Arts & culture, Campus & community, Events at Berkeley, Humanities, Visual arts

‘Papyrus in the Crocodile’: 150 years at the museum(s)

Students at UC Berkeley have lots of unique opportunities, but the Mellon Graduate Exhibition Seminar is special. Take a look.

Hearst party in Egypt
The Hearst exploration party visits the Sphinx and the pyramids in this 1899 photo by an unknown photographer. The image is part of a collection at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
The student co-curators assembled at the Bancroft Library Gallery for a preview of their exhibit. Joining them were professors Patricia Berger (on the far left) and Margaretta Lovell (on the far right). (Photo by Julie A. Wolf, UC Berkeley Department of the History of Art photographer.)

The student co-curators assembled at the Bancroft Library Gallery for a preview of their exhibit. Joining them were professors Patricia Berger (far left) and Margaretta Lovell (far right). (Photo by Julie A. Wolf, UC Berkeley Department of the History of Art photographer)

Think of it as Night at the Museum, multiplied.

It was something like that for 13 University of California, Berkeley, students enrolled in an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded, two-semester graduate seminar called “Berkeley Collects!” They’ve been exploring campus repositories that house artworks and objects from around the globe, conducting research and learning the inner workings of the complex worlds of museums, archives and libraries.

While UC Berkeley’s collections didn’t spring to life the way they did in the film trilogy that tapped into a fascination with the mystery of museums and a yearning to touch history, student encounters with photos, maps, paintings, books, drawings and other objects at seven campus museums/repositories were often dramatic.

Mummies to Mozart

“Students gazed upon the painted faces of Egyptian coffins, delighted in the strains of Mozart pulled from a Baroque violin, marveled at the delicate, well-provenanced creatures preserved in specimen jars and pondered the possibilities of unrealized architectural plans,” wrote Patricia Yu, a graduate student in art history and participant in the seminars, in a release about the exhibition.

The exhibition's Americas section will include baskets woven by California Indians. (Photo by Julie Wolf.)

The exhibition’s Americas section will include baskets woven by California Indians. (Photo by Julie Wolf)

The Mellon seminar that produced the exhibit is part of an initiative to help graduate students acquire the intellectual muscle and museum savvy needed to bring long-hidden objects to public and scholarly attention, and to fill critical museum posts.

The study by UC Berkeley students to date has been made possible thanks to a three-year, $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a pilot project to teach graduate students curatorial preparedness and object-based learning.

The campus recently announced a new, $750,000 Mellon Foundation grant to expand on the original grant through continued support of core object-based seminars and semester-long museum internships for graduate students. It also will provide for postdoctoral curatorial spots at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA).

A gallery of their own

“The Papyrus in the Crocodile: 150 Years of Exploration, Excavation, Collection, and Stewardship at Berkeley,” curated by the students and designed and mounted by Gordon Chun Design, will run May 6-July 29 in gallery of the Bancroft Library Gallery, which contributed half of the exhibit’s nearly 200 items. A link to the exhibit website goes live on May 4.

The display, free and open to the public, samples the extensive collections of the Bancroft, the  Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, the Environmental Design Archives, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), with a circa-1900 theme.

A partial list of items that students selected – some never before exhibited publicly – includes:

Patricia J. Yu, one of the student co-curators, discussed natural history materials selected to display. (Photo by Julie Wolf.)

Patricia J. Yu, one of the student co-curators, discussed natural history materials selected to display. (Photo by Julie Wolf)

