Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Author: Francesca Bisi (page 1 of 2)

Monsters and Museums

Henry Fuseli. The Nightmare, 1781. Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 127 cm. Detroit, Detroit Institute of Arts.

Horror fans are probably already aware that Guillermo del Toro has released a new series, an anthology of shorts available on Netflix titled Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. As the acclaimed horror director introduces each episode, he draws an object from the eponymous cabinet, representative of the story we are about to be told. Here the show is clearly forging a connection to the cabinets of curiosities, or wunderkammers, that were found in the homes of those wealthy and well-connected enough to assemble collections of strange, foreign, and valuable art and objects. Del Toro’s horror series ties in with a specific aspect of these collections, this being the idea of the monstrous. What better way to show your reach and wealth as a patron than to put on display creatures and objects which are typically outside of our control, or break with our understanding of the natural order?

We have long been fascinated with the inhabitants of the periphery of our understanding: creatures and ideas that lie between the fantastical and the real. Just plausible enough to be imagined, but not necessarily so common or true that they are a part of everyday life. This has been explored at length in art, and many examples reveal just how artists attempted to materialize the monstrous.

View of the stairwell. Bloober Team. Layers of Fear. Aspyr, 2016. Art by Mateusz Lenart.

The 2016 horror video game Layers of Fear, centered around a painter returning home to complete his final masterpiece, explores this topic. The player must explore the kaleidoscopic rooms and corridors of his house, completing puzzles in order to create an ever more disturbing painting. Art plays a central role in creating an atmosphere of psychological horror, with nearly every wall filled with real art supplementing the works created in-universe by the player-controlled artist. Among these, we can see classic examples of horror in art, such as Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, and several works from Francisco Goya’s black period. All of these works channel some of our deepest fears and discomforts. Artemisia Gentileschi’s famous painting is a dynamic composition leading the eye towards the sword slicing through Holofernes’s neck, while Fuseli’s embodies the form of a nightmare through an uncanny horse and goblin. Goya instead turns to images of witches and the demonic, as well as disturbing depictions of violence and death.

Among all of these, however, is an unusual painting. It is a half-length portrait, depicting a little girl holding a piece of paper. She is gazing calmly at the viewer, dressed in rich, sixteenth-century clothes. Her mouth is turned slightly upwards in a subtle smile, and her chubby hands and cheeks reveal her tender age. Why, then, is this young girl placed alongside so many disturbing images in a game where art is used to amplify the horror atmosphere of this haunted home?

Lavinia Fontana. Portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez, c. 1595. Oil on canvas, 57 x 46 cm. Blois, Musée du Château

Her name is Antonietta Gonzales, and, like her father and most of her siblings, she had a condition called hypertrichosis. This condition is ultimately the reason she is included in this collection. Hypertrichosis causes abnormal growth of hair, covering the individual’s body almost entirely. The paper she holds provides identifying information on her and her family:

“Don Pietro, a wild man discovered in the Canary Islands, was conveyed to his most serene highness Henry the king of France, and from there came to his excellency the Duke of Parma. From whom [came] I, Antonietta, and now I can be found nearby at the court of the Lady Isabella Pallavicina, the honorable marchesa of Soragna.”

An illustration from the late 16th century shows Antonietta’s parents, Pedro Gonzalez and Catherine. Born in Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1537, Pedro was brought to France, where he was educated by the court in an experiment to make a cultured man out of what the naturalist Ulisse Aldovrandi called “the man of the woods.” Pedro and his children, four of which had the same condition as him, were treated as less than human, viewed in a similar manner as the objects and specimens that filled the wunderkammers and menageries that the royals and upper class of Europe retained.

Joris Hoefnagel. Pedro González (Petrus Gonsalvus) and His Wife, Catherine, c. 1475-80. Water and gouache on vellum, 14.3 x 18.4 cm. Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art.

Today, a similar attitude can be seen in the fictional gallery created in Layers of Fear. A smaller version of the portrait can be seen throughout the house, but it is placed front and center in the study. Upon entering, the player sees the portrait hung in a prominent, central position in the wall directly in front of them. Several factors impact the player’s reaction and understanding of this image. First, it is already known that we are playing a horror game, and thus any visuals are considered in such a light. We have already encountered several disturbing works before entering this room, and as such are even further prepared to perceive any further work of art in a similar way.

View of the study with the portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez. Bloober Team. Layers of Fear. Aspyr, 2016. Art by Mateusz Lenart.

Most players’ reactions reveal the impact this has. Nearly every single player acknowledges this painting with surprise or disgust, especially when it is highlighted in the study. Markiplier remarks “Oh god, oh god, oh it’s so… oh my god. That is so weird. Oh, what’s wrong with your face?” and Jacksepticeye exclaims “Like what the f*** is this? A beard baby!?” Several others compare Antonietta to a human-animal hybrid, a way of thinking that is strikingly similar to the dehumanizing rhetoric peddled by Antonietta’s contemporaries. During a GTLive stream of Layers of Fear, Matt says “Ugh… I am not a fan of that painting. […] Hey owl man. It’s actually a wolf, right? […] Wolf baby! Beware the wolf baby.” Another live stream, this time from DashieGames, similarly adds “What the hell is that? […] That’s like wolf-man baby.” It’s remarkable to see how the worldviews that shaped Antonietta’s life in the 16th century are repeated in the 21st.

