Dr. Emily Stoehrer has a career that many jewelry lovers would consider a dream job: she’s the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Emily joined the latest episode of the Jewelry Journey podcast and spoke about the museum’s recent exhibitions, Boston’s colorful Arts and Crafts history, and how to land a job like hers. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m delighted to have as my guest Dr. Emily Stoehrer. Emily is the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry at Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She oversees a collection that spans 6,000 years and includes more than 22,000 objects. Most recently, she co-curated “Boston Made Arts and Crafts Jewelry and Metalwork,” and we’ll hear all about that world in our podcast today. Emily, welcome to the Jewelry Journey.
Emily: Thank you, it’s so nice to be here.
Sharon: We really appreciate it. You have what many would say is a dream job. Can you tell us about your career path and how you came to Boston MFA to focus on jewelry?
Emily: It is a dream job and I don’t think I necessarily saw myself here at the beginning or even knew that such a job existed. I was a graduate student at FIT studying fashion and textile studies. Between my two years there, I was looking at doing an internship and ended up at MFA in Boston. I was lucky enough that when I finished, I was offered a one-year contract position. I was actually studying their textile collection at that point, and when that job wrapped up, I was contacted by Yvonne Markowitz, who was then the newly-appointed jewelry curator. She was looking for someone to help her with the publication of a book that was later published as “Artful Adornment: The Highlights Catalogue of the MFA Collection,” and she asked if I was interested in being her assistant and I said absolutely, although I didn’t know much about jewelry at that point. From then on, she acted as an incredible mentor to me, teaching me about jewelry and how to be a curator and how to be a historian. I found the rest of the jewelry community to be so generous in sharing their time and knowledge, and after a few years of working with her, she encouraged me to get a Ph.D. Then in 2014, Yvonne retired, and I was lucky enough to be appointed as the second Kaplan curator.
Sharon: Wow, that’s fabulous! We’ve talked about the fact that MFA is a pioneer and it stands out because there are very few museums with jewelry curators, although hopefully that will grow. How did MFA come to have a jewelry department?
Emily: It really came from a conversation between our previous director and Susan Kaplan. Susan was asked to support a gallery at the museum, and she wanted to support a jewelry gallery, but she commented, “Who would curate the jewelry gallery?” She knew the museum had a large collection of jewelry, but she also knew there wasn’t one person who knew what existed in each department. So, she said, “First, I’d like to endow a jewelry curator position.” So, she did in 2006, and the gallery opened later in 2010. Over the last ten years, we’ve really worked to build the jewelry collection, to fill in gaps and holes and things that didn’t exist before, and to build a study center as a resource for people who are interested in learning more about jewelry and jewelry history. We’ve been collecting objects, design drawings, and archives and have also been building a library.
Sharon: I just saw the exhibit that we’re going to be talking about. While I was at the museum, I was really struck by the number of drawings you have there, the jewelry designs which people don’t think about.
Emily: Right, I agree with you. We’ve been lucky enough to collect a number of large archival drawings and to publish books on them, so we have a book now on Trabert and a home for Maubisson and their drawings. We have a book on Oscar Heyman and their drawings and jewelry. Now, the most recent one is a book that goes along with the exhibition “Boston Made,” called “Arts and Crafts Jewelry and Boston: Frank Gardner Hale and His Circle.” It also looks at jewelry drawings and jewelry together to talk about the artistic process.
Sharon: Can you tell us what makes MFA different, besides the fact that it has jewelry, which a lot of museums don’t really emphasize?
Emily: The thing is, a lot of museums do have jewelry, and MFA has had and collected jewelry for a long time. Some of the earliest things to come into our collection in the late 19th century were pieces of jewelry, but the jewelry came into individual departments. So, there was an Egyptian collection of jewelry, and a European collection of jewelry, and an American collection of jewelry, and this is what Susan Kaplan was talking about when she was thinking of a jewelry gallery and who would curate it. Each department had people who knew their collection, but there wasn’t one person who knew what existed in all those departments. My position really brings all of that together, and that’s unique, to have six or seven curatorial departments, all with jewelry, and to have one person working collaboratively with those departments to bring it together in exhibitions and books and publications. “Boston Made” is an example of that, with jewelry, metalwork and design drawings like you mentioned.
Sharon: So, you were pulling from different departments?
Emily: The collection still resides in many different departments. It did not come together when the jewelry position was created, so it’s still spread out throughout the museum, and as you go throughout the museum galleries, you’ll see jewelry all over the place.
Sharon: Another thing that struck me was, if you walked into the Egyptian Gallery, you would see fabulous jewelry, and then another gallery would have 22,000 objects. It seems like a lot to keep your hands on in terms of knowledge. Are you aware of most of what’s there, or do you think you’re still being surprised?
