Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Author and Educator
Conducted by Ariana Bishop on April 9, 2021 at Malden, Massachusetts and New York, New York via Zoom
Emily Stoehrer (right) and Ariana Bishop (left) at the Town & Country Jewelry Awards, New York, January 27, 2020. Photo by Angela Pham/BFA.
In addition to her work as a curator, Stoehrer has spent more than a decade as an adjunct professor at Boston-area colleges. Most recently, she developed a History of Jewelry course for the Art History department at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Emily served as a member of the Board of Directors for the Society of North American Goldsmiths from 2017 until 2020, and is currently the spokesperson of the jewelry vetting committee of all three of The European Fine Art Fairs. She earned her BA in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, her MA in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and her PhD in Humanities from Salve Regina University.
In this interview, Stoehrer discusses her educational and professional path to becoming a curator and the ways in which her background in fashion and textile studies inform her scholarship and curatorial practice. She describes the circumstances under which the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) came to be the first—and only—art museum in the nation to endow a Curator of Jewelry position and the responsibility she feels in this role to represent the entirety of jewelry history. She considers the challenges of overseeing such a diverse collection and details her plans to enhance her collection strategy through an advisory council model that engages outside audiences. In explaining the ways in which she generates excitement and funding for jewelry acquisitions, Stoehrer recounts the story of bringing a famous jewel—the René Boivin Starfish brooch once owned by Claudette Colbert—home to Boston. Finally, Stoehrer reflects upon the impact of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic on cultural institutions like the MFA and her hopes for the future of jewelry in museums.
Interview duration: 52 minutes
Emily Stoehrer (ES): I'm in Malden, Massachusetts. And I am sitting here in my basement, working remotely for the MFA.
AB: Sounds about right. So, Emily is my former boss, my mentor, and a very good friend. And for that reason, Emily, thank you for joining me today. It's wonderful to have you.
ES: My pleasure. It’s nice to be able to have a little chat.
AB: It is. It is. So let's just dive right in. I'd like to start by asking you about your education and your professional background. Tell me about the path you took to becoming the MFA’s Curator of Jewelry.
ES: Well, it wasn't necessarily a straight line. I went to UMass Amherst. I graduated with a psychology degree and from there I went to work for the District Attorney's office as a victim witness advocate. I had great ambitions as an undergraduate of working for the FBI.
AB: [laughs.] I didn’t know that!
ES: Yep. I had this not very helpful advisor in undergrad who told me that that probably was unlikely. Maybe I shouldn't have listened to her. [laughs.] I spent two years—after many, many internships—I spent two years in the office working mostly with domestic violence victims and I just decided that I wanted to do something more uplifting. So I started looking at graduate programs. I had originally thought that I would go to law school and I had actually taken the LSAT and everything and planned to go to law school and instead I decided to take a different path. And so I found this program at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology], in Fashion and Textiles Studies and it was a fashion history program. I had never even taken an art history class. So I took all these prerequisite courses, which involved taking chemistry classes, art history classes, Spanish classes. And then I applied and I ended up in 2005 starting at FIT. And I didn't really know what I was getting into at that point. I didn't even know that museums like had things behind the scenes. I was so naive. And so I learned a lot during those two years. And in the year between those two years at FIT, I went to the MFA as an intern. I spent the summer there working full time in the Fashion and Textile Department. It was the moment when the museum was building their new American wing. And my job was to help them move all of the costume collection from a location in the basement that was being demolished into an offsite storage facility. So it gave me this incredible opportunity to like see everything and to get a real, hands-on look at the collection. I was fortunate to be hired after that, to come back for a one-year contract at the MFA. And I worked in a number of different positions at the MFA before going into a PhD program at Salve Regina University in the humanities. And I had been encouraged by Yvonne Markowitz, who was then the Jewelry Curator, to pursue a PhD. She said that she felt like, you know, the next generation of curators is really going to need that. So I looked around a lot at what PhD programs to go to because there wasn't an obvious path from the Master's degree at FIT to a next step. So I was looking at programs in London, you know, that I might go to and I ultimately settled on this program in humanities that was run by a former history professor from RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] who really understood fashion and jewelry and was open to thinking about that from a humanities perspective. So I left the museum and I spent a few years teaching and running a fashion and textile program [at Fisher College in Boston, Massachusetts] that gave me the flexibility in my schedule to pursue, you know, part-time PhD work. So I spent about six years, I think, in the PhD program, doing, I think there were ten courses that I had to take, and then working on my oral exams and dissertation.
