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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

The Wandering Lives of Museum Objects

class at Walters Museum

Elizabeth Rodini (center, gesturing) and Walters Art Museum postdoctoral fellow Ben Tilghman (far right) helped students research the “back stories” of objects in the Walters.

Photo:Jay VanRensselaer/


How and why did a Faberge egg, a portable Buddhist shrine, a medieval manuscript, and a Monet painting end up at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore? Those were some of the mysteries seven Johns Hopkins undergraduates set out to unravel last fall.

They did so in a new course, Behind the Scenes at the Walters Art Museum: Material Migrations, which was a joint endeavor between the Walters and Hopkins' Program in Museums and Society. In the course, students considered the various reasons objects circulate—including trade, gifting, pilgrimage, and the art market--and then researched the "back stories" behind 14 diverse artworks, shedding new light on why and how an object might travel through various owners' hands over time.

"Usually we see things in a museum as static," notes Saya Russell ’10. "In this course we studied the wandering lives of each object—before and after reaching their home at the Walters."

Consider, for example, a 17th-century Chinese ceramic vase ornamented with a characteristic pattern of birds and bamboo. Through purchase or trade, and because of a growing taste for Asian wares, the vase ended up in France. There, in the later 19th century, it was fitted with fine metal fastenings depicting cherubs and other fanciful creatures. How the vase came to the Walters is unclear, but its location in the galleries raised questions for student researcher Elizabeth Dowdle ’11: Should it stay among the Asian objects, where it is now, or might its cross-cultural story be better told if it sat among the European decorative arts?

Dowdle and her classmates examined extensive files at the museum and talked with scholars about the history of individual objects. "We wanted our students to investigate the ways, means, and motives for the circulation of objects, and to consider how such meaning is shaped by context," explains Elizabeth Rodini, associate director of the Program in Museums and Society, who taught the course with Walters postdoctoral fellow Ben Tilghman, PhD ’09.

Rodini offers up the example of a box, currently on display. Made in France in the 13th century, it was initially intended as a courtship gift. "Its original context was as a functional object that would have held jewelry, perhaps as a gift to a bride. That was its value," Rodini notes. Hundreds of years later the box was purchased by a curator of medieval art at the British Museum in London. For him the box had a different resonance, she says. It was a collectible that signified history and antiquity. Records show that the box was later acquired by a collector who was most interested in the artistic merit of its carved panels; he took the box apart, and displayed each panel separately. Still later, the piece was purchased and restored to its original box form.

Says Russell, "It was liberating to access the files of these objects. It allowed us to see them in so many contexts." The students will share their newfound knowledge through a series of Google maps that will eventually be available online and at the Walters. The maps will chronicle the geographic journeys these museum objects have taken over the centuries. To acquire the technological skills needed to make the maps, the undergraduates worked closely with staff members at Hopkins' Digitial Media Center and the Center for Educational Resources.

"Material Migrations has been a rewarding experience," says Russell. "Never before have I been able to combine so many disciplines, meet with so many specialists, or had the opportunity to share academic work with the public in such a way."

— Saya Russell '10 contributed to the reporting of this article.