Emily: There are always surprises. I have a pretty good grasp on the collection and what’s there, but it’s hard to be an expert in everything. It’s a really far-reaching collection, and certainly there are people in other departments who are more expert than I am, especially in the ancient material, which was my predecessor’s specialty. What we’re trying to do now is adress areas that weren’t collected for many years because they fell between departments. So, we’re trying to fill in some of those gaps, like high-style jewelry, for example, or continuing to build our contemporary collection.
Sharon: By high-style, do you mean haute couture jewelry?
Emily: Partly haute couture jewelry and fashion jewelry. That was never an emphasis before. Also, jewelry by firms like Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Belle Gray, those weren’t things that were historically collected by the museum, but over the last decade, we’ve been working to add them to our holdings.
Sharon: I know that it’s an ongoing, never-ending challenge. You have quite a few groups there, which seem to be very committed to supporting what you’re doing. I know part of that is demonstrated in this exhibit that just opened, “Boston-Made: Arts and Crafts Jewelry and Metalwork.” Can you tell us about that? How did that come together? Whose idea was it?
Emily: In 2014, we found out there was a sale of a lot of drawings, lectures and notes by a jeweler named Frank Gardner Hale, and we were lucky enough to acquire it through our Prints and Drawings Department. My colleague Meghan Melvin, who’s the Curator of Design, and I started thinking of ways that we might make this into an exhibition. We brought our colleague Nonie Gadsden into the conversation because she has a real expertise in American Arts and Crafts, and the three of us started talking about how we might use this archive and build an exhibit around it. We started to reach out to area collectors to see if we could make matches between the drawings that we had acquired and what was out there.
Frank Gardner Hale was an Arts and Crafts jeweler working in Boston in the early twentieth century. He had actually started out his career designing sheet music covers, then he went to England and he studied metalwork with Ashby and enamel with Partridge. He came back to Boston, and when he came back, there was this grassroots community of artists, with jewelry taking a particular stronghold in the city, and he helped build and was part of this community of artists that was developing. The museum had, at that point in 2014, one example of his work in the collection, so we did outreach, seeing if we could make matches. In the end, we were able to match about 20 drawings to objects, and we know that there are many, many more that will come about now that the show’s out and people know it exists. That’s really how it started.
Sharon: One of the things you emphasize in the exhibit is how different Arts and Crafts in Boston was. Can you tell us about that?
Emily: It’s true. Arts and Crafts in Boston was very glitzy. It’s very colorful. There are lots of gemstones and enamel. There’s a mix of metals, including silver and gold. We expect that people will leave the exhibition being surprised, not just at what they see, but also that this is happening in Boston, this puritanical city. Boston was this great artistic and educational center, and it still is, and some of the earliest design education was being taught here at Harvard. They were learning fabrication and they were able to unite that in one person, to be both the designer and the fabricator. This is the same moment where there’s this rejection of the factory system, so there is a real interest in the handmade. This begins to percolate in Boston in the late nineteenth century with an exhibition that happens in 1897, which results in the establishment of the Society of Arts and Crafts, one of the earliest in the country. This really becomes a place for artists to come together and to have power in numbers, and it helped to establish the artistic community here. I think that, coupled with the academic programs of Mass College of Art and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, this leads this whole group of jewelers working in the city to make jewelry that’s surprisingly colorful, that combines colorful gemstones and enamels and sometimes carved stones or found pieces, such as jade taken from ancient Chinese ornaments.
Sharon: What makes it Arts and Crafts? What surprised me is there was gold and gemstones in some of the pieces, and to me, that’s anti-Arts and Crafts. What is it that makes it Arts and Crafts?
Emily: It’s really rooted in the philosophy of Arts and Crafts, which starts in England and comes to the United States. William Morris very famously said, “Have nothing in your house that’s not beautiful or useful,” and so it’s rooted in the beauty aspect of that idea. The artist and designer as one person is central to the idea of Arts and Crafts, so by wearing the jewelry you’re really speaking to your wider artistic interests.
Sharon: So, it’s the aesthetic; it’s the design, call it the housing of the gems.
Emily: Right, there are gems, but it’s not about wealth and power. This is about artistry and taste, so the gems that are there are chosen for color, not for their extravagance or expense. They’re not costly gems. They’re really just chosen in the same way a painter would choose the paint and the colors to work with on a canvas.
Sharon: That makes sense. What did you enjoy most about putting it together?
Emily: It’s always great to work with the group. It’s a great, collaborative process and it was fun to see it evolve over the course of our research. We didn’t realize at the beginning that Boston was defined by this idea of color, so it was exciting to be able to tease that apart a little and define what the Boston look was. We were also excited to see how many women artists were working in the city. Of the 14 artists that are featured in the exhibition, nine of them are women, so that was an exciting surprise for us as well.
