BY EMMA SACHS, PhD candidate, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology and Museum Studies, University of Michigan, blogging from New York, where she is a Bothmer Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This year I have been conducting research and writing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a Bothmer Fellow in the Department of Greek and Roman Art. I vividly remember the day I found out I’d be coming to the Met — February 21, 2014 — because that was the day Pompeii opened in IMAX. Expecting that this would be a major box office hit, I preordered tickets and dragged my extremely amenable friend to the theater 45 minutes early to stand in line — only to be told by a confused theater employee that there was no line, and the theater would be available about 10 minutes before the show. We should have lowered our expectations when a woman in the restroom loudly announced that “If anyone is planning to see the movie Pompeii, don’t do it!!” But sometimes hope is blind and academics naïve — especially when their field of study is featured in 3D. Needless to say, it was terrible. Vesuvius couldn’t have erupted too soon, and even when it finally happened, the IMAX effects were mediocre. If we had to sit through a poorly crafted story, we could at least have been rewarded with a few more fiery rocks flying at our faces. That evening I was busy explaining my disappointment over the phone to my parents when the fellowship offer from the Met appeared in my inbox. So it wasn’t a bad evening after all.
I moved to New York in August and started at the Met in September. The Bothmer Fellowship was awarded in support of my dissertation research, and accordingly most of my time has been spent closely studying the museum’s fantastic collection and writing at my desk in the Watson Library, the museum’s central library. (The Met has 28 libraries in total!) I also routinely participate in talks, tours, and lectures arranged to introduce Fellows to the museum’s 17 curatorial departments, its system of administration, and active projects.
The focus of my research is wall painting from the Bay of Naples region, where the volcano Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and buried much of the surrounding region, including the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and nearby villas in the countryside. While this disaster by no means “froze” this region in time, perfectly preserving it for posterity, the volcanic debris did help to preserve a considerable amount of wall painting, protecting it from exposure the elements. For this reason, the majority of the corpus of Roman fresco comes from Campania, and any systematic study ever done that pertains to “Roman” wall painting has its roots in this material and in this region. The Met has the best collection of Roman wall painting in the Western Hemisphere, so it is naturally a magnet for wall painting specialists. I am particularly interested in the museum’s paintings from the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor in Boscoreale, which was excavated in 1899–1902. In 1903, many of the villa’s frescoes, mosaics, and smaller finds were sold at a Paris auction and dispersed to numerous institutions and private collectors around the world. Nineteen fresco sections were purchased by the Met in 1903, and they have been a highlight of the museum’s collection ever since. I should note that a few small finds eventually made their way to the Kelsey Museum, including bronze hardware, agricultural tools, and a stone rotary mill on display on the Kelsey’s second floor.
While my experience thus far has been very fruitful for my dissertation, I have also learned a great deal about the museum and its objects. The great breadth and depth of the museum’s collection of antiquities — dating from the fifth millennium BC to the fourth century AD — allows for an encyclopedic display, organized by time and region (much like the Kelsey’s installation, if a bit more expansive). While I came to the museum a little skeptical of this linear march through time, I have observed that it is accessible to many different kinds of audiences: easily comprehensible to casual visitors and yet helpfully contextual for specialists. One of my favorite Fellows’ activities was conducting a tour of the Greek and Roman galleries to about 20 other scholars. This allowed me to explore the Met’s institutional history and the prominent role the art of antiquity has played since the museum’s founding in 1870. Indeed, the first object accessioned by the Met was actually a Roman sarcophagus from Tarsus in southeast Turkey. In 1870 it was donated to the museum — which at that time only existed on paper — as a gesture of diplomacy by the American vice-consul in Tarsus, Abdo Dabbas. The most sizable acquisition made by the museum in the next thirty years was that of the Cesnola collection, about 35,000 ancient objects from Cyprus, purchased from General Luigi Palma di Cesnola in 1874 and 1876. This collection formed the core of the Met’s early holdings, and in fact the general himself became the first director of the museum in 1879, holding the position until his death in 1904. While as a Fellow I have learned so much about the Met and its collections, as always, the Kelsey is never very far out of sight. Some pieces from the Cesnola collection eventually made their way to the Kelsey and are on view in the Cypriot case on the first floor.