Jenny Shaffer (Visiting Fellow, September–October 2018) is adjunct associate professor of art history at New York University School of Professional Studies/Division of Applied Undergraduate Studies. Her research centers on ways in which buildings generate and communicate layered meanings within the complex contexts of their production and reception, with a focus on early medieval architecture, and Charlemagne’s chapel at Aachen in particular. She has explored these issues in publications which include: “Picking Up the Pieces of Charlemagne’s Column Screens: The Church at Ottmarsheim, the Westbau of Essen, and the Discovery of Aachen’s Copies” (Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft, 2015); and “Restoring Charlemagne’s chapel: historical consciousness, material culture, and transforming images of Aachen in the 1840s” (Journal of Art Historiography, 2012). Shaffer is currently writing a book of essays that revolves around the long and tangled lives of selected Carolingian buildings. While at Bard Graduate Center, she will be working on a chapter for this project: “The Church of Saint-Riquier: Lost Monument as Work in Progress.”

Tell us about your academic/professional background and how you became interested in your research area.
I teach the history of art, and, as a medievalist, I focus primarily on the Carolingian and Ottonian periods, architectural history, and historiography and methodology. Much of my work has revolved around the production and reception of early medieval buildings. I studied art history, and concentrated on medieval architecture, even as an undergraduate. I have long attributed this early decision to two experiences, both of which, in retrospect, underscore, for me, the central importance of directly encountering works, whether objects or buildings. First, I became obsessed with archeology in fourth grade. I attended a progressive elementary school that advocated hands-on learning, and, one morning, we students entered our classroom to find the desks and chairs gone and our space filled with troughs of sand. Our teacher asked us to “excavate” this site and draw conclusions, from the artifacts we uncovered, about the fictive culture she had created. While I certainly enjoyed digging in the classroom, I took with me a larger interest in seeking to understand a past or a culture through its material objects – as well as a nascent understanding of the importance of great teachers.

Second, while on a trip to Paris in middle school, I visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The building was radically different from anything I knew in suburban Delaware. While I had seen photos of Gothic buildings, the experience of the space, complete with a spectacular procession of aged priests, made a deep impression on me. I carried away all sorts of questions about medieval buildings, along with a desire to visit more of them. In grad school, a particularly grueling, though ultimately rewarding, independent study on Carolingian architecture – the material was so dense and challenging – pointed me towards the early Middle Ages. Two years of dissertation research in Munich’s Staatsbibliothek and the library of the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte opened up a world of nineteenth-century German scholarship that was completely new to me. This encounter with the history of art history changed my scholarly perspective, taking me beyond questions of when a building was created and into questions of its existence in time - issues I continue to engage in my research.

What attracted you to the Bard Graduate Center fellowship?
As an art historian, I have long been aware of BGC, but, in recent years, I have come to see Bard specifically in light of its publications: articles in West 86th and Source that I have used in teaching and research, and books, particularly those in the Cultural Histories of the Material World series, that have informed my work. I was pleased to learn that BGC had a fellowship program. I applied because I knew Bard, through its publications, as an advocate for varied and exploratory approaches to works, with interests and approaches that meshed with my own.

What is the focus and result of your research here?
My goal in coming to BGC was to begin work on a long-considered book on Carolingian architecture— more specifically, to work on a chapter focused on the continuing existence of the “lost” church of Saint-Riquier at Centula in architectural representations. I have been successful in achieving this goal, as Bard has given me the space and time to think about my project.

What are your plans after the fellowship?
I will return to my much noisier section of Manhattan, where I will continue work on my project. Next semester, I go back to teaching. I am scheduled to lead a course in art historical methodology, which will certainly be informed by my time at BGC.

What would be your advice to young researchers/students still trying to decide a career path for themselves, whether in academia or in museums?
I am a bit uncomfortable doling out advice, as I have charted a rather idiosyncratic academic career. But perhaps there is advice in that. I would stress that there is no master template for a career. Be flexible and open to new ideas and experiences, as interests and plans inevitably change.