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Behind Closed Doors: Making Connections

Our post for today comes from Diane Butler, the Andrew W. Mellon Coordinator of Academic Affairs. She shares with us what she has been working on while the museum is closed.

I confess that I agree with the many who claim that I have a seriously cool job. It is my task to make connections between Vassar professors – of any discipline – and works in the permanent collection. What painting, print, or photograph would be useful to a psychology or English professor? How can I make the connections seamless, relevant…okay, irresistible? First, I must have a handle on the permanent collection. Have I mentioned that we have over 18,000 works? Well, I have taken up this daunting but delightful challenge by lopping off a manageable section – photography. Okay, now we’re down to about 3,000.

Photography is fascinating both for its widely varied subject matter and its method. We’re fortunate to have early works in the collection that represent the very first forays into this complicated process – collotypes, daguerreotypes, carbon prints, albumen prints, and platinum prints, to name a few.

Anna Atkins, Stelia Trifoliata, c1845, Cyanotype, Purchase: E. Powis and Anne Keating Jones, class of 1943, Fund, 1983.24

A piece that I discovered the other day might be best known to us today as a sun print. In 1845 (just three years after the process had been invented), Anna Atkins made a cyanotype photogram of a plant sample that she labeled “Stelia trifoliate.” Being unfamiliar with Latin names for plants, I immediately Googled the name. Hmmm… The plant in the photogram certainly had three leaves, but it was decidedly not in the lily family (the common name for the stella – not stelia – as Ms. Atkins had written on the paper). But Atkins was no hobbyist when it came to plants. An accomplished botanist, she had assembled several albums of British algae, ferns, and other plants. What to do?

I zapped off the picture and the problem to Vassar’s expert on plants, biology professor Meg Ronsheim. Perhaps she’ll find this puzzle irresistible and incorporate it or one of our many beautiful and technically fascinating photographs of plants into her class next fall…

Now, on to another of the remaining 2,999 photographs!

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