AB: And working all the while?
ES: And working all the while.
AB: So let's backtrack for a second. I wanted to ask about the decision to pursue a different career than you originally intended. After working for the DA's office, you decided this wasn't really for you, and then you started considering other avenues, ultimately enrolling at FIT. Did you always have an interest in fashion?
ES: I did always have an interest in fashion. I think now it's easier for me to look back and not be so surprised by that decision. But at the time it felt like a real break, but in retrospect, like my grandparents worked in a shoe factory and my grandmother was a home-ec [home economics] teacher. My mother had studied textiles and fashion at Framingham State [University]. So it wasn't such a departure, but at the time it really felt like this totally different direction. And I remember being really nervous to tell my mom, like, I didn't think she was going to like be okay with this. We were sitting at the mall. And I told her, you know, I want to go to FIT. And she was so excited, but I wasn't really expecting that.
AB: Yeah. That's funny. Well, in a way you were, kind of following her path.
ES: Yeah. She never worked in the field, but she had a bad internship experience [laughs] so she never worked in it. Although, you know, she was always interested in sewing and making our clothes and doing different handicrafts.
AB: She was excited for you.
ES: Very excited.
AB: So you mentioned not even knowing that museums collected fashion and textiles—
ES: I knew they collected. But I didn't really understand what a museum collection was. So I didn't understand that, you know, that there is more than what's in the galleries, that the galleries are really just the tip of the iceberg. But early on in those classes at FIT, I learned about collection management and the way that collections are cared for. And so I really was so naive. I didn't know anything about that. So I really didn't even understand the program fully as I went into it.
AB: Right. I wanted to ask about that because I mean, today there are at least a dozen specialized programs in the United States alone that focus on fashion and textiles, but even a decade ago, it was still kind of a small field. So, how did you come to learn that this was a real career path and that there were programs like FIT that focused on this?
ES: I found it just from Googling graduate programs. I came across the FIT program. I know at that time there was a program [in Costume Studies] at NYU [New York University], the program at Bard [Bard Graduate Center] existed, but I don't remember ever coming across them as I was looking for programs to apply to. I remember just finding [FIT] and thinking, "oh, this sounds really interesting." I'd always been interested in history and in visiting museums when I traveled, I loved to travel. My sister used to joke that I always liked "field trip vacations," you know, I wanted to visit museums and cultural things when we'd go away. But I guess even in doing that, I didn't realize that that was a possible career. And so in the first semester, in the first year of graduate school, I think it was really eye-opening to learn all the different careers that existed. And I think that FIT did a good job of preparing us for that and letting us know what the possibilities were. And so, some internships in New York—my first internship was at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in their textile conservation lab, working on an eighteenth-century carpet. It was really a quick study, I think, in the possibilities. And I didn't imagine that I'd be where I am now.
AB: But it sounds like you were interested in working within a museum from the beginning, or at least you had an interest in museums early on.
ES: Well, I was interested in coming back to Boston and I felt like there were limited opportunities. You know, if I had stayed in New York, of course, there were all the great designer archives and things like that, but those didn't really exist in Boston, at least not that I knew of. And so I saw working in museums as a place where I'd have more opportunity if I left New York.
AB: So you went back to Boston and were fortunate enough to get an internship that led to a job. And it was when you were working with Yvonne that you started to pivot your focus from fashion and textiles to jewelry. I wanted to ask you about that transition. I remember when I applied to be your intern, I knew nothing about jewelry and I just kind of figured, well, it's basically the same thing as fashion. But I remember discovering upon cataloging a piece of jewelry that these materials and these techniques are completely different than those employed in textiles. And discovering that jewelry is this unique field. And I certainly had some learning to do. So I'm wondering, what was that transition like for you?