The depiction of the monstrous—be it through allegories of our deepest fears, violence, or, in Antonietta’s case, people who look different than the established norm—reveal a steady line between the earliest museums (in the form of cabinets of curiosities) and our imaginations today. This brings us to wonder about the role that museums (whether real or through imagined collections, like that of Layers of Fear) play in amplifying these fears and prejudices. Are we cementing the fears and prejudices that dehumanize those with physical or mental illnesses and deformities?


Sources:

Aldovrandi, Ulisse. Monstrum historia. Bologna: Typic Nicolai Tebaldini, 1632; repr. Paris: Belles lettres, 2002.

Dashiegames. “I WAS TOO SCARED TO PLAY THIS ALONE! HELP ME!! [LAYERS OF FEAR] [#01].” YouTube video, 2:18:06, June 18th, 2021. (link)

GTLive. “The Portrait of TERROR | Layers of FEAR! (Part 1 of 2).” YouTube video, 1:45:01, November 11, 2016.  (link)

Jacksepticeye. “ALONE AND AFRAID | Layers of Fear – Part 1.” YouTube video, 30:02, October 28, 2016. (link)

Markiplier. “OODLES of SPOOPLES | Layers of Fear #1.” YouTube video, 21:25, October 31, 2015. (link)

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry. The Marvelous Hairy Girls. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.


Article by Francesca Bisi

MA Candidate in Art History and Museum Studies, Tufts University

Weekly Job Roundup

Hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s roundup of exciting opportunities in museums! We do our best to collect the latest job openings, and please be sure to check last week’s roundup. For more opportunities, we recommend the following databases:

MuseWeekly
New England Museum Association Jobs
HireCulture – Jobs in the Humanities in Massachusetts
HistPres – Unique Historic Preservation Jobs
Museum Employment Resource Center
Job HQ – American Association of Museums
American Association of State and Local History Career Center

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Mid-Atlantic

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The Parthenon Marbles and the Issue of Restitution

Whether you are part of the museum world or not, you have likely heard of the controversy surrounding the Parthenon marbles. This summer, newspapers have been flooded with stories about these ancient sculptures, with a renewed fervor for restitution and apparent headways in the Greek cause. Housed at the British Museum, they have been at the center of debates over restitution. Their history provides a fascinating jumping-off point for discussions on how museums handle their history, especially in cases where past practices do not reflect 21st-century understandings of museum ethics. What, exactly, is the history of these works? How should we handle complex discussions of heritage and cultural ownership? How do societal moralities confront war and theft in “European-on-European” conflicts?

This past Sunday, comedian John Oliver covered museums in his deep dive on Last Week Tonight. He began by discussing the Parthenon Marbles, then moved on to focus on the issue of decolonization and restitution in European and American museums. This has brought renewed public attention to this issue, but over the summer months, we also saw a number of articles in museum and art publications discussing these same sculptures.

Art historian Eleni Vassilika wrote an informative article outlining her shift in perspective regarding the restitution of the marbles, while archaeologist Mario Trabucco della Torretta reiterated the right of the British Museum to retain them. The prominence of this debate can also be seen in the demonstration that took place in the British Museum on June 18, 2022, when protesters marked the anniversary of the opening of the Acropolis Museum in Athens by demanding the return of the marbles. The protesters are not without allies in the British government, as several members of Parliament have also expressed support for their cause. The British Museum’s chairman, George Osborne, instead proposed alternatives to the unequivocal return of the marbles, suggesting a temporary loan or an agreement to “…tell both stories in Athens and in London.” This debate has led to numerous solutions being put forward, including providing copies for the British Museum to display, but ultimately it seems impossible to find an agreement that will satisfy all sides. Most recently, Prime Minister Liz Truss has spoken on the return of the Parthenon Marbles, claiming that she is entirely against it, seemingly putting an end to the potential collaborations proposed by Osborne. This speaks to the complexity of the issue and reveals how recent discussions on ethics and restitution place museum studies on the cusp of a new age.

Figure: Protestors holding a banner reading “Reunify the Marbles!” at the British Museum (BCRMP, through The Art Newspaper)

A decree from the Sultan of Turkey granted Elgin free access to the Acropolis and assures his right to “tak[e] away any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures.” (Casey) Elgin took this language with the loosest possible interpretations, giving himself permission to remove “hundreds of tons of sculptured material from the Parthenon and its surrounding structures.” (Casey) Between 1801 and 1812, Elgin managed to place in his personal property 247 feet of the frieze that ran around the perimeter of the building, 15 metopes, and 17 sculptures from the pediment. Initially intended to decorate his house, after a costly divorce and rapidly mounting debts Lord Elgin decided to sell them (at a loss from the cost of transporting them from Greece to England) to the British Museum.

