Arts, Arts Features

Beyond Canvases and Frames: A Look Into McMullen’s Faculty-Driven Research

This is the second installment of a two-part series about McMullen. 

Enclosed in an ornate golden frame on the walls of the McMullen Museum is a painting of the Madonna and Child alongside John the Baptist that Stephanie Leone said she and her students found particularly intriguing. 

“We really knew very little about the circumstances of its production,” said Leone, an art history professor and chair of the art, art history, and film department at Boston College. “How did it end up in Boston? What happened between 18th century Verona and 21st century Boston?” 

Beyond just the actual portrait on the canvas, Leone said it was also these questions about the painting’s history that sparked an archival research project she and her research fellow conducted to find information about the 19th century owner of the painting. 

“It really allowed us to get into the mentality of earlier time periods, so that always stands out as a very special research project,” Leone said.

The McMullen Museum of Art has produced more than 75 large-scale loan exhibits since its inception in the 1990s, but it is distinguished from other university museums because of its dedication to the highest standard of scholarship and installation, according to Nancy Netzer, a professor in art, art history, and film department at BC and McMullen director. 

“That’s because we’re focused on temporary exhibitions that reflect research of our faculty, and research that’s done sometimes by our faculty in conjunction with courses that they teach, and with their students,” Netzer said.

Leone said that faculty members interested in starting research with McMullen find that it is an open process, as Netzer quickly sets up meetings to learn about their ideas and types of objects they plan on researching. 

“Because professor Netzer is also a faculty member, she knows a lot of the faculty, so usually [they] go to her with an idea,” Leone said. “And even if she doesn’t know them, if somebody comes to her with an idea, she’s always very receptive.” 

From there, Leone said faculty-driven research at McMullen is just a matter of development, which includes building an appropriate team and planning logistics about establishing an exhibition. 

“It’s a conversation—you usually start it with the director of the museum, and then she brings in other people to help develop it, and then the person who has proposed the idea thinks about other collaborators that they would like to work on the project,” Leone said. 

Leone also said the research team follows up with meetings and brainstorms about themes and sub-themes, as well as how to approach creating a catalogue that would best fit the collection. 

“And then when you get close to opening the exhibition, you start to think about programming, like  ‘What kind of people would you like to bring to campus to talk about the ideas that are in the exhibition?” Leone said. “Or what kind of events might be organized around the themes of the exhibition?’”

While some of McMullen’s research projects have demonstrated a consistent focus on specific time periods, themes, and regions, Netzer said the types of projects change in conjunction with the varied interests of faculty. 

“When we started out, there was a lot of interest in Irish studies because Irish art had not been studied back in the ’90s to a great extent,” Netzer said. “And then more recently, we’ve had faculty member Elizabeth Goizueta, and she has had great interest in Latin America.” 

Netzer said that McMullen has done a number of important research projects on Latin American—and specifically Cuban—artists. The museum plans on continuing this work with another Latin American art exhibition next year, Netzer said.

“There’s just a lot more material available for loan and faculty members who are deeply embedded in the field with good connections to other scholars, both at BC and around the world,” Netzer said. 

McMullen’s 2004 exhibit, Fernand Khnopff: Inner Visions and Landscapes, exemplified a significant faculty-driven research project, according to Netzer.  

“A really good example was a faculty member called Jeffery Howe,” Netzer said. “He’s retired now, but he was the greatest authority on a 19th century Belgian artist called Fernand Khnopff—he had written a book on him, and had long ago done his dissertation on him.” 

Netzer said that while Howe was working with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium, he also wanted McMullen to collaborate on a project about Khnopff. 

“He was writing for the catalog, and he asked if we at the McMullen would be co-organizers of the exhibition,” Netzer said. “So, the exhibition opened in Brussels and came to the McMullen.” 

From Jan. 16 to May 9, 2004, Fernand Khnopff received overwhelmingly positive reviews in the European press and garnered over 163,000 visitors at the Royal Art Museums, according to McMullen’s website. The Khnopff exhibit opened at the McMullen in September of that year. 

