Working at museums has taught me that nothing can compare to the real thing; no image, however high resolution, can capture the experience of standing in front of an object and exploring it in space, and in relation to your own body. Yet somehow, I never cease to be surprised!
I thought that I knew the objects in the exhibition Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939. As the head of publications at the museum, I dove into the show about three years ago, as we began to develop the exhibition catalogue. The curators made decisions about objects and asked outside scholars to write about them, and our intrepid rights and reproductions coordinator, Laurel, began to track down images for the book. For close to a year, as we reviewed photography together and edited texts, I felt like I lived with all of the objects in the book—and fell in love with a few of them along the way. But some I passed by without giving them a second thought. The Vase Bertin by Sèvres was one of those; I knew it was “important,” and it seemed pretty enough, but it didn’t move me.
Then I saw it in the gallery.
I guess I hadn’t really paid much attention to the dimensions when I was editing the checklist, because the sheer scale of it left me speechless. I had lived with it for so long as an image bounded by the white space of a printed page. Then, as I began to walk around it, the amazingly beautiful decoration of the underwater scene completely drew me in—fronds of seaweed with translucent stems, the fine whorls of mussel shells, the jaunty upturned chin and crossed spindly legs of a frog kicking up to the surface. I visit it whenever I pass through the galleries, and discover something new each time.
Jules-Constant Peyre, Léopold Jules Gély, and Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, Vase Bertin, c. 1855, glazed porcelain, The Cleveland Museum of Art
I’m incredibly proud of our catalogue (buy it!), and it will keep the exhibition alive long after the objects have returned to their own museums and collections; but for now, as long as I have the chance, I’ll make a point of going up to visit the real things.