ES: I'm glad to hear you say that it felt like it wasn't such a departure for you. I guess I thought the same thing, although having at that point graduated from FIT, I don't think the word jewelry was really mentioned once. In my master's thesis, I studied the clothing and jewelry of Countess Mona Bismarck, Mrs. Harrison Williams. And so jewelry came into that, but like that was all new for me. Jewelry wasn't something we talked about in my graduate coursework. And over the course of the last fifteen years, I've given it a lot of thought because for me, jewelry and fashion so clearly go together. How can you think about it one without the other? But I think that you're absolutely right, that it's the materials that differentiate the two. And if you know a lot about textiles and about fashion, that doesn't necessarily mean that you know a lot about gemstones and metals. And so they do tend to be two separate areas. And in the museum world, they tend to be separated by the decorative arts and fashion arts. Historically I think there have been a lot of people who have studied jewelry from the decorative arts perspective, or from the material perspective of metals and not necessarily from a fashion perspective. Yvonne had great foresight in seeing that those two things should go together. And I remember when she approached me about working with her, she said, "I'm an Egyptologist and my background is Egypt, but here in this role, I study all this jewelry, all different time periods and cultures and I bring my work as an Egyptologist to my perspective. You'll bring your work in fashion to your perspective. And whoever follows you will have a different focus and that will enrich the collection in some other way." And so I think that helps to give me the confidence to be able to approach the material, knowing that I did have an understanding of it, even if I still had a lot to learn in terms of the materials and the history.
In her curatorial practice, Emily Stoehrer thinks about fashion and jewelry in tandem. Here, she paired an Alexander McQueen wool dress (Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 2012.1038) with an eight-foot long, titanium Python necklace by David Bielander (Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 2017.1505), for display in her exhibition Past is Present: Revival Jewelry (2017-2018). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, July 2017. Photo by Ariana Bishop.
ES: I don't think of myself as an expert. I really hesitate even to call myself a jewelry historian, because I feel like I don't know—there's so much that I don't know about. I know the museum collection better than anybody, but I feel really amateurish stepping outside of that and looking at other aspects of jewelry history. So I confidently say that I'm a fashion historian, but I don't say I'm a jewelry historian. I say I'm a jewelry curator. Because I do feel like my expertise lies really specifically in the MFA's collection.
AB: And you're not a maker. You don't have experience with metalsmithing?
ES: I took one class.
AB: You took one class? How was that?
ES: I took a class at Metalwerx [Metalwerx Jewelry and Metalsmithing School] in Waltham [Massachusetts] because I did want to get a sense of how things were made. I did that right when I first took this position. And while it taught me that I'm certainly not a metalsmith, it also taught me a little bit more appreciation for how things are made and what some of the terminology meant. I did have somewhat of an understanding of that, but I think you get a whole new appreciation when you actually try and make something.
AB: Definitely. So let's talk about your role at the MFA—and Yvonne's role before you—because it is very unique. The MFA Boston is the only fine arts museum in the United States that currently employs a curator that is specifically focused on jewelry. How did this come about?
ES: So this came about around the same time that, um, maybe shortly before I became an intern. The museum was in a capital campaign to raise money for the new American wing. I think the museum had to raise something like $500 million for that project. And one of the ways that they were raising money was to have people endow gallery spaces and put their names on gallery spaces. So our former director, Malcolm Rogers sat down with [MFA Trustee] Susan Kaplan and asked her what kind of gallery she wanted her name on. And she said that she wanted a jewelry gallery, which Malcolm was really enthusiastic about. But Susan, being very smart, quickly asked who would look after the jewelry in that gallery. Because the museum has collected jewelry since the 1870s, when it was first founded—even before it opened its doors—but it came in as a hodge-podge. It often came in with other gifts. It spanned nine departments and there wasn't one person who had a sense of the entire MFA holdings. And Susan was looking at museums like the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum], for example, that have a great jewelry collection and a really strong sense of their entire jewelry holdings. And she wanted the MFA to have a similar model. So even before she endowed—or her family foundation, I should say, not she—the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation endowed the curatorship before they endowed the gallery. The curatorship was endowed in 2006, I think. And the gallery opened in 2010. It set us on this trajectory to be the leaders in jewelry in the country. And I think oftentimes, you know, museums like the MFA are using the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] to set the benchmark. This is a unique opportunity where, at the MFA, we are really the national leaders for jewelry. So after it was decided in that conversation between Susan and Malcolm that the museum was open to doing this, Malcolm introduced Susan to Yvonne Markowitz. Yvonne had worked for the museum for a long time. She had started out—her first job was in the Egyptian department. She was the illustrator there before photography is what it is today. She would actually draw some of the pieces in the collection to be published in books. And she moved from that position—I think—I don't know what position she was in when she left that department. But she spent many decades there working with the collection, which includes more than 18,000 objects of jewelry that was excavated in the Nile Valley and Sudan in the early twentieth century.
