Since the Bowdoin College Museum of Art received 100 extraordinary objects from the Wyvern Collection on long-term loan, the artworks have become “an integral part of daily life at the museum,” staff say. Because the Museum is so closely tied to Bowdoin’s academic program, the collection has also become an important part of the College’s curriculum.
Medieval and Renaissance enamels from Limoges in the Bowdoin gallery. They are part of the private Wyvern collection on loan to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA). The museum’s co-director, Anne Collins Goodyear, calls the collection an “extraordinary cultural resource”.
At the center of the Bowdoin Gallery, which currently features selections from the museum’s permanent collection of European and American art, is a sparkling case of small, eye-catching Medieval and Renaissance enamels drawn from the Wyvern Collection. Their bright colors shimmer under the lights of the museum, immediately catching the visitor’s attention.
The gallery’s exhibition, “Re|Framing the Collection: New Considerations in European and American Art, 1475–1875”, explores the period before and after the founding of the College. The exhibition questions and complicates how Europeans and their descendants viewed themselves and the territories they occupied in North America.
Although the majority of the enamels on display are part of the historical context of the exhibition, some date from the end of the 12th-beginning of the 13th century, offering a kind of prehistory to the other objects in the exhibition.
Kate Gerry, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History, saw that a meaningful connection could be made between the glazes and the themes addressed by the exhibition. She curated a small array of Wyvern Collection items this summer, adding another layer to “Re|Framing the Collection.”
“Those who reinstalled this piece weren’t specifically thinking of medieval art,” Gerry acknowledged, “but the Wyvern pieces help demonstrate the pre-American cultural context.”
Early Americans brought with them European ideas and standards, flavoring life in the colonies and the young country. One of their predilections was for art or ornamental objects that represented classical forms with biblical references, as demonstrated by the Wyvern objects. “These are the ideas circulating in Europe about what’s fashionable and how to decorate a home space, and you can see that playing out in America,” Gerry said.
More broadly, the Middle Ages, which roughly covers the years between 500 and 1500, “contained the seeds of many of the societal structures and cultural and scientific achievements that we regard as so fundamental to our modern lives, though we may often overlook these important relationships between the past. and present,” Gerry wrote.
Since a donor loaned the Museum in 2019 100 objects from the extensive Wyvern Collection, one of the world’s most important private collections, particularly of medieval art, the Museum has expanded its knowledge and teaching, often in ways creative, as with the current mini-exposure of enamels.
Over the past three years, the Museum has also, despite the pandemic, held four other exhibits featuring Wyvern artifacts. The biggest was Gerry’s big show, from August 2020 to February 2022, called “New Views of the Middle Ages: Highlights from the Wyvern Collection”. His students helped research and write labels, and contributed to the show’s catalog. They also created online content to help audiences access works during and after the pandemic, well after the actual show dates.
In addition, thirty-two classes have so far covered subjects from various disciplines: African Studies, Anthropology, Art History, Computer Science, Digital and Computer Studies, English, Francophone Studies, History and Religion. (These are special tours that professors arrange with the Museum to show their students specific objects from the collections.)
Gerry said this kind of intimate viewing “reduces the distance between art and viewer” and, as Bowdoin art history professor Steve Perkinson put it, makes students “linger on specific pieces, noticing things that slowly emerge”.
Often these visits result in essays and student projects. Gerry said she teaches with Wyvern objects in every class, and just this semester, ten students in her fall class Sacred: The Art of Devotion in the Middle Ages write about Wyvern items.
Epic Journeys and a “Global Middle Ages”
One of the most intriguing aspects of the medieval part of the collection on loan (about three quarters of it) is that it includes works from Europe, Asia and Africa. In response, faculty and students were encouraged to research and teach about the important networks that connected the continents much more closely than many had long realized.
