From Ancient Greece to Early Islam

My Internship at the Walters

By Nissa Cheng

Umayyad? Abbasid? Fatimid? My first day at the Walters Art Museum last fall was full of terms that sounded vaguely familiar, but for this Classics major, they were a few centuries out of my usual area of interest. I was interning with the Curator of Islamic Arts, working with a topic I hadn’t studied since high school world history, and my first few weeks were incredibly eye opening. As I tried to relearn the basics of the history of Islam, I was acutely aware of how little I had deviated from my comfort zone of ancient Greek and Roman history during my four years at Hopkins. The fault for that was purely mine, as my love of my own field had kept me from straying too far. Now there was the opportunity to do so at one of the best museums in the country.

I was fortunate enough to be named a Hall Fellow in the fall of 2013. The fellowship, which was founded by art-lovers and philanthropists Robert and Nancy Hall, allows four Hopkins students per year (two in the summer and two in the fall) to intern at the Walters Art Museum, contributing to the work there and gaining practical experience in the museum field. Interns are generally assigned to one or more long-term projects in their department, which can be either in the department of education or one of the curatorial divisions.

I identified my favorite objects in the Walters’ collection of Islamic arts, including a Sasanian bronze jug and a collection of gold jewelry from Moorish Spain. Dr. Amy Landau, the Curator of Islamic Arts and Manuscripts, was patient with my initial unfamiliarity with the material and assigned me a project that drew on some of my Classical background. My project involved extensive research of the portions of the collection that reflected the transition between Late Antiquity and the Early Islamic Period—the cultural predecessor of early Islam.

In addition to this project, I had the pleasure of working on several smaller assignments in preparation for a forthcoming exhibition involving international loans. The exhibit, entitled “Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts,” will showcase Islamic manuscripts and related objects to tell the stories of key individuals within the Islamic world. My tasks were varied. Early on, one of my tasks was researching  individuals included in the exhibit. Later I scoured auction catalogues seeking comparanda for loan objects, handled manuscripts in the Walters collection to evaluate them for inclusion in the exhibit, and provided curatorial input relating to the design of the exhibition space.

I never did get to work with the Walters’ outstanding collection of Roman sarcophagi or Greek statues. I was thrown in a direction I had never considered and it took me time to find my bearings. However, when I did orient myself, I discovered a new field and developed a passion for Islamic art. While my fellowship at the Walters did not meet my expectations in the way I had anticipated, my ability to contribute to a large international travelling exhibition and to work with curatorial professionals at a prominent institution were perhaps more rewarding.

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