“This exhibition provides a fascinating window into late-nineteenth century Belgium, an era in which the country was emerging as a leading international center for art,” the McMullen’s website reads. “Khnopff developed his art in a highly intellectual culture that embraced and defined the major themes of Modernism.” 

Netzer also noted an example of another faculty-driven research in which two BC faculty members collaborated with David’s Collection—a museum in Copenhagen, Denmark. The BC professors studied Islamic art history within the David’s Collection and initiated an international research opportunity for McMullen, Netzer said.  

“It had never been shown in America and hadn’t really hadn’t been researched thoroughly,” Netzer said. “And the David’s Collection, which had a small staff, wanted the scholars at BC, Sheila Blair, and Jonathan Bloom to do research on their collection.” 

Netzer said that after the BC professors published a catalogue for David’s Collection, the musuem offered its collection to McMullen in 2006. 

The exhibit, Cosmophilia: Islamic Art from the David’s Collection, Copenhagen, comprised 123 examples of Islamic art from the David’s Collection, according to McMullen’s database

“The works presented incorporate the full array of Islamic art from its origins to modern times, representing vast spans of time, space, and media,” the website reads. 

The 2022 exhibition Martin Parr: Time and Place was another product of international connections and research, Netzer said. BC professor of studio art Karl Baden was well known at the Martin Parr Foundation’s photography gallery in Bristol, England and helped establish a collaboration between the two museums, according to Netzer. 

“They called us because they wanted to bring at least part of an exhibition that they were putting together for Ireland to the United States,” Netzer said. “And we teamed up with them, and put all of our Irish studies and history of photographer scholars on the team.” 

Netzer said the BC scholars wrote all the exhibit plaques and organized the sections and the narrative of the exhibition, and they expanded the exhibition that the Parr Foundation originally displayed in Ireland.

On display from Jan. 31 to June 5, 2022, Martin Parr: Time and Place was the most comprehensive show of the renowned Irish photographer’s work on display in the United States.

“It turned out to be a wonderful opportunity for faculty research, for bringing together faculty members from different disciples, and for teaching students from across the University,” Netzer said. 

Netzer said that while visitors feel a greater impact—and simply have more fun—by walking into the McMullen’s installations in person, the museum’s virtual walk-through feature is a scholarly tool for attaining information about the museum’s research. She added that anyone can read catalogues, labels, and public programming on McMullen’s extensive database

“The reason that we have this archive is that we want to preserve whatever we can from the exhibitions, and you’ll see that we can preserve more of the exhibition online now, because we have better technology and better tools,” Netzer said. 

During the initial wave of COVID-19, Netzer said that her team moved almost all of its publications to its virtual platforms. Because this transition increased the museum’s audiences both locally and around the world, Netzer said McMullen continues to publish scholarly information and collections online in addition to its in-person exhibits. 

“And we wanted to keep that audience because BC—especially with its broad alumni network—has people who are interested in what we do from far away,” Netzer said. 

Whether online or in-person, Netzer said she thinks it is clear that the goal of McMullen’s faculty research is to generate new knowledge for the public.

“What it’s meant to do is tell people that we’re sharing with them what’s normally more private enterprise of art historical scholarship, and scholarship in general from a lot of disciplines, with the public,” Netzer said. 

Leone said that research is the most important part of art exhibitions. 

“I always tell my students that if you want to find the latest information about a topic about a work of art, that you look to see if there are any exhibitions—and you read the exhibition catalogs if you haven’t been able to go to the exhibition,” Leone said. “So research is absolutely central to the whole purpose of a museum exhibition.”

Netzer said that she and her colleagues are proud of the fact that like its galleries, McMullen makes its research completely free to the public. This has a lot to do with the Jesuit tradition, Netzer said. 

“We couldn’t have this kind of operation without the sense of cooperation and the backing of Boston College, which is a really special place,” Netzer said. “Everybody is committed to the mission and I think that’s a really, really important part of what has allowed us to be successful as we have been over the last three decades.” 

Karyl Clifford contributed to reporting.

Update (4/3/23, 11:58 a.m.): This article has been changed to clarify Leone’s interest in the McMullen Museum  painting of the Madonna and Child alongside John the Baptist. 

April 2, 2023