AB: I think she initiated that herself. I think she just found the collection and decided, "I'm interested in learning about this. I'll catalog it."
ES: Yeah. So she kind of made her own pathway there and ended up studying the jewelry in those years. And so Malcolm knew about that and he knew that she had founded an organization called the Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts. And so he said, "you know, if we're going to do this, you should meet Yvonne. I think you guys would hit it off and that she might make a good curator." And so, it was kind of a perfect match. Susan and Yvonne really hit it off. They shared this great love of jewelry. Yvonne moved from the Egyptian department, to the Department of Textile and Fashion Arts (TFA) to become the Kaplan curator. The decision was made early on that the Jewelry Curator would sit in the Department of Textile and Fashion Arts, which to your point, might seem obvious now, but it wasn't so obvious then that that would be the right place. But Susan wanted, again, this person to have a sense of the whole collection across time and place. And the Textile and Fashion Arts department was one of the only places in the museum that did this. So while the decision was made to leave the jewelry where it was—it still sits in all these different departments—the Curator of Jewelry would oversee the collection from that department.
AB: Because like textiles, jewelry is also encyclopedic. It spans just about every department. So there was support kind of from all sides: from the director, from Susan who funded the position, and from Yvonne, who was the perfect person to take on the role. But, in thinking about the audience, I've been thinking about the city of Boston as a city that's been, you know, globally recognized for technology and medicine and education. Outsiders don't necessarily think of fashion when they think of Boston’s industries. And so I've been thinking about why the city of Boston boasts the first and, to this day, the only curator of jewelry in the United States. And I’m wondering, at the time that the position was established, was there a receptive and eager audience of jewelry enthusiasts in Boston?
ES: That's a good question. I mean Boston does have this reputation for being conservative. But yeah, I think so. When you look at—I was recently reminded that fashion exhibitions are second only behind impressionist exhibitions in bringing crowds into museums. And I think that for many visitors, they’re not interested in like the nitty gritty of, "is it the metals department or the decorative arts or the fashion department?" People are really interested in seeing things that are worn. For most visitors, I would imagine the jewelry and fashion go hand-in-hand. It’s something really accessible that we all interact with on some level. And so it's really democratic in that way. So I think that for visitors coming in the door, jewelry is exciting and it actually, as you know from being in the museum, that the gallery greets you right as you come through the door, it’s right there. It’s a great intro to the MFA. I think more for our trustees perhaps, than for our visitors was it a bit of a tougher sell. Not that we hadn’t collected jewelry for 150 years almost at that point because we had. But we hadn't collected any fine jewelry at that point. So we hadn't collected any jewelry where—a lot of the cost of that piece of jewelry came [from] the materials. And so that was a bit of a hurdle to get over. Yvonne had acquired the [Marjorie Merriweather Post] brooch, which is this brooch that has a 60-carat, seventeenth-century, Indian emerald in the middle, as a way to get us passed that. And it really did, and it set the bar for collecting and it shows the trustees that jewelry was an art form and that, you know, in making important acquisitions of jewelry, you could approach the way to tell a story of that jewelry from a range of perspectives—about trade and travel, about how that Emerald went from Columbia to Europe, to India and back to the United States; about the person who had owned that jewelry before; about the firms that had made it; about how it related to the Art Deco art movement and how it related to other art forms made around the same time. And so since then, there's really been great enthusiasm for collecting jewelry at the MFA.
AB: I'm glad you bring that up because I wanted to ask about the collection strategy. So the MFA’s collection is really vast in scope. As we mentioned, it’s encyclopedic and covers thousands of years of history and almost every culture. How many pieces are in the permanent collection?
ES: Of jewelry or everything?
AB: Of jewelry.
ES: I think it's 22,000 objects, but 18,000 of those objects are beads and amulets and gems. So if you take that out, then I think we're left with some 8,000 objects, more than a thousand of which came to the museum since 2006. And that’s actually a statistic from 2018. So I don't think that accounts for the costume jewelry collection.
AB: What criteria do you use to assess whether an object of adornment belongs in an art museum?
ES: Do you want me to talk about collection strategy, or answer that question?
Starfish brooch, 1937, designed by Juliette Moutard and fabricated by Charles Profilet for René Boivin, worn by Claudette Colbert. 18-karat gold, ruby, and amethyst, 10.8 x 10.2 cm. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 2019.654.1. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
AB: So the advisory council, can you tell me more about that? Like, is this new? Who would be a part of it?