Sharon: That was one thing that really did stand out in the exhibit. It’s also interesting when you talk about color being used in Boston because you don’t think of it as being a colorful city or one that was ahead of its time.
Emily: I think you’re right. When we put this together, we were working with the editor who helps us with labels and saying, “What do we want people to walk out of the gallery thinking?” We want people to walk away thinking, “Who knew?” It sounds like you left the exhibition thinking just that.
Sharon: Definitely. I like the way the captions were phrased as questions, “What do you think about this? What do you think about that?” I thought that was a nice way to do it.
Emily: Thank you.
Sharon: You curated another significant jewelry exhibit that recently closed, “The Past Is Present: Revival Jewelry.” For those that didn’t have a chance to see it, can you tell us about it? What does the title mean? Where did it come from and what was it that surprised you about the exhibit?
Emily: “Past Is Present” just closed this past August. It was on view for 18 months. It was my first exhibition in the Jewelry Gallery in this role, and the Jewelry Gallery is always looking to highlight some aspect of our collection. Right now, we’re highlighting the Frank Gardner Hale drawings. What “Past Is Present” highlighted was our revival jewelry collection, which is primarily European jewelry from the nineteenth century that is backwards-looking, that is looking at ancient artifacts or historical jewelry and reviving those techniques or designs or materials in the jewelry. That pulled largely from our European collection, but it also acted as a jumping-off point to explore the 4,000 years of jewelry history that’s in our collection. I was able to put together ancient objects with nineteenth-century objects and contemporary objects to really show off the depth of our collection. I organized it around three themes of thinking about the ideas of memory, technology and design. I had about 70 objects organized, and they spanned from 2200 B.C. until 2011. It was a great way to dive in thematically to jewelry history.
Sharon: It was great to see how the themes keep recurring. It might have been there in 2000 B.C., but you could pull it out of the case and wear it today, and nobody would have known any differently that it wasn’t made yesterday.
Emily: It’s true, so many of the designs are completely timeless. For example, there was a case that dealt with snakes, and we had snake examples from ancient Egypt and from the classical period, and then also snake necklace belts and a David Belanger python necklace. I think as you look at it, you can see not only how the theme continues throughout history, but also the timelessness of some of these subjects.
Sharon: That’s a good word for it, timelessness. What did you learn from putting the exhibit on that perhaps made you think differently? What surprised you about it, given that it was your first exhibit?
Emily: I’m not sure if there were any surprises. I think it’s interesting to be able to show the differences in jewelry history from different perspectives, so in that case, looking at nineteenth-century jewelry in a revival theme, versus here in “Boston Made,” looking at jewelry that was made around the same time but is completely different. To see these different design movements happening, sometimes in tandem, we expect there to be some rigidity to when one design movement ends and then the next one starts, but there’s much more fluidity. Doing these two exhibits back-to-back, that look at periods that are almost back-to-back, and seeing how different the design aesthetic was, is interesting.
Sharon: Fluidity is a great word for it because it’s this continuous spectrum, I think. Why should we study jewelry history?
Emily: I think that from studying jewelry history, you can study all aspects of human culture. Jewelry’s been such a visible part of human culture through the centuries. By diving into jewelry history, you can tease apart any historical period and the ideas and scenes from there, so it’s a great starting point for the study of history and the study of material culture. There are lots of different ways to come at it, which is interesting, too. There’s the gem piece; there’s the history piece; there’s the fashion piece, so regardless of what your interests are, I think it’s relatable to a lot of people.
Sharon: It’s always hard to describe. When you tell people you love jewelry, they think you’re talking about glitzy gems, when there’s so much more behind it.
Emily: Right, there’s so much more.
Sharon: Emily, tell everybody, how do we get a career like yours? If somebody’s interested, where should they start?
Emily: That’s such a tricky question. I was very fortunate to have a mentor to help guide my career with Yvonne. I think that was really essential to my success, and I still rely on her for talking through ideas and getting advice and brainstorming. For people that are interested in the field, I would suggest getting an internship where you can work to establish a similar type of relationship. As I said, the community has been so generous that I think there are lots of people out there who can act as mentors and help guide your career in a way that Yvonne guided me.
Sharon: That’s a great piece of advice, especially when it seems like the world is opening up in terms of museums receiving collections and displaying collections of jewelry that they might not have done before. It seems like there are a lot more opportunities, or at least there will be. So, thank you so much for being here, greatly appreciated. Congratulations on the exhibits.
Emily: Thanks, Sharon.
Sharon: Everybody, that wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the jewelry world. Thanks so much for listening.
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