Seated around a table in the darkened study room, a group of Princeton University faculty members, graduate students, undergraduates, and Art Museum staff members scrutinized a Japanese woodblock print projected on the screen before them—The Strange Tale of the Castaways: A Western Kabuki. The work, printed by Adachi Ginko in 1879 and on view in the exhibition Encounters: Conflict, Dialogue, Discovery, elicited animated conversation.
The exchange took place in the context of the first Museum Voices Colloquium, focused on the exhibition Encounters, which brought faculty members and students from a range of disciplines across the University together with Museum staff members (including Karl Kusserow, curator of American art, Cary Liu, curator of Asian art, Caroline Harris, associate director for education, and Juliana Dweck, Andrew W. Mellon curatorial fellow for collections engagement and the coordinator of the Colloquium) over the course of the semester to develop new strategies for interpreting works in the Museum’s collections and new ways of engaging Museum visitors. Supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Museum Voices Colloquium will function as a visual arts think tank, inviting traditional and nontraditional experts to develop and present compelling approaches and materials for understanding art.
In the print, a shipwrecked sailor, charged with escorting the Japanese consul’s sister-in-law across the United States, is on a train ambushed by Native Americans. Kusserow analyzed this Meiji period print, noting: “Just as the Japanese travelers have adopted Western dress, the artist has adopted an American attitude toward Native Americans as brutal and aggressive.” Andrew Watsky, professor of Japanese art in the Department of Art and Archaeology, added that this work was produced soon after Japan had reopened to the West—in fact, a delegation of Japanese government officials arrived in San Francisco in 1872 to travel across the country by train. And so the conversation continued: Michael Hatch, a graduate student in Art and Archaeology, observed that the Native Americans are wearing Portuguese dress; Wendy Belcher, who teaches African literature for the Department of Comparative Literature and the Center for African American Studies, commented that they may be dressed specifically as Jesuit Portuguese, who were missionaries in Japan during the sixteenth century. Like many other works in the exhibition Encounters, the print, Kusserow said in closing, is about depicting the racial other.
Through a series of conversations, the participants in the Colloquium analyzed the approach and content of the exhibition, their voices resounding not only in the study room but also in the galleries. The group began meeting while the project could still accommodate suggestions and adjustment. “The initial openness allowed us to have time to absorb the exhibition, to let things sit in our minds,” said Professor Watsky. What is true for the Museum Voices Colloquium is also true of encounters more generally. As Sarah Gerth, Class of 2012, observed, “an encounter is the production of indeterminacy. There’s a lot of not knowing what is happening in an encounter.”
Juliana Ochs Dweck
Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow for Collections Engagement