ES: So this is a new, and we’re still very much figuring out, like, what this would look like. But at the MFA a few years ago, or a year ago, I guess, we started a program called Table of Voices. And this was a program that was initiated in part of the exhibition planning process. It allowed us to invite in artists, collectors, and scholars, as we were developing an idea to get multiple voices at the table to, you know, think about new ways or new directions for interpreting material and building the narrative of an exhibition. So, I had a conversation with a gallery owner recently about what I was doing, what I was doing in collections and who I was looking to add. And I said, "you know, I feel really overwhelmed because the collection is global and I don't know everything about everything. And there’s so many jewelers out there whose work I don't know. And I have a lot to learn." And it got me thinking about how I could possibly do this. And I thought, well, I need help. And so a supporter happened to give me money to kind of come up with a project that would be something I could work on in the next year or so. And so I started to think, "well, could we use that money to develop this idea and use it towards the collection strategy?" And so we’re going to pay people to come in and be part of this advisory committee, and we’re going to model it on this Table of Voices model, where we’re going to invite people in for conversations that will be focused around a particular question. And from those conversations, we will then develop the collection strategy out of it. What I really want to come out of it is something quite different from the current collection strategy I have now, which says like, I want to increase the collection of Asian artists, but it doesn't give any names. And so if I say like, for this next collection strategy, I want to add works by Asian-American artists. It would also say these are the two or three really stellar pieces that I want to collect, so that when that opportunity does come for me to acquire one of these things, it’s very clear from that strategy, which gets voted on by our collections committee, that these were things that I identified in this research process that were important to add to the MFA's collection.
AB: So who would make up these panels? Would it be contemporary artists? Would it be historians?
ES: So it will be a mix. We’ll work with our head of interpretation, Adam [Tessier], to figure out the right conversations to have. Of course now they're going to be on Zoom. It's been interesting, working through this process with him because, you know, Jenn [Jennifer Swope, Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts] and I started making a list of like all the people—we have like three things: textile, fashion, jewelry—and all the people who we might be interested to hear from. And the list, as you can imagine is now really, really long. So I was imagining this big group getting together to have this conversation, but Adam really quickly said that on Zoom, you know, like six people is what he’s thinking of; these work best with a small number of people. And so we will develop over the next couple of months the framing question that each one of these conversations will address and then who should be sitting around that table and helping us to kind of deal with each question—I'm really excited about it. It’s already become a model at the MFA that other departments want to try out. And I’m excited about what we’re going to learn and it helps me not feel so overwhelmed about how to really build the collection in a way that I feel is important and impactful. It’s more than I could do on my own.
AB: Is this a model that other museums are using?
ES: So apparently other museums are doing similar things. I heard from a colleague that the Smithsonian for example, is reinstalling a lot of their galleries and that they have an advisory group of fifty people who are helping them to do that, along with their curators. So I think that it might seem brand new at the MFA, but other museums are already ahead of the curve in doing some of this.
AB: There’s definitely a push to bring more voices into museums, whether it be in the collection or in exhibitions. And that kind of gets me to another question I wanted to ask you. As you’ve mentioned, the field of jewelry design and production is super diverse in terms of materials and approach. And I’ve found that—in my own scholarly pursuits, as well as in just communicating with other curators and historians and artists—that certain types of jewelry are often highly esteemed and deemed worthy of curatorial study whereas other pieces, other types of jewelry are sometimes considered more commercial and thus not deemed worthy of being in an art museum. And I think you, on the other hand, embrace this broad scope, actively collecting and exhibiting pieces that range from masterpieces of technical virtuosity to mass-produced costume jewelry. And so I’m wondering about your approach to that and how you feel about this perennial debate between the merits of objects of art versus craft versus design.
Philadelphia hinge bracelet, about 1935. Plastic (phenolic resin), metal, 3.6 cm width. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 2019.540. William E. Nickerson Fund and funds donated by Marc S. Plonskier. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
AB: —"when it was cheap!"
