining why the work we do matters; museum-based scholars are better posed to do this but they have many other demands on their time. I hope to turn more of my writing, especially that about museums and cultural heritage, toward the public sphere. Two long-term writing projects—both informed by my work at the BGC—are an accessible but critical guide to understanding museums, and a set of essays about material heritage and identity politics. I’m looking toward a pro-active future in which my academic and museum training can have a broad impact.

What would be your advice to young researchers/students still trying to decide a career path for themselves, whether in academia or in museums?

In terms of attitude: be open to opportunities and willing to follow the curving path, for it will almost certainly be that. In terms of practicalities: information is key to making wise choices. Don’t assume a museum career is for you without spending some time behind the scenes of the galleries, ideally in various capacities and in institutions of various sizes. Consider the range of museum professions as well—educators, designers, registrars, publishers, and digital managers all play important roles in the interpretation of collections today. Likewise, think carefully about the PhD and go in with eyes wide open in terms of the commitment and likely or possible outcomes. If you are sure it’s the right path, go for it—I’m a firm believer in doing what you love. But if you have any doubts, or are pursuing it because, well, you were always a good student so why not?—think carefully. Consider an MA first and explore different, related entry level positions in museums, galleries, and auction houses too (the latter are great for training your eye—I wish I had spent some time in one now). The field is always changing, and you might find something unexpected and appealing along that curving path.