In the spring of 2013 while I was making my final decision about college, one professor closed the deal for me. Out of the many classes I sat in on at different schools, hers—at Carolina—was the most interesting and engaging. I introduced myself after class, telling her I wanted to be an art history major.
A glimpse at some of the Scott family portraits under treatment in the conservation lab
Now, three years later, that same professor is my mentor and adviser for my senior honors thesis—but the most special moment I’ve had with her thus far has been during my internship at the NCMA
. As fate would have it, Dr. Tania String
is helping with an exhibition that opens while I’m here, an exhibition she has been working on for five years.
On my first day at the Museum, my supervisor mentioned the upcoming exhibition History and Mystery, telling me that it was focused on British portraits that the NCMA has been researching, along with students and a professor from UNC. Dr. String had told me before I left for vacation that she would probably be around the NCMA some this summer, so I might see her. As my supervisor spoke, it dawned on me who was helping with the exhibition. She also let me know that there was a meeting the next week with Dr. String, conservator Perry Hurt, and curator David Steel—and that she could take me along.
We met down in the conservation lab
, where I stood with my jaw hanging open. Pieces of art surrounding me, out of frames, completely raw. When Dr. String walked in, she gave me a hug and asked if I had seen the portraits yet. She then took me over to one. Only inches away from a priceless work of art, I started giggling. Sometimes when I can’t express something in words, my pure enjoyment just bubbles up. Dr. String smiled and said, “Pretty cool, huh?”
British School, Portrait of a Gentleman Wearing a Breastplate, circa 1585–90, oil on canvas, 46 1/2 x 33 5/8 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James MacLamroc
I was on cloud nine listening to the conservator, the curator, and my professor talk about this project: the results of various conservation techniques, the ever-changing thought process on the subjects of the portraits, the patrons, the artists. I listened while they spoke of the CSI-like process of investigating a painting, locating clues in the technical examinations, the evolving questions to be answered, theories on why the artist had changed certain things from the underdrawing to the finished work. The portraits that will adorn the walls for History and Mystery
haven’t been up since the 1970s, and no one has seen them since they were treated. Some of the twists and turns sounded like a mystery novel. I came out of the meeting more convinced than ever that the Museum is where I belong.
In the two months since that meeting, I’ve been reminded every day of how much I love the NCMA. What's exciting is hearing the passion in people’s voices as they speak about something they care about. The precise details that go into loaning out a piece of art, the mapping of exhibitions to tell a story, the work being done to bring new members in, sections of the community that haven’t been reached before, everyone working for a common goal of bettering the Museum.
Who knew that one professor who convinced me to come to Carolina would then become my mentor and role model, and write me a recommendation for the intern position I currently hold, the position that I think will affect the rest of my life? It seems that History and Mystery, one of the projects that brought Dr. String over from the University in Bristol, is essentially the reason I’m here. I think that, like the walls the portraits rest on, the exhibition will spark interest in art as more than just art, but rather a fundamental part of our existence. An exhibition that has already made waves in my life and certainly in many others.
The free exhibition History and Mystery: Discoveries in the NCMA British Collection is on view in West Building from August 6, 2016, through March 19, 2017.