  • A mummified crocodile from the ancient Egyptian necropolis of the Tebtunis area, found with those stuffed with literary texts and daily records written on papyrus that give a sense of daily life in the 2nd century. These creatures, offerings to the god Sobek, were uncovered along with their invaluable documents during a Phoebe Hearst-underwritten excavation.
  • Natural history paintings and prints of American and Asian wildlife.
  • Hand-printed and hand-bound books from the Arts and Crafts movement that were donated by the late advertising executive, book collector and UC Berkeley regents’ lecturer Norman Strouse, items used today in Bancroft classes on the history of printing.
  • Designs and other circa-1908 plans from the Environmental Design Archive of famed British horticulturalist and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll’s garden for the Manor House in Upton Grey that were used to restore the garden, located in the United Kingdom.
  • Baskets woven by members of California’s Yokut and Pomo tribes.
  • Photos, ritual objects and more collected by Theos Bernard, the so-called White Lama, during his travels to Tibet in search of adventure and spiritual enlightenment in the 1930s.
  • The Codex Fernández Leal, a 16-foot-long, double-sided 16th-century scroll documenting Mesoamerican history and culture.
  • Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) Chinese robes collected by Phoebe Hearst and brought back to California and used as teaching tools at the YWCA and in UC Berkeley’s design department.

    Phoebe Hearst appreciated the beauty of the Chinese robes that she collected by also supported their use for teaching purposes. (Photo by Julie Wolf.)

    Phoebe Hearst appreciated the beauty of the Chinese robes that she collected by also supported their use for teaching purposes. (Photo by Julie Wolf)

The past survives

“Berkeley’s stewardship of these collections has extended their lives beyond the moment of their creation and collection so that they continue to provide research opportunities across disciplines and departments, from classics to anthropology, from art history to zoology, from religious studies to design,” wrote Patricia Yu in a release.

Guiding the students through the seminars have been two professors in UC Berkeley’s History of Art Department. Margaretta Lovell is the Jay D. McEvoy professor of American art and architecture. As a curator and project manager, she has arranged major exhibitions on American and British art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Huntington Library and the National Museum of Western Art Tokyo. Patricia Berger is professor of Chinese art and former curator of Chinese art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Lovell noted that the exhibition assembled from the campus’s rich collection also serves as important recognition of collectors and donors who over the course of more than a century have enriched UC Berkeley’s intellectual life with their gifts of extraordinary objects.

“These objects are past events surviving into the present; as such they provide unique access to and evidence of historical attitudes toward time, nature, sociability and, of course, art,” said Lovell.

Preparing the exhibition

During the fall 2015 semester, the students met with curators at each campus repository, learning the stories of the pioneering collectors, and choosing objects for their exhibition to convey the material richness of the collections and their ongoing value to students, scholars and the public.

Along the way, they also learned the nitty-gritty details of preparing loan agreements and object reproduction rights, how to write exhibit labels and design compelling exhibit groupings, how to organize a reception and a symposium, how to write and design brochures, websites and news releases, and how to juggle intertwined tasks and responsibilities.

Jon Soriano, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the history of art, worked on the Theos Bernard collections in various campus institutions, as well as the drawings, paintings and original costumes in the Joseph Paget-Fredericks (1903-1963) dance collection at the Bancroft, and some East Asian Library collections. He also helped organize loan requests.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Soriano, “especially linking all of Bernard’s Tibetan materials in the Berkeley Art Museum, the Hearst Museum, East Asian library and the Bancroft. It was good practical experience in all the different parts of bringing an exhibition together, and it gave me a sense of Berkeley’s institutional diversity.”

Soriano said that after earning his Ph.D. he hopes to teach in the field of Asian art. Yu is also looking forward to teaching Asian art and material culture; she is also considering careers in museum and academic publishing.

Final presentations

The students will hold a public symposium at the Women’s Faculty Club to present research on objects they came across in UC Berkeley’s collections. The symposium will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 4.

Topics include Grand Tour watercolors of Rome, ancient Greek drinking vessels and sociability, the American Indian Film Project, excavations of ancient Peruvian Nazca ceramics, Beatrix Farrand’s Chinese garden design for Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Gold Rush botanical field notes, the “White Lama” collector Theos Bernard, 19th-century women painter-copyists, Japanese netsuke (miniature sculptures), Buddhist antiquarian rubbings and Native American California basket makers.


The Bancroft Gallery is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m., and is closed on weekends. It is adjacent to the Bancroft Library’s foyer, which is by the east entrance of Doe Anne,  facing the Campanile Esplanade. A campus map is online.