Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

Japan is the Key

There is a lot of work that goes into preparing an exhibition, even the relatively small shows that go on view in Gallery One. Much of the work is not exactly glamorous—hours spent in libraries paging through deteriorating volumes covered in 100-year-old dust, or hours spent removing 100-year-old dust from a work of art—but it can still be very exciting (seriously)! When Lulu Lippincott, curator of fine arts, first had the idea to exhibit our early Japanese print collection, she wanted to present the works in a different context than they have been shown at CMOA in the past. Remembering that both our collection and our neighbor’s (Carnegie Museum of Natural History) contained a number of Japanese ivory sculptures in storage, we thought this would be an excellent opportunity to bring the two mediums, woodblock prints and ivories, together in one exhibition exploring the early history of collecting Japanese art at this museum. The exhibition, “Japan is the Key…”: Collecting Prints and Ivories, 1900–1920will be on view March 30–July 21, 2013, in Gallery One.

A key figure in our story is ketchup magnate Henry J. Heinz, an avid collector who donated over a thousand ivory sculptures to the museum. While the majority of these are small-scale works ranging from two to 14 inches tall, there is one that soars above the rest—a life-size ivory eagle measuring nearly four feet tall. Heinz purchased the work for the museum in 1913 during his travels throughout Asia and it had been on continuous view until the early 1990s. For those of us who can’t remember or who have never seen the giant eagle, it is easy to be stunned by the sheer size of it; knowing that it is constructed out of such a precious material only adds to its magnificence.

Having spent nearly 20 years in storage, the giant eagle has accumulated layers of dust and other particulates on its surface. Thankfully, it was kept in the original case built for its display in 1913 which has managed to offer some additional protection over the years—although the two jars of pesticides which were sealed inside offered a rather… malodorous surprise when it was opened for cleaning. Over the next several weeks, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s objects conservator Gretchen Anderson and her team of interns will be analyzing and cleaning the eagle before it goes into our exhibition. As a rare treat, the team will work in full view of the public and, yes, they do take questions! You’ll be amazed by the resourcefulness of objects conservators and stunned to find out their use of common household materials, such as makeup sponges and chunks of a Magic Eraser to remove the grime.

Next time you visit the museum, skip the PaleoLab (just this once) and head up to the third floor’s Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians (at the back of Polar World) where you can see this team of conservators in action. They’ll be there 10 a.m.–4 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays for the duration of the conservation. If you don’t get a chance to see it being cleaned, it will be on view March 30–July 21, 2013, in Gallery One as part of the exhibition!

Object of Desire: Katie’s Pick

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.

Installing the Presepio

Art handler Matt Cummings takes on the delicate task of installing figures in the middle of the scene for the Neapolitan presepio.

Every year on the Monday—Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving, Carnegie Museum of Art staff installs the museum’s remarkable Neapolitan presepio. Beloved by Pittsburghers as an annual holiday tradition the presepio is an incredible multi-media work of art, created by 18th-century artisans in Naples.


We install the stage set within the steps of St. Gilles in the Hall of Architecture. The set is made up of dozens of platforms topped with miniature buildings, bridges, roads, rocks, and a stream. The various pieces are unified by the application of conservation-safe moss cloth.

A member of the so-called “Turkish band,” a common sight in the bustling Mediterranean port of 18th-century Naples.
Watch out—his sheep has a wild look in his eye.


In come the figures on rolling metal carts. More than 100 human and angelic characters, plus another dozen animals, and countless finimenti or finishing touches (tiny props like walking sticks, assorted foods for the marketplace, and tiny ceramic and silver jars and platters. If all goes well, we finish the day by suspending the host of angels overhead.

Museum staff place figures in the foreground, while the yellow ladder at back will help us install the angels overhead.
During the rest of the year the presepio figures rest in carefully padded and outfitted drawers like this one.


We polish off the installation with a green velvet skirt, gold stanchions, and didactic panels, as well as a special display case that provides an opportunity to see one figure up close.