“The collection contradicts our assumptions that medieval Europe was an insular place,” said museum curator Casey Braun. She is particularly enthusiastic about a few devotional objects from Ethiopia that reflect the rise of Orthodox Christianity in the region, “difficult assumptions about African art and African belief systems”.
Perkinson, a specialist in medieval and Renaissance art who helped select the loaned objects, said the transcontinental nature of the collection “allows us to convey to our students and museum visitors how current understandings of art history are changing”.
He added: “The most recent scholarship challenges old notions of ‘schools’ or artistic traditions that are defined along lines suggested by the borders of present-day nations (e.g. ‘French painting’ and so on). Instead, we are able – again, in line with current trends in scholarship – to show how the different regions of the world have been interconnected over the millennia.
For these reasons and many more, Anne Collins Goodyear, co-director of the museum, said the long-term loan of Wyvern objects, which represent not only a wide geographical scope but a vast time period, “is one of the most important the Museum has ever had.”
“The Wyvern Collection underscores the Museum’s commitment to opening up the Museum, to making it a site of research and exploration and study of cultures and parts of the world far removed from our own,” she said.
Central and West African art
Professors and museum staff took advantage of the twenty-four African objects in the Wyvern collection, which date mainly from the 18th to 20th centuries, to put on a unique show entitled “The Presence of the Past: Central and West African Art.” Open from August 2020 to December 2021, the exhibition examined how Central and West African arts represent social themes through time. It was curated by David Gordon, Roger Howell Jr. Professor of Bowdoin History, and Allison Martino, former BCMA Postdoctoral Fellow and Africana Studies, who is now curator at the Eskenazi Museum of Art. They worked with students from Gordon’s course Sacred icons and museum pieces: the powers of Central African art. Female initiation mask made by a Mende artist from present-day Sierra Leone, date not identified. Height: 16 in. Wyvern-Collection
How the Wyvern Collection Came to Bowdoin
When the owners of the Wyvern Collection expressed interest in loaning artwork to the Bowdoin Museum, Perkinson worked with museum co-directors Anne Collins Goodyear and Frank Goodyear and other faculty to select the 100 pieces currently on loan.
“The loan fills important gaps in our collection – European medieval art and African sculpture, for example – both of which are crucial artistic traditions that were rather underrepresented in our collections,” Perkinson explained.
Their careful selection is probably the main reason the collection is so popular with faculty and students, Braun said. “This group of objects was selected very intentionally by professors from different disciplines, so that the collection we requested corresponded to research and teaching interests.” She paused, then added another compelling factor: “But they’re stunning objects, too.”
While classes will continue to study Wyvern artifacts over the coming semesters, the Museum is also planning other public exhibitions in its galleries, coinciding with lectures and other programs.
“This infusion of medieval art is transforming what we can teach and how we might teach it, and if it’s here for the long haul and people have the ability to plan, they can think of ways to invigorate at the both art history and a broader medieval program here,” Gerry said.
Perkinson agreed that the collection elevates the museum and the university program. “This material helps us further distinguish the BCMA from almost any other art museum in northern New England,” he said. “There are other excellent collections in this area and in Maine, but none can present the products of human artistic creativity with the range that the BCMA can. Our collection has long been strong and deep, but this further reinforces this characteristic.”
How often does this happen?
As the museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Sean Kramer assists many classes that incorporate museum art into their courses.
He shared an anecdote from a visit this semester from art history teacher Pamela Fletcher’s class Becoming a Modern Artist: Matisse, Picasso, Valadon. Fletcher was teaching his students about the influence of African art on Cubism and, to illustrate this, asked museum staff to bring out one of the very works that had impressed Pablo Picasso and George Braque, who actually owned the room at any given time.
“How many times does this happen?” Kramer marveled. “You talk about the legendary Picassos and Braque being inspired by African art and sculpture and then you can show the actual sculpture they were looking at?” Male power figure (nkisi) made by a Songye artist in the current Democratic Republic of Congo, date not identified. Height: 13 7/16 in. Wyvern-Collection