Criticism of Elgin’s removal of the reliefs and sculpture is certainly not a recent phenomenon. Elgin’s contemporaries criticized his wanton dismantling of the Greek site. The Monthly Magazine published an editorial that claimed that “many things which had been hitherto considered immovable have been torn away from the places where they had remained unmolested for thousands of years.” (Casey) Greece, an increasingly popular site for British Gran Tours during the years of Napoleon’s European conquests, was now stripped of one of its most admired monuments.

A Brief Timeline of Greece and the Parthenon Marbles
5th century BCE The Parthenon Marbles are created in the Acropolis in Athens
1456 Athens is conquered by the Ottoman Empire
1798 Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, is appointed as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire
1799 Lord Elgin approaches the British government to gauge interest in creating plaster casts of the Parthenon Marbles, receiving a negative response
1801 Elgin begins removing the marbles from the Parthenon, moving them to Malta and eventually to England
1821 The Greek War of Independence begins against the Ottoman Empire; a revolutionary government named the First Hellenic Republic is established; the revolution is celebrated in Greece on March 25th as Independence Day
1832 The leader of the First Hellenic Republic is assassinated; the Kingdom of Greece is established under King Otto I
1924 The kingdom is dissolved; the Second Hellenic Republic is established
1935 The kingdom is restored under King George II
1967 A Greek military junta led by right-wing colonels takes over the government
1974 The Third Hellenic Republic (the current Greek government) is established
1983 Melina Mercouri, Greek Minister of Culture, formally asks for the restitution of the Parthenon marbles
2009 The Acropolis Museum opens to the public; it is built in part to house the Parthenon Marbles

Last year, I had the opportunity to discuss some of these topics at the “Crime and Spectacle: Theft, Forgery, and Propaganda” conference through the CMSMC. I later published a paper through the CMSMC based on my talk, titled “‘Conquête Militaire’: The Ethics of Restitution of the Louvre’s Napoleonic Legacy.” In it, I examined the issue of heritage and ownership in regard to Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana, a Venetian work looted by Napoleon in 1797 and still housed at the Louvre today. Looting within the context of European wars is nothing new or unusual, and this makes the question of restitution and museum acquisition ethics even more complicated. While researching for this article, I reached out to the Louvre, and Chief Curator Vincent Delieuvin kindly replied, explaining:

“There are no discussions on repatriating these objects. This is part of the European history. In our countries, many places or museums have in their collection that kind of objects taken, in old times, during war. For example, in Venice, the cathedral of San Marco has many objects taken during the crusade in Constantinople.” (Delieuvin)

The Louvre is certainly not alone in maintaining this point of view, as the vast majority of European museums hold objects acquired through military conquests and plunder, or owned by a particular modern nation through the consequences of the ever-shifting borders of European territories. The question of the right of ownership and repatriation of art moved throughout Europe is thus difficult to quantify or apply a single, overarching solution to.

I finished my article by citing Dr. Lisa Yun Lee, and I want to do the same here. She wrote, “At some point, the history of your institution will disappoint you. Tell this history, and take responsibility for the past.” (Lee, 77) Often we see these discussions getting entangled in questions of legality, and we rarely stop to consider their morality. Museum professionals hold a responsibility to the objects and history they care for, and thus should consider the ethics of the provenance of their objects and act on it, without using the documentation or past, outdated principles to shackle objects taken unethically.


Sources:

Bisi, Francesca. “‘Conquête Militaire’: The Ethics of Restitution of the Louvre’s Napoleonic Legacy.” The Coalition of Master’s Scholars on Material Culture, February 25, 2022 (link).

Casey, Christopher. “‘Grecian Grandeurs and the Rude Wasting of Old Time’: Britain, the Elgin Marbles, and Post-Revolutionary Hellenism.” Foundations 3, no. 1 (2008): 32–64.

Delieuvin, Vincent. “Research Questions – Wedding Feast at Cana,” February 12, 2022.

Lee, Lisa Yun. “Hope Is Not a Metaphor: An Annotated Guide to Twenty-Five Essential Skills for Museum Leaders.” In The Inclusive Museum Leader, edited by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko and Chris Taylor, 75–82. American Alliance of Museums. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.


Article by Francesca Bisi

MA Candidate in Art History and Museum Studies, Tufts University

Weekly Job Roundup

Hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s roundup of exciting opportunities in museums! We do our best to collect the latest job openings, and please be sure to check last week’s roundup. For more opportunities, we recommend the following databases:

MuseWeekly
New England Museum Association Jobs
HireCulture – Jobs in the Humanities in Massachusetts
HistPres – Unique Historic Preservation Jobs
Museum Employment Resource Center
Job HQ – American Association of Museums
American Association of State and Local History Career Center

Northeast

Mid-Atlantic

Southeast

Midwest

Southwest

Northwest

Remote

Weekly Job Roundup

Hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s roundup of exciting opportunities in museums!

Northeast

Mid-Atlantic

Southeast

Midwest

Southwest

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