The Moorish King Balthazar
This lady even has carefully crafted miniature earrings.
Work in progress: this is the cheese seller’s stand, which is ultimately set up with dozens of tempting hard and soft cheeses for his customers. As we place figures it looks like he is keeping an eye on our vegetables and fruit.
The fisherman is the oldest figure in the presepio, dating to 1700. A natural fit for a streamside spot, he also serves as an allegory for Christ, who was called the “fisher of men.”

This begging dog is quite a character with his upward gaze and wagging tail.
Art handler Steve Russ arranges items based on photographs from a previous year.

Wallflowers and Wildflowers

Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh, and the Mayor’s Youth Council recently teamed up to present Wallflowers and Wildflowers, an alternative homecoming dance for local high school students. The sold-out event was held in Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Botany Hall and Halls of North American and African Wildlife, and it was attended by a creative and enthusiastic group of local high school students.

CLP’s librarian and event founder, Joseph Wilk, describes it best on the event’s Facebook page, where students are already rallying for the alternative homecoming to become an annual event: “Maybe your school doesn’t have a football team or maybe you’re not allowed to bring a date or maybe you don’t have a school you call home but have a home you call school…” Students, many of whom did not attend traditional homecoming dances this year, appreciated the unique opportunity to celebrate in a positive and accepting environment.

The event featured dancing and fun activities led by Carnegie Museum of Art’s teaching artists, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Teen Docents, Assemble, and The Labs at CLP. Also, Perks of Being a Wallflower author Stephen Chbosky, a teen favorite, sent autographed books and posters, which were raffled off to a few lucky attendees!

Check out more of Martha Rial’s photography of the event and author Stephen Chbosky’s special video message to Wallflowers and Wildflowers attendees.

Photographs © Martha Rial. Martha is a Pittsburgh-based photographer and Pulitzer Prize–winner. See more of her amazing work at

Objects of Desire: Jason’s Pick

From the first international exhibition in London in 1851 to the New York World’s Fair in 1939, more than 90 events were held in 22 countries. With the opening of the Crystal Palace in 1851, world’s fairs became the most important global forum for debuting technological advancements and defining fashionable tastes.

Among the objects at the fairs were those laden with historical associations, demonstrating the relevance of motifs and forms from the past on the decorative arts of the present. As a decorative arts scholar, I have always been intrigued by revival styles and how they coincided with the advancement of modern machine production. Science and ingenuity were united with the decorative arts at a pivotal moment in the nineteenth century, and revivalism became the platform for debuting inventive and progressive processes that contributed to an increasingly modern world. The uneasy coexistence of historicism and modernism reached its apex at the 1900 fair in particular, an event that symbolically looked forward and back at the turn of the century.

William C. Codman, designer, American (b. England), 1839–1921; Gorham Manufacturing Company, manufacturer, United States (Providence, RI), 1831–present; Dressing table and stool, 1899, silver with mirrored glass, ivory, and modern upholstery; Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., in honor of Dr. Charles L. Venable, 2000.356

One of my favorite examples from Inventing the Modern World (and I have many favorites) is a dressing table and stool by Gorham Manufacturing Company shown at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. An impressive masterpiece, the objects required more than 2,300 hours of labor and 1,250 ounces of silver to create. This was the grandest example in Gorham’s new line of handcrafted Martelé, or “hammered” objects, showcased at the 1900 fair. At a time when machine production was increasingly dominant, Gorham proved that there was still interest in meticulously handcrafted objects.

At the time this object was made, the Art Nouveau was immensely popular. Artists and designers were eager to move away from the imitative revival styles in order to create a new, modern international aesthetic. While the table and stool are decorated with sinuous vines and leaves and clusters of floral motifs characteristic of the Art Nouveau, their pronounced cabriole legs with ball and claw feet reference Rococo designs that were popular in colonial America. Both forward and backward looking, the dressing table and stool encapsulates the tension between historicism and modernism that was so prevalent at the fairs.

Over the next few months, you’ll be hearing from other Carnegie Museum of Art staff about their favorite objects in the exhibition. Stop by the galleries and let us know about your top picks!

See other objects of desire from the exhibition.

The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color catalogue.