ES: Yeah. I have felt, and I know Yvonne has felt this too, that we have an obligation to represent the whole community of jewelers and that’s unique because you do tend to see in jewelry that there are people who are interested in fine jewelry, people who are interested in studio jewelry, and that it’s rare that you have one collection that has all of those things and that has strengths in different areas. We have strengths in fine jewelry because of acquisitions that we’ve made. Recently, we have strengths in costume jewelry because of the  gift from Carole Tanenbaum. We have strengths in studio jewelry and contemporary jewelry because of the  gift from Daphne Farago and all of the gifts that have come after that because of that strong collection. Down the road, I imagine that some curator of the future is going to look at the collection and further refine it, you know, they’ll make deaccessions from what’s there, but my goal right now is really to try and represent all the different areas.
AB: It’s a big task to represent all of jewelry history.
ES: It’s a big task. And it’s a big task when you’re also at this moment in the museum world where everybody’s running out of storage space. And so you have to be ever more selective about what you're bringing in and even decisions that I made a year or two ago, I think I would make different decisions now with that in mind. But I think it’s always a work in progress.
AB: So I want to talk about money because I think when you’re talking about museum-quality jewelry, the question that always comes up is "how much does it cost?" And I think there’s a lot of mystery around how museums fund acquisitions. Specifically with regards to jewelry where, you know, the price tag is often high, just because of the inherent value of the materials—the precious gemstones and metals—so how are acquisitions funded?
ES: In a variety of different ways. I mean, most of the time, the acquisitions that come in for jewelry are gifts. But we do make purchases and make acquisitions that way. I don't have earmarked funds for jewelry. So it’s always making a pitch to our Director of Collections and to the Director to support different acquisitions that I think are important to bring into the collection. I think for as naive as I was getting into the museum field years ago, I think it’s even taken longer to realize some of the persuasive techniques that you have to have as a curator to try and bring people along with you and build excitement around objects. And that was certainly true for some of the big acquisitions that I’ve made over the last six years. We've been lucky to have a small, but very supportive group of jewelry enthusiasts, who have combined resources many times to make some of our biggest acquisitions and while that hasn’t always covered the full price tag of things, showing that enthusiasm to leadership at the MFA has then allowed us to access funds that might other have otherwise not been available. But typically there are endowed funds for different types of art. Some might be for metalwork or for coins or for paintings. But there has yet to be one that’s just for jewelry. So that would be, you know, in building this jewelry resource center, that would be the next step.
AB: I wanted to ask about the starfish [brooch] that you brought up: the Boivin starfish that once belonged to the film actress Claudette Colbert. That was a pretty substantial acquisition for the museum—in 2018?
ES: I believe 2019.
AB: It was, I believe, the second most expensive acquisition of jewelry that the museum ever acquired. Can speak to the process of, like you said, getting people excited and pulling resources?
ES: Let me think. Yeah, that was 2019. When did you start at the museum? In 2018?
ES: So 2018, I was pregnant with my son and I think. This book ended up on my desk. It was an advanced copy of Diving for Starfish [by Cherie Burns]. I looked at it but I didn’t give it much thought because it was funny, it came to me from one of our paintings curators who knew the author. And then, I came back from maternity leave and you and I started talking about it. I took another look at the book, and I think you told me that [the Boivin Starfish brooch] was going to be at TEFAF [The European Fine Art Fair] and we were going to New York to do something or other. So we went [to TEFAF] and we went to Lee Siegelson’s booth to see. So that would have been the fall of 2018.
