Arts & Culture

Reflections on Collections: Examining Tufts University Art Gallery’s Spring Exhibition

The displays at the Tufts University Art Gallery’s current spring exhibition re:imagining collections take inspiration from items in one of the gallery’s lesser-known collections. Consisting of “some 200 objects that date from the fifth century BCE to the seventh century CE,” according to TUAG’s website, the antiquities collection hasn’t been displayed in the gallery since 1992. With the collection so historically underrepresented in exhibitions, the gallery has invited several artists to intervene—to produce artworks with the collection and Tufts’ collecting practice as their focuses. Given the troubled history of the collection, the exhibition aims to encourage scrutiny and open conversations around TUAG and its collecting practices.

The first display inside the door of the gallery is artist duo SANGREE’s work titled The Gifts Offered to the Ones to Come: Ooparts From the Distant Future (Los dones que se ofrecen a los que están por venir: Ooparts de un futuro distante). The display incorporates pre-Columbian pieces from TUAG’s antiquities collection into their brand of modern-day clay work. From Nike slides made of marble to display platforms that resemble both Mayan temples and skatepark half-pipes, the entire display is rife with conflations of the past and the present. Given that many of the pieces displayed don’t have their provenances listed, SANGREE plays with that uncertainty about the past to bring the collection objects into the present.

The second display, titled LOOT Garden, by artist Nicole Cherubini, encourages visitors to sit on intricately printed ceramic chairs and consider a collection of items on display. Cherubini selected her collection items by searching the Tufts collection database for items tagged as “vessels,” which includes a range of items from simple bowls to large amphoras and lamps. She juxtaposes the function of the chairs with the function of the “vessels” to direct attention not towards the objects’ histories or origins, but to their function and purpose in the collection.

The final display is NIC Kay’s Before and After (Object Lessons), which features two larger-than-life figures made of cloth and mats—one of a head and one of a faceless body. The collection pieces they’re based on, a minimalist stone head and a female figure made of terracotta, aren’t more than a few inches tall. Kay approached the collection looking for objects that resembled bodies and figures, and the display plays with the life objects take on (or lose) when removed from their cultural contexts. 

At this point the exhibition appears to reach an end, but at the bottom of the stairs is the complementary part of the exhibition: the history of Tufts’ permanent collection. The walls of this room are covered in informative placards detailing the history of the collection, from the first painting of Hosea Ballou commissioned in 1874 to the digitization of the collection in 2019. It also tracks major legal and historical milestones in the world of antiquities collecting, situating Tufts’ antiquities within other historical discussions about museum and gallery collections. This lower floor, in conjunction with the upper level exhibition, brings to mind questions about the impact of Tufts’ collecting practice and about collecting practices in general.

The history of antiquities collection is fraught with cultural erasure and violence for the sake of national or scientific gain. This results in many pieces being brought into museums and galleries with little to no record of ownership or even definitive place of origin. Craig Cipolla, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Tufts, said, “Those early collectors, their idea of what was valuable wasn’t the context that it was coming from, or sometimes even the country. That wasn’t as important as the object itself … [and] the idea that motivated that oftentimes was that if they didn’t get it, someone else would.” As a result, art collectors often expressed this through violence towards colonized people, looting, and illegally selling deeply significant objects to more affluent, colonizing nations.

The practice of looting and reselling art, despite major milestones like the UNESCO 1970 Convention, has remained under-regulated to this day—especially within antiquities markets. Antiquities dealers have historically been indicted for massive collections of stolen cultural objects, including, recently, infamous art dealer Michael Steinhardt. 

In 2021, according to CNBC, Steinhardt “surrendered 180 stolen antiquities… valued at $70 million” which he had been collecting for decades, including acquiring pieces from now-deceased patriarch of the Merrin Family, Edward Merrin. The Merrin Family have been prolific art dealers for decades, and members of the family have, throughout the years, donated the majority of the antiquities that are now in the Tufts collection. Other pieces from the Merrins have repeatedly popped up in scandals like Steinhardt’s. According to CNBC, Steinhardt allegedly purchased a stolen antiquity from the Merrin Gallery for “$2.6 million in November 1991”—although it is not certain whether Merrin knew the nature of the piece he had acquired, and nothing illicit has been confirmed about him or his gallery. 

This level of systematic looting results in a violent disconnect between an object and its cultural context. According to Cipolla, the goal for art galleries then becomes to “reactivate these things in the living world, rather than being isolated from their relations with the rest of the world,” and that’s exactly what re:imagining collections attempts to do. In a written statement to the Tufts Observer, Dina Deitsch, Director and Chief Curator at TUAG, said, “The installations are there to prompt questions and inquiry. It’s part of a long process of making this collection visible—the first was putting it online in 2019—so we can understand the histories around them better.” It has taken 10 years to put this exhibition together, and Deitsch and the dozens of others who worked on it aim to put as many eyes on the collection and the exhibition as possible.

For the past six years, Laura McDonald, Manager of Collections at TUAG, has focused on getting the collection on the radar of both students and scholars in the field. She said, “In order to get these objects out there into the conversations, we needed to display them.” As a result, McDonald has spent time coordinating research inquiries from interested scholars and students, and, according to a plaque within the exhibition, “enlisting faculty and students to help TUAG with provenance research is part of the due diligence efforts that are critical if we hope to return objects to their rightful owners.”

Junior Kaitlyn Carril, who works on the Tufts Art Galleries Acquisition Committee and the Student Programming Committee, expressed surprise and appreciation for the lengths TUAG is going to in order to make the collection visible to people. Carril said, “Just admitting that there’s faults in the Tufts collection of art objects and trying to redeem oneself—and not quietly too, very openly and publicly—I think that’s very courageous.”

The conversations that this exhibition is raising are, to McDonald, a complement of more impactful changes within the institution. She said that the university no longer accepts items with unknown or uncertain provenances, and TUAG has switched its focus to exclusively contemporary art. McDonald has also encouraged the return of any objects in the collection that are claimed by other countries or groups. “We’re 40 years on from 1982 [when the UNESCO Convention was ratified in the US], so it’s a different world now. There’s so much talk about repatriation,” she said. “My feeling would be that if there’s a country of origin that wants them back, we’re happy to give them back.”

Ultimately, the exhibition is a unified push to create as much conversation around these issues as possible—especially since, according to McDonald, TUAG is “not going to have another exhibit like this for the foreseeable future.” From the conflation of the past and present within SANGREE’s display to inquiries into function and provenance in Cherubini’s and Kay’s displays, the exhibition is already asking questions about the collection. However, moving forward, the implications of Tufts’ collection and collecting practices is, according to McDonald, “an important conversation to have as an institution, not as the gallery or as a staff member, but very much as an institution, because it’s all connected.”