Story posted February 04, 2009
If the story behind Ink Tales—the concurrent exhibitions of Chinese paintings currently on view at the Bowdoin College and Colby Museums of Art—were depicted on a Chinese handscroll, it would start with this panel:
Deep inside the pre-renovated Bowdoin Museum of Art storage rooms, Chinese art expert Bowdoin Assistant Professor De-nin Lee stumbles on an amazing cache: It is a lot of 39 Chinese paintings, a 1942 gift from philanthropist William Bingham II, that hasn't seen the light of day for many years.
Thrilled, Lee calls up a peer at Colby College, Associate Professor of Art History and East Asian Studies Ankeney Weitz, who joins her in storage for what she calls "a treasure hunt through what is likely the most extensive collection of Chinese painting and calligraphy in the state of Maine." As the two cull through the Bingham Collection—and other Chinese works from among the collections of the Bowdoin and Colby art museums—they amass a vivid and eclectic history of Chinese painting that is too rich not to share.
Just as handscrolls unroll from right to left to let the viewer travel through a story, this one unfolds to a new scene:
De-nin Lee and Weitz, head-to-head in libraries and museums, the pair spends a summer researching the paintings and developing a new course in Chinese painting to be offered at the respective colleges simultaneously. The new curriculum will cover different approaches to Chinese painting, teach fundamentals of museum studies, and result in student-curated exhibitions at both colleges that connect their collections, coursework and curatorial prowess.
It was an unprecedented collaboration between the faculty, students and museums of these colleges," notes Lee, who, armed with several grants, spent the better part of two years in its planning. "But we knew if we were able to do this, we would reach out to a much broader audience and have a strong impact. We saw it as a significant opportunity for our students to teach about a different culture."
Since this is a metaphorical scroll that glorifies human activity, the middle section unrolls to reveal much running around: The parallel seminar classes meet together four times throughout the Spring 2008 semester, sometimes at Colby, sometimes at Bowdoin. They visit each other's museums and take a joint field trip to the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, where they meet with a curator and critique several art exhibitions, including one focused on Chinese painting.
"That trip really showed them that exhibitions don't spring fully formed off the walls," notes Lee. "There isn't a single standard to adhere to, but a spectrum of possibilities, a personality and person behind the show's creation. That trip helped the students get to know each other and got them excited about their roles as student learners and budding curators."
Next comes the calligraphy portion of the scroll, typically a separate sheet where the artist expresses his thoughts and feelings in words—only this one has a decidedly 21st century bent. Students were assigned intensive research, charged with documenting and referencing every piece of information they could find about each painting. Unlike their Chinese counterparts who used ink and brush, their thoughts are logged electronically into a special Wiki created for the class using Bowdoin's Blackboard software platform.
"We created an electronic data file for every single object," says Lee. "As soon as students from either college uncovered new info, they uploaded it to the Wiki." From that research, the two classes decided on a unifying theme for the exhibitions—the wide panorama of storytelling in Chinese painting. They also selected roughly a dozen works to be displayed at each institution.
Chinese handscroll paintings often include an inscription—poems or comments by artists and collectors added to illuminate the meaning of the images. In the case of Ink Tales, those inscriptions took the form of labels contextualizing the works on display, as well as an exhibition Web site, now residing on the Colby server. All of these were developed by the students, as was a colorful, printed eight-page family guide designed to make elements of Chinese art more accessible to elementary school children.
If there is a final seal affixed to Ink Tales that certifies its authorship, it belongs to the Bowdoin and Colby students, says Lee. "What makes this exhibition and the classes behind it so important is that it allowed our students to become teachers," she says. "A liberal-arts education is not so much about what you know, it's about what you can do with what you know."
"This is exactly what a college museum is supposed to do," adds Bowdoin College Museum of Art Interim Director Clifton Olds. "First, it's wonderful that Colby and Bowdoin are cooperating on this. But it's also important in the sense that the whole experience is really designed for students—not just at the respective colleges, but also in the greater community. In this way, it becomes part of the complete educational project of the College."
Ink Tales is on display at the Colby Museum of Art, January 22, 2009 - March 8, 2009; and at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art Feb 03, 2009 - May 10, 2009. De-nin Lee will give a gallery talk, "Telling Tales: Stories about Chinese Paintings at Bowdoin College," at 4 p.m. on Feb. 12, 2009, in the Focus Gallery of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The talk is free and open to the public. For more information, call 207-725-3275.