ES: So we see it for the first time then. And like, you have to see it to really get it. It’s so stunning in pictures, but then you see it and you hold it and you have a whole new appreciation for this as a true masterpiece. And I remember lusting after it for the collection, but feeling like this was never going to happen, like how would I ever acquire something this major for the museum? And so we were planning a few months later to bring a group of Fashion Council [MFA patron group] supporters to Miami to visit Design Miami and Art Basel. And Lee Siegleson was going to be there again with the starfish. So of course I had to plan a day for us to go through Design Miami. And I had planned for us to visit different booths, among them was Lee Siegelson’s booth. And I asked him to show us the starfish. And so this gave some of our supporters a chance for the first time to hold the piece. So they could have the experience that I had had where you hold it and then you just have to have it. And so that kind of just got a buzz going about it. Some of our supporters had seen it. It’s hard to forget, so we kept talking about it and this was in December. And then in March 2019, I went—like I go annually—to Maastricht in the Netherlands for the TEFAF fair that’s there, and at TEFAF in Maastricht, we bring a group of MFA supporters. Some of our highest level supporters come with us to that fair. The Director comes as well. And I’m the chair of the vetting committee—the jewelry vetting committee—for that group, so I go a few days ahead and I get to go through and see and handle all of the jewelry that’s going to be shown. So I again see the starfish during those days. And one of the things that we do—the group of curators who go—is on that opening day of the fair, there’s lots of fanfare and we typically get time with the Director [Matthew Teitelbaum]. And during that time with the Director, we’re asked to show him something we think is extraordinary. So I brought him in to see the starfish and he sat down at a little table in the back room. And I remember that moment. You probably remember it too, when [the starfish brooch] was put in his hand. And I remember he wasn’t expecting when he picked it up, or when Lee picked it up, for it to move. That experience of, "Oh, I get it." It’s really amazing. And so from there, you know, a number of supporters at that moment came forward and said, "we would like to be part of this. We think this should come to the MFA." And it was just a matter of kind of reaching a tipping point that was going to make it possible for us to have the funds to acquire it. As is so often the case, we of course had to pay for it over time. We didn’t have the money to pay it right away. But it has been my experience that dealers tend to be very generous in allowing institutions to do that so that we can add real masterpieces like the starfish to the MFA collection. And so we acquired it in June. And then I started to scramble on how we were going to get it on view. I had finally found a way to get it on the view for June 2020. It was going to go on view outside of the jewelry gallery. And we were all sent home in March 2020. So we didn’t get to get it out in the galleries, but one of the last things that you and I did before the museum shut down in March was we got to go and celebrate it at the Town & Country Jewelry Awards.
AB: The last hurrah.
ES: It was heralded the Sale of the Year by Town & Country magazine. And since then we made a video showing how it moves. And I actually got an email just yesterday from the director of intellectual property saying that in China, it’s apparently one of the MFA’s top viewed videos on social media! And so there’s still a lot of traction. Because you do need to see it come to life. Hopefully we’ll get it out on view someday soon.
AB: I hope so. I think people are desperate for it.
ES: It does have that, you know—this is a conversation that often happens with fashion. Like, does it lose something by not actually having a body to wear the piece? For this, does it lose something by not allowing visitors, once it’s in a case to just have that moment where you see it move? And so one of the challenges I think for this piece and some others in the collection is, how do we bring that experience to the visitor?
AB: Right. There’s the video. But it is a challenge. How do you bring that to life? I mean, it has such a presence on its own, but it is a challenge. To feel it, the weight and the movement.
AB: Well, here we are in April 2021, a year after the the Town and Country Jewelry Awards and a year after the pandemic has upended things. A lot of museums were hit hard. They had to close, they furloughed or laid off many of their employees. I’m wondering if you can just talk about your experience working at the MFA during the pandemic, how things have changed and, and how the MFA has dealt with this.
ES: I mean, now a year later, we’re still very much in it and trying to figure out what the other side might look like. So yeah, March—I was supposed to go to Maastricht like I always do. I opted not to go because I was just a few weeks pregnant at that point with my daughter. And then I think the day that everyone came back from Maastricht, they were sent home from the museum because they had been exposed in Maastricht. And I think we all expected that we were going to get sent home from the museum for two weeks and that, you know, the museum was going close for two weeks and we’d be back two weeks later but here we are a year later. I’ve been to the museum five times in the last year and it’s been a weird year. We worked at home until April and then I was furloughed in late April until the end of July. When I came back to the museum, I think it was August 3rd, I had left a department that was seven people. I came back to a department that was two and a half people. My colleague—well you were laid off, I suppose, technically, and then other colleagues took an early retirement. So I have a colleague who’s the Curator of Textiles and a part-time Research Associate. And the three of us make up the Department of Textile and Fashion Arts. We report to the American Department temporarily. So then I was back for a short time and I had a baby at the end of October. And so I was on maternity leave until the beginning of February. And now I’m just back and feeling like I’m finally settling into this working at home model. We still don't know what the future’s going to hold. This whole experience has had a tremendous impact on the museum's bottom line. And so, we were closed for some of the last year. We’re open now, but there’s limited capacity. And so the hope is that we might go back to the museum to work again in the fall. But I think there’s a lot that’s still unknown. It’s interesting because before COVID my colleagues—many of us—were advocating for more flexible hours and the ability to work at home and we weren’t getting anywhere really with that. And here we are, all working [from home], right?
AB: Desperate to get back.
ES: I think it’s a mixed blessing. It certainly has taught me that I don't want to work at home full-time. But that some kind of hybrid would be nice, going into the museum sometimes and being home to work sometimes. My new department head was joking that he used to, you know, want to work at home to get stuff done. And now we all want to go into the building and get stuff done because it's so distracting at home.
