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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Fall 2003 > Artifacts, Artists, and Curators

Artifacts, Artists, and Curators


ABOVE Huang Yong Ping's dragon boat, inspired by a small carved vessel owned by SPNEA, incorporates over fifty different artifacts from the collection as "cargo" and "oars".
BELOW Ann Hamilton's installation.

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ABOVE An elaborate Indian armchair, made for export, hangs suspended inside Rina Banerjee's Taj Mahal.

BELOW Zo' Leonard photographs a flag for her postcards of American icons.

What happens when a history museum, a museum of contemporary art, and nine artists from different countries collaborate on an exhibition? Two SPNEA staff members comment on their experiences with the exhibition Yankee Remix: Artists Take on New England.

Julie Solz
Collections Manager & Associate
Curator for Preventive Care

Yankee Remix is totally different from anything SPNEA has ever done. For this show, we allowed our collections to be used as the foundation for art - with no constraints other than to ensure that the artifacts would not be altered or harmed in any way. The resulting works are highly personal - the historical objects have been subsumed into the artists' statements about culture and memory.

Both Huang Yong Ping, a Chinese artist living in Paris, and Rina Banerjee, born in India and now a New Yorker, focus on the interaction of Asian and western cultures. I was surprised that Banerjee managed to find so many artifacts related to India in a New England collection. Her installation includes a model of the Taj Mahal, covered in pink plastic wrap to suggest how westerners see Asia through rose-colored lenses. Huang Yong Ping transformed a tiny carved dragon into an enormous dragon boat, laden with traveling trunks and powered by brooms, swords, and walking sticks in place of oars - a literal depiction of the movement of cultures across the ocean.

Boston architect Frano Violich chose to work with an object freighted with history - the Crispus Attucks teapot. This humble item was saved as a martyr's relic, because it had belonged to the first victim of the Boston Massacre. Violich arranged to have the pot scanned in three dimensions and made five plaster replicas of the pot from the scans. The pots form part of a complex installation including video images of the water in Boston harbor and swirling tea leaves - references to another precursor of the Revolution, the Boston Tea Party.

It was SPNEA's Collection Department's responsibility to help the artists find what they were looking for and to work with them to ensure the safety of the artifacts. The installation crew from MASS MoCA was wonderful to work with. Already accustomed to constructing whatever an artist might need, they were equally accommodating to our concerns and devised ways to protect every original object from harm.


ABOVE Martin Kersels stands with visitors examining his humorous interpretation of SPNEA's Beauport as a Union army boot.

Lorna Condon
Director, Library & Archives

The artists' experience of visiting SPNEA's Library and Archives was quite different from their tour of our object storage, where they were able to walk down the aisles and view nearly everything on open shelves. In the Library and Archives, most of the objects are not immediately visible, stored as they are in cabinets and archival boxes. Consequently, when the group came for their visit, I prepared a selection of the collection's highlights to show them. It was wonderful to witness their surprise and delight in the collections. As the artists pored over colorful nineteenth- and twentieth-century ephemera, evocative historic photographs, and beautiful architectural drawings, they expressed wonder in the richness of our holdings.

Later, three of the artists chose to work closely with archival documents. Manfred Pernice used photographs, atlases, and engravings for his installation. Rina Banerjee included photographs of India and quotations from manuscripts in the Codman Family Papers. Indeed, she was very helpful to us because she was able to identify some of the subject matter in a c.1858 photograph album that Ogden Codman, Sr., acquired in India. Ann Hamilton selected cartes de visite portraits, school copy books, and a photograph of a sailing vessel for her work. Spreading the cartes de visite out in rows on the library table, she photographed them with a tiny video camera attached to her finger. Hamilton's finished piece in the exhibition consists of a room with three video projectors that cast images on the walls. Fragments of faces, the image of a vessel, a writing pen-all move slowly around the room. Upon viewing Hamilton's installation, I realized how privileged I had been, when I watched her shooting the images in the Library and Archives, to witness part of her creative process.

Yankee Remix: Artists Take on New England is on view at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams, Massachusetts, through March 2004. For open hours and directions, please call (413) 664-4481 or visit online at

Artifacts, Artists, and Curators