Trio of art history majors delves into the archive of an artistic Bucknell alumna.
What is it like to spend the summer sitting in a muggy, third-floor museum archive looking through old letters, postcards and paintings? To Nicole Adams '18, Rebecca Reeve '17 and Ariel Senackerib '17 it's like being on an intellectual treasure hunt.
The art history majors spent June and July doing primary-source research at the Packwood House Museum in Lewisburg, after taking a course last fall semester that explored how the West has historically perceived other cultures. Topics covered in the class taught by Professor Janice Mann, art & art history, included what it meant for Europeans to collect non-European objects in their homes and the role of female curators in the United States. Mann's students visited the Packwood House, former home of Edith Fetherston, Class of 1905, M1908. An inveterate U.S. and international traveler, Fetherston collected objects from her many journeys to employ as motifs in her original paintings.
Finding Fetherston intriguing, the three students seized the chance to spend the summer creating a digital collection to help others learn more about this painter whose work was shown in New York City.
The students delved into Fetherston's life, examining boxes of postcards, photos and stencils she used for her paintings, as well as correspondence she had with the Smithsonian Institution about objects the museum was considering acquiring.
"Researching in the archives is like weaving a pattern," says Adams. "It's like nothing I've ever experienced — every day is a hunt. Each document drastically changed my opinion of what I think was important to her."
As their work progressed, the students began to feel like stewards of Fetherston's story. "We were reading her letters, going through her house, her bedroom, bathroom, closets — so we saw this side of her that's very personal," Senackerib says.
To support their research, Adams and Senackerib received Bucknell Program for Undergraduate Research grants, while Reeve's funding came via an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation faculty research grant awarded to Mann through Library & Information Technology.
Senackerib examined and assessed the condition of more than 112 of Fetherston's paintings housed in the museum. "She tended to focus on flowers because of her interest in gardening," Senackerib says. "The objects she collected also inspired the Asian and Native American imagery her works depict."
Adams' role was to hand pick objects she felt reflected why Fetherston had such a keen interest in collecting and founding the Packwood House in the late-1930s, when she and her husband, John, a successful engineer and executive, retired to Lewisburg. They purchased her childhood home, as well as a hotel and tavern next door, and reconfigured them into a single structure, which they named after the Fetherstons' ancestral home in England. She gave tours of her collection and garden, and both she and John left provisions for the museum, which opened in 1976, in their wills.
"As I went through her collection, I created a range of topics and headings: women and gardening, decorative arts, Asian art and women collecting in general," Adams says. "Together, we worked to take the information in the archives and create a new story of who Edith Fetherston was in a more personal narrative than had existed before."
Some of that narrative is represented through the postcards Fetherston collected as well as postcards her friends sent from their own travels. "As you read [the messages on the cards], you learn more about the value she placed on traveling and her appreciation for the world's cultures," says Reeve, who organized the postcard collection. Phase I of a digital archive for this ongoing project will be available this fall at packwood.omeka.bucknell.edu/omeka. It includes catalogs of Fetherston's paintings and postcards and a digital exhibition on women and nature.
Mann extolled the opportunity the project provided for firsthand experience. "Students could dig into the letters and look at the paintings. At the same time, we got to help one of our town's resources."