The Stories Objects Tell

During the spring of 2022, I curated an exhibit for the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World called, The Stories Objects Tell. The exhibit was on display at the Institute from March 14th to April 15th and featured literary and visual work from students, faculty, and staff at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. 

I came up with the theme for the show last fall, two months after I began working at the Institute as Records and Collections Assistant. In this role, I help to organize, inventory, and research the Institute’s robust collection of ancient objects. One of my favorite responsibilities is to write for the Virtual Vault blog. I have learned about so many objects in the Collection, including sherds, ceramics, jewelry, and coins from the ancient Mediterranean, Egypt, and Near East. I am just as intrigued by the information that I have found about artifacts as the mysteries that remain. I often wonder if archaeologists will ever be able to determine the answers to some questions, such as: Who made the objects? Did they hold personal meaning? How were they passed down?

Excited by the questions that the study of archaeology generates, I decided to plan an exhibit that showcased the visible and invisible stories that objects tell. I released a call for artwork submissions that responded to archaeology in general or to one of the objects in the Institute’s Collection. Looking for artists from a range of backgrounds and disciplines, I invited faculty, staff, and students from the Brown and RISD communities to submit. 

The response to the call for submissions was almost overwhelming. From all of the compelling pieces submitted, I selected 42 works from 34 artists. The literary and visual artwork submitted to the show revealed historical, cultural, social, and personal stories, responding to archaeology in a myriad of visual and literary forms. The artists volunteered works in a range of media, including oil paintings, pencil drawings, digital artwork, photographs, modeling clay, sand, and even wine. The major themes that emerged from the artists’ statements were personal memory, the legacy of history, and the value of art in connecting people across time and place. 

I curated this show with the assistance of Erynn Bentley, a PhD student in Archaeology and the Ancient World focusing on late antiquity and the early medieval period in the Mediterranean region and Europe. We installed works on the first, second, and third floors of Rhode Island Hall, welcoming viewers to consider the following questions: Who determines the stories objects tell? Can objects speak for themselves? Do our personal experiences impact how we view objects? And finally, how do the stories we tell evolve over time?

In the atrium of the Institute, Erynn and I installed works that were directly based on objects in the Collection as well as pieces that more broadly considered connections with the past. Arden Shostak’s Three Votive Vessels was inspired by Roman votive vessels, for example, while Jon Laustsen considered wind turbines and ancient sculpting techniques in A Collection: Magic Futures, Broken Pasts; Broken Futures, Magic Pasts. Julius Cavira’s Postwar Sandbox PTSD Therapy reflected on trauma and vulnerability and was easily the largest work in the show, consisting of a folding chair partially buried in sand. 

The first-floor Common Room featured work that expressed individuality and identity. Both Cicek Beeby’s Pudica and Laurel Bestock’s Death of the American Mall depicted representations of women in society, from antique sculpture to modern mannequins. Smoke Break by David Pinto connected the past and present by framing a contemporary camel rider smoking a cigarette in front of an ancient treasury in Petra. Meanwhile, Ostia by Tomas Manto brought us closer to those who came before us by imagining the interpersonal relationships between ancient peoples.

On the second floor of the building, Erynn and I placed small, three-dimensional objects near or inside of display cases with ancient artifacts. Juxtaposing contemporary work with art that is thousands of years old allowed us to question relationships between past and present. In one case with depictions of ancient Greece figures, for example, we placed Florian Okwu’s abstracted wooden figure, Figurine #1

The third floor was the last stop in the show, containing three-dimensional works that prompted deep reflection or required viewer interaction. Nickolas Roblee-Strauss’ nest imitated traditional Korean “scholar stones,” organic rock forms that were displayed as objects of study in homes. The most hands-on piece in the exhibit was Jack Tuft’s Polychromatic Ahistory, a set of objects made by 3D printing the scans of historic sculptures. Viewers could handle the sculptures in Polychromatic Ahistory and read about the work in accompanying books.

In the hopes that the show will live on in digital format, we have produced several online exhibit features. Sarah Sharpe, Assistant Director of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology, designed an exhibit catalog accessible online with an exhibit map and information about featured works. I am currently creating a Virtual Exhibit page that will be posted online by the end of May 2022. The experience of curating The Stories Objects Tell was an incredible chance to see how ancient objects continue to inspire and connect us in learning and wonder today.