Museum as a muse

When photographer Rosamond Purcell first had the idea –  decades ago — to photograph in museums, she didn’t exactly find an open and welcoming door.


Purcell in her studio. Courtesy photo from Rosamond Purcell.

“That’s not the mission of a museum at all and the curators are busy and overworked,” says Purcell, looking back. “The artist was an interruption, a distraction and not necessarily anyone a museum could get anything out of. Most museums have not set themselves up in a way that a solitary artist would be attracted. The person who is wandering, who really wants to look at something.”

But things are changing, slowly.


Ms. Purcell’s studio. Courtesy photo by Rosamond Purcell.

The topic of a recent symposium at PEM brought together visual artists and contemporary scholars to explore the nuanced and often fraught relationships between artists and museums within the history of American art.

The event coincided with PEM’s current exhibition Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention, a powerful testament to the influence of the art museum as a source of inspiration.

For Morse, it was the Louvre’s collection that moved him to create an imagined hang of some of the the museum’s finest works. Using a massive canvas, Morse sought to educate the American public about European masterworks.


Samuel F.B. Morse, Gallery of the Louvre, 1831-1833. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.51.

Gordon Wilkins, an Assistant Curator for Exhibitions and Research at PEM and a symposium organizer explains:

“Inspired by how the Louvre functions as a muse for Morse and countless other American artists, we wished to bring together a panel that would speak to the complexities and nuances of the artist-museum relationship from varied perspectives. Since Morse was a figure who straddled multiple realms, art and academic, science and technology, we wanted the symposium to bring together people who might not often have the opportunity to enter into conversation with each other.”


Skeleton against “Metaposition” penmanship sheet. Courtesy photo by Rosamond Purcell.


Hematite “wing,” Academy of Natural Sciences, Drexel University, Philadelpia. Courtesy photo by Rosamond Purcell.

In her presentation, Purcell spoke of wearing down the patience of curators in order to make a career photographing preserved species in natural history museums. It took three years for Purcell to get to the back room of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. This was the mid 1980s.

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Snowy egret, from the collection of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology. Courtesy photo by Rosamond Purcell.


Norfolk Island Kereru, Natural History Museum in Leiden, the Netherlands, from the book ‘Swift as a Shadow.’ Courtesy photo by Rosamond Purcell.

“The years have gone by and things have changed,” says Purcell, who was the symposium’s final presenter.  “I was really naive and didn’t know how to talk to curators, but desperately wanted to photograph what they had. I didn’t know how to ask in a decent way. They don’t have time for that. Over the years, I have made an effort to teach myself the ways a collection manager would speak and how to look at things and how to be patient. I’m totally sympathetic now with what they were up against when I would walk in the door.”


Purcell in a scene from a documentary about her. Courtesy photo from Rosamond Purcell.

In more recent years, revered photographer David Maisel, another presenter at the PEM symposium, found inspiration in the conservation department of the Getty. His access as an artist in residence allowed him to stumble upon x-rays of antiquities that he re-worked into beautiful works in their own right, leading to his series History’s Shadow.


History’s Shadow AV5, 2010. Courtesy photo by David Maisel.

The haunting photographs, praised in this exhibition review in The New Yorker, reveal the inner lives of ancient stationary — the interior energy of Buddha and of Greek antiquities — their visible nails, studs and cracks rendering them somehow more lifelike.

Maisel concluded his slide presentation by advocating for museums to create opportunities for contemporary artists “to work around the fringes and beyond the walls.”


History’s Shadow AB1, 2010. Courtesy photo by David Maisel.

Through the years, Purcell has garnered admirers such as the author Jonathan Safran Foer who has said:

What kind of genius is Rosamond Purcell? Is she an artist? A scholar? A documentarian? A living cabinet of wonders? Her originality defies category… “

The artist has graced the pages of National Geographic and over 20 published books. The 2016 film An Art That Nature Makes is a New York Times critic pick documenting Purcell’s fascination with the natural world and her unique way of recontextualizing objects into sometimes disturbing but always breathtaking imagery.


Monkeys with raised arms. Courtesy photo by Rosamond Purcell.


Monkeys with raised arms. Courtesy photo by Rosamond Purcell.

“So much in collections is just invisible,” she says to me by phone. “You cannot see everything in a museum collection.

If you have the privilege to go to a place that the public can’t go, you can come up with an image they can’t see. It’s being drawn to those things that have to be seen.

I have this sense: people have to see this. Let me in. Let me in. I have to see this.  I don’t want it, I want a good photograph of it. If I get a good photograph, I’m completely satisfied. It’s so amazing when you go back to museums and you see actual specimens among the tens of thousands and you think, there it is.”


Left: Samia Moths, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University. Right: Bat in bottle, Academy of Natural Sciences, Drexel University. Courtesy photos by Rosamond Purcell.

Samuel F. B. Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention is on view at PEM through January 8, 2017. The installation of this painting is accompanied by a display of PEM’s own vast photography collection.


A piece of PEM’s photo collection featured in the Art of Invention exhibition. Whalers Rousseau and Desdemona, Edwin Hale Lincoln, platinum print, 1848–1938, United States. Museum purchase, 1972. © Peabody Essex Museum

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