How often do Spanish literature students get to curate a collection of top-caliber art? Seven Bowdoin students had a chance to do just that for this fall’s exhibition How She Should Behave: Women’s Archetypes in Early Modern Europe at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, as an outgrowth of a course they took last spring with Assistant Professor of Romance Languages Margaret Boyle.
An opening reception on Oct. 30 kicked off the exhibition, located in the museum’s Becker Gallery. “The labels that you see have been written by students, all of the selections have been made by students, and the whole layout is all done by faculty and students,” said museum co-director Frank Goodyear in his introductory remarks.
How She Should Behave examines societal regulation of women’s behavior dating back to the 1500s, featuring depictions of female archetypes – pious women, royal women, seductresses – that women “inhabited, straddled, or resisted” across early modern Europe. Containing more than a dozen works drawn from the Museum’s collection (by artists such as Alonso Sánchez Coello, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, William Hogarth, Cindy Sherman and Berenice Abbott) the exhibition compares early modern pieces with recent ones, to encourage viewers to think about how representations of women have changed — or not — over time.
In addition to engravings, paintings, and photographs, the exhibition also includes books from Bowdoin’s Special Collections, such as Luis de León’s The Perfect Wife (La perfecta casada) of 1595, a conduct manual for newly married women. Alongside The Perfect Wife is a copy of the November 2013 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine,whose “how-to” articles about health, sex, and fashion are exhibited as a modern-day version of a similar concept.
The project began last spring when Boyle, as part of her seminar Bad Girls on Stage in Early Modern Spain and Colonial Latin America, took students to the museum for several hands-on lab sessions, examining works of art as primary sources from the time period of the literature they were studying. “Some of the students were initially fearful to comment about the works if they had never taken art history – but then they realized they did have something to say about it, that it related to the literature,” Boyle said. Besides adding depth to issues raised in the seminar, “the project gave them a voice in talking about art.”
It was the students’ enthusiasm for those visits that led Boyle and the class to collaborate with the Museum of Art to create an exhibition, working with the museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow Sarah Montross. The students selected works from those they had studied, and in conjunction with their final research projects for the class, drafted the labels to be displayed alongside the art. Several students then volunteered to continue working on the show during the summer and fall.
“I love the idea that a class can finish but the project can continue on into the real world, have a public face, and reach a broader audience,” Montross said.
One student who worked particularly closely with Boyle and Montross to bring the exhibition to completion was Amanda Montenegro ’14. Montenegro spent the opening reception stationed near a trio of 16th- and 17th-century depictions of Isabella Clara Eugenia, Infanta of Spain, explaining to visitors how each work was designed to convey the Infanta’s piety (among other attributes) at a different stage of the monarch’s life.
Boyle, who has made a habit of taking her classes to the Museum of Art, is thrilled to participate in the College’s active tradition of faculty- and student-curated exhibitions. “It’s been such an incredible experience for my students, and for me as a scholar and as a teacher,” she said. “I feel enormous gratitude for Bowdoin’s ability to offer this kind of hands-on and professional experience to students and faculty across the campus.”
The benefits of such collaborations are mutual. “This really represents some exciting innovations in museum practice,” said museum co-director Anne Goodyear. “This is the museum of the students: a place to be creative and to experiment with our collections – and that’s a really good thing to do, as we can see from the results of this amazing seminar which has unfolded on our walls.”
How She Should Behave, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Endowment Fund, will remain on display in the Becker Gallery until Dec. 8, 2013.