The lower gallery of the Binghamton University Art Museum is abuzz with activity. A group of graduate students huddle around a tape measure debating the best way to hang a large picture frame on the wall. Around them on the floor, other frames and labels lay in neat rows. The students are setting up for a new exhibition, entitled The Civil War: Images of Ruin.
“This is actually the first exhibition I’ve worked on,” explains Kasia Kieca, an art history student at Binghamton University. “The other project I worked on was an archival project.”
Graduate students from both the Departments of History and Art History at Binghamton University curated the exhibit that opens to the public on March 24th.
“It’s fun to see how different people look at the same object,” states Dr. Diane Butler, the Director of the Binghamton University Art Museum. “It’s long been an interest of mine to get different disciplinary perspectives on a single work of art.”
Dr. Butler offers the students the occasional piece of advice as they hammer nails and slowly begin to hang frames onto the walls. The frames contain original prints on loan from the Tioga County Historical Society in Owego.
“They were taken by a number of photographers, including Andrew Burgess who moved to this area after being the gallery operator for Mathew Brady’s studios,” explains Kevin Lentz, the Director of the Tioga County History Society.
The historical society received a number of Burgess’ negatives and original prints from his wife’s estate after she passed away. Recently, Dr. Butler became aware of the fact that the historical society had this large collection of original Civil War prints.
“And knowing this was the sesquicentennial anniversary of the end of the Civil War, it seemed like a nice occasion to see if we could borrow photographs for a mini-exhibition,” states Dr. Butler.
Lentz was more then willing to share the society’s collection with the Binghamton University Art Museum.
“It reaches a larger audience if we can share them with different non-profits, or different organizations,” states Lentz. “Because these photographs need to be shown.”
Dr. Butler then collaborated with Professor Diane Sommerville, an associate professor of history at Binghamton University who teachers a class on the Civil War and also has an interest in Civil War photography.
“We identified all of the photographs that developed the theme of ruin and ruins,” explains Dr. Sommerville. “And that became the basis of the exhibit.”
According to Dr. Sommerville, the focus on ruins reflects a recent trend in historical scholarship that highlights what is called the “dark side” of the Civil War and emphasizes the physical and psychological suffering caused by the war.
“I think these photographs very much reflect the dark side of the Civil War,” explains Dr. Sommerville, “And remind us…that there was a devastating cost to the war.”
It was left to the graduate student curators to craft the labels that accompany the photographs in the exhibit. The labels help explain the historical and artistic significance of each image to visitors. For John Riley, a history graduate student working on the project, this presented a new set of challenges.
“One of the big challenges is learning to write for quick public consumption,” explains Riley, “It’s about getting information in a way that makes sense but that you’re not standing there for hours reading.”
“Also, this is an art museum so these pieces are as much artistic artifacts as they are historical objects,” continued Riley. “So we had to be willing to think that way.”
Initially, the prospect of working with a team of history students was also intimidating to Kasia Kieca, the sole art history student in the group.
“They knew so much about every single battle,” says Kieca. “Their level of knowledge about the details of the Civil War was mindboggling to me.”
Despite the students’ initial trepidation, Dr. Butler says the collaboration between the history and art history students helped broaden the their perspectives and brought new insights to the project.
“Oftentimes, there is a second paragraph where they’re sort of stepping back and saying, ‘Why did the photographer point his camera in that direction?’” states Dr. Butler. “They’re starting to look at compositional elements and look at them as visual culture not just documents.”
Ultimately, everyone involved in the project hopes that visitors to the exhibit will walk away with a new appreciation for the destructive nature of the Civil War.
“The war, yes, we should celebrate in many ways, but we should also be cognizant of what it cost Americans at the time,” explains Riley. “And I hope that both the images and the written piece we’ve done here help drive that point home.”
The exhibition will run from March 24th through June 20th, 2015. More about the Binghamton University Art Museum here.
THERE’S MORE TO THE STORY!
Listen to Professor Sommerville and graduate student John Riley discuss their favorite photographs from the exhibit.