Students design displays for Nationality Rooms


The Chinese Hu Vase (1939) in the Chinese Room was first displayed in 1939 to represent Chinese craft during the 19th and 20th centuries. (Photo by Anna Bongardino | Assistant Visual Editor)

By Marissa Perino / Staff Writer

Within the brightly lit rotunda of the University Art Gallery, people politely shuffle around a wall map already crowded with pushpins indicating spots where visitors’ hometowns and family origins are.

This map is just one part of “Narratives of the Nationality Rooms: Immigration & Identity in Pittsburgh” — an exhibition designed by students enrolled in the Museum Studies Exhibition Seminar course. The show, housed temporarily in the Frick Fine Arts Building, is available for viewing weekdays from 10 a.m to 4 p.m. until tomorrow evening, Dec. 8. Shirin Fozi, an assistant professor who specializes in medieval European art and architecture, led this term’s class, which is currently only offered each fall.

“I’m in the camp of wanting to do art history because I wanted to look at objects,” Fozi said. “When Pitt hired me in 2012, one of the things that they told me off the bat was that they have a museum studies program.”

Fozi joined the University of Pittsburgh staff in 2013 and first practiced working with campus collections at Harvard University, followed by more curatorial experience at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Staff members such as Fozi, many who had thoughts of working as curators, have helped shape the seminar course with the addition of fairly new minor. The museum studies program, spearheaded by Assistant Chair and Director of Undergraduate Studies Gretchen Holtzapple Bender, started in 2013, but Pitt students have been organizing displays in the University Art Gallery since the 1970s.

This year, however, students such as Darcy Foster, a senior majoring in history with an Italian minor, said she credits the class for adding new skills to her resumé.

“I [now] know how to frame and hang a painting, such as a watercolor. I know to handle objects — I’ve handled cloth, I’ve handled wood, I’ve handled painted wood,” Foster said.

The seminar offers a hands-on curriculum as groups of 30 undergraduates work to create a museum exhibit from scratch. Through the process, the class exposes participants to subjects such as careful art preservation and archival research, along with the technical aspects of operating a gallery.

Fozi and her team of three teaching assistants worked with University Art Gallery curator Isabelle Chartier to gather and display a collection of objects from the Nationality Rooms to create installations for the exhibit. Many of these were pulled from the University’s archives on Thomas Boulevard in East Liberty.

Students launched their search for exhibit objects from a list of preapproved material, information previously cataloged by the department’s spring undergraduate and summer graduate interns. Eventually widening their search, the students made final choices including a variety of material, with documentation such as architectural blueprints, letters and photographs.

Foster helped to handle condition reports, loans and an online database to document pictures, mirroring the daily work of a museum’s registrar office. One of her finds included a set of black-and-white photographs of the construction of English Room, which was delayed by almost two decades because of World War II. The photographs of the English Room also reveal a rare glimpse of the internal brick structure of the Gothic-style cathedral.

Fozi said students worked to utilize the art gallery space effectively. The visual knowledge group, who orchestrated a timeline for exhibit details, occupied the front room gallery. Identity, which featured large objects such as a Japanese kimono, encompassed the rotunda. And sacred space, featuring the smallest and most precious objects, inhabited the glass display cases in the hallway for an intimate setting.

Teaching assistants such as Abby Sites, a senior pursuing a double major in anthropology and history of art and architecture, helped to oversee the joint effort.

“It’s very much a team thing,” Sites said. “From the design of the poster to the font of the timeline.”

The students’ tasks included editing an interactive video for viewing, designing postcards for distribution, carefully arranging all of the objects in their display cases and leading public visitors through gallery talks.

The artifacts will return to the archives, where some occasionally rotate into the appropriate nationality room display cases. Pieces such as the watercolor depictions of the original rooms by Andrey Avinoff will not be displayed again for at least three to five years because of light sensitivity ruining the artwork.

Fozi said the Avinoff watercolors are contrasted with the rest of the exhibition, which reveals the background underneath the beautiful watercolor depictions.

“[Avinoff’s paintings show] how the nationality rooms are kind of chaotic and come out of these complicated stories,” Fozi said.

Fozi said students worked to find a balance between crowd-pleasing objects and images that tell a story. Other subjects grappled with working with nations which no longer exist, such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Students also dealt with rooms such as the Chinese Room, which prompted questions about a world pre-1787, before the University was founded.

“We wanted to address conflict because it is what’s sending all these people here, obviously we’re still getting refugees today,” said Foster. “The rooms are coming out of communities in Pittsburgh.”

Fozi said the class’s exhibit is not alone in its mission, as many museums across the country are engaging in what she called social responsibility. In Pittsburgh alone, galleries have opened the doors for conversation, such as the new “20/20” exhibit in the Carnegie Museum of Art and “Go West” by Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri.

Alex Taylor, an assistant professor and art curator in the department, will lead next fall’s seminar and will continue the tradition of exploring such subjects — this time on gender and sexuality, according to Fozi.

As the semester comes to an end, Fozi said she is pleased by the topics the students chose to explore for the exhibit as well as its construction, from each leveled frame to each word in their title.

“[The exhibit] is responsible, that is inclusive, that doesn’t pick fights but still opens the door for meaningful conversation,” Fozi said.

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