AB: It is hard to plan now. I mean, there was a time when you didn’t know when the museum was going to open so working on exhibitions was challenging to say the least, but now is there—now that the museum is open, it’s probably going to stay open, is there any kind of consistency in your days, is there any plan for future projects?
ES: Yes and no. I mean, I think things are starting to kind of take shape a little more than they have over the last year. Our exhibition calendar is coming together a little bit more, but because we’re so limited in the staff that we have now, in some ways things are moving more slowly than they did before. And you know, we’re saying no a lot more than we would have before. We’re just realizing how much we can do. And that’s true both in my department and in the museum more generally. And we should have probably been saying no more before so that we weren’t all doing as much as we were, but it’s definitely, it’s been this moment of reset. And you know, while some of my colleagues have projects, others are trying to figure out what the path forward is. And for us in TFA, I think we’re really trying to figure out what the next step is for us, because we’re now part of this other department. A number of years ago, we had lost our gallery space for Textile and Fashion Arts. We still have the jewelry gallery, but trying to figure out how we get some of the collection out—there's just, there’s a lot of moving parts and some of that’s new and some of that’s just been in play for awhile.
AB: And the museum, it’s not at full capacity, but is the entire museum open now?
ES: Hmm, I don't know. I think so. When we do go into the museum, we’re not encouraged to be in the galleries because of the limits on how many people can be in the gallery spaces. So I haven’t actually spent much time walking around.
AB: So odd.
ES: Really weird.
AB: Well, I want to wrap up here by looking towards the future—specifically the future of your position and of jewelry scholarship. It’s been, I realized, fifteen years since the Curator of Jewelry position was established. And it seems like over that period interest in the scholarly and curatorial study of jewelry has been building. More and more museums are hosting special [jewelry-related] exhibitions. We’re seeing this kind of proliferation of special interest groups like Gem-X and New York City Jewelry Week that target young professionals. And so, I’m wondering if you think this mounting interest will lead to other museums, other major art museums, establishing positions like your own.
ES: I hope so, but I have hoped that for the last fifteen years, and I’m honestly surprised that nothing has happened so far. I had been hopeful that when the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art], had their big jewelry exhibition [Jewelry: The Body Transformed] a couple of years ago, that that might’ve been the moment that one of their supporters might come forward and endow a similar position. I remain hopeful that that might happen. There is such enthusiasm for it. And I think that the MFA has set a good model for the kind of excitement that jewelry generates. I think it would be great if more museums had greater interest and focus on their jewelry collections.
AB: Do you think part of that is because the collections that other museums have are more fragmented or—?
ES: I think that many museums don’t know what they have in the same way that fifteen years ago, the MFA didn’t really know what it had because the jewelry collection is scattered throughout the museum. So it may be that at an institution, each department knows their collection very, very well, including their jewelry collection, but that nobody’s necessarily talking to one another to find out, you know—
AB: —what we can do with this.
ES: Right. Like how it all works together.
AB: Time will tell, I guess.
ES: Yes, time will tell.
AB: So what are you working on now?
ES: So I’m doing a lot of planning of events for our Fashion Council, events for this year and planning for next year. I’m working on some exhibition proposals and thinking about the gallery space in the future of the gallery space. And just talking to a lot of colleagues and trying to figure out what might be possible.
AB: So right now the MFA’s jewelry gallery is closed because it’s just small enough that you can’t quite socially distance in there—
ES: It’s closed because it’s empty. You could have people in there right now, but the Boston Made show [Boston Made: Arts and Crafts Jewelry and Metalwork] that was up when we closed has since been deinstalled and it was deinstalled because most of it didn’t belong to us. It belonged to lenders who had already been very generous in how long they had lent it to us. And so it needed to come down for those pieces to go back to the lenders. If the exhibition was still up, the gallery would be open.
AB: Oh okay.
ES: Because the gallery is empty right now, it’s closed.
AB: Okay. Well, in that case, as you think about the future, are there particular pieces in the collection—maybe recent acquisitions—that you’re hoping to put in the gallery to highlight and to share with the public?
ES: I have big plans.
AB: You have big plans?
ES: Let’s hope I can make them happen
AB: I think that's a good point to end on then. Thank you, Emily. This has been a pleasure.
[End of interview]