Evanston news delivered free to your inbox!
In the Block Museum’s 2019 Caravans of Gold exhibition, a small, iridescent glass fragment from Morocco measuring less than five centimeters long and less than four centimeters wide sat in a display case, surrounded by a matrix of glass fragments. A museumgoer’s gaze might land on only the piece for one or two seconds, but Kristina Bottomley finds it to be her favorite in the exhibition.
“It’s just so unbelievably gorgeous, and I just love seeing it,” says Bottomley, Assistant Director of Collections and Exhibition Management and the Registrar at Northwestern’s Block Museum. She collaborates with donors and galleries around the world to arrange for artwork lending, transport and installation.
Over the last two years, Bottomley has been working on A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence (see accompanying story), which will be on view through July 10, 2022. For this exhibition, Bottomley arranged the shipping and packing and did some of the handling the artworks. Her favorite work is Molly Jae Vaughan’s Lateisha ‘Teish’ Green, 400 Block of Seymour Street, Syracuse, which is part of a series that memorializes transgender and gendered non-conforming individuals who were victims of violence.
At university museums, the relationship goes deeper than at larger museums. Fewer members on staff and smaller exhibitions ensure greater care for each piece. At a Buddhist Art exhibition at the Block five years ago, a figure stood as the first object in view, its back facing the audience, showcasing its emptied insides. The curator had worked with the museum staff to narrate the history of the object, telling museumgoers how the statue’s sacred character had been removed as a result of a demolition.
“A place like a university art museum can really tell that story,” Bottomley says. “Just starting to question how these things were acquired in these countries and when, and by what means they were acquired.”
“Public museums do a great job, but they don’t always get beneath the surface,” says Dan Silverstein, Associate Director of Collections and Exhibition Management. “It was an honor to be entrusted with that cultural heritage.”
Around three decades ago, Bottomley took an “introduction to museology” class and decided to learn more about the behind-the-scenes activity in museums. For an internship, she chose to work with textiles at the school museum artwork storage area at her alma mater, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
The textiles included a costume collection from Marjorie Lawrence, a famed Australian soprano. Bottomley worked her colleagues to ensure the best possible conditions for the pieces. They placed tissue paper between folds to prevent hard creases. They checked for molds constantly. Different pieces required various temperatures and lighting conditions, and Bottomley enjoyed getting to know the pieces and figuring out the physicality and needs of the objects.
“This is what I want to do,” Bottomley recalls thinking. “I don’t want to do anything else.”
An Illinois native, Bottomley moved to Chicago after graduating with a degree in fine arts and started working as a registrar for the Terra Museum of American Art. When it closed in 2004, Bottomley joined the Block – and stayed there.
Seventeen years later, Bottomley still falls in love with art – recently with the tiny piece of glass, an archaeological fragment now on view at the National Museum of African Art.
She is also in awe of Kristine Aono’s interactive art exhibited at the Block in 2017, telling the story of 120,313 incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II. The artist punched 120,313 holes onto the walls, on a backdrop of family letters and testimonies of former internees. Aono placed rusty nails in an American flag shape, and she then invited museum guests to add nails into the wall in memory of the incarcerated.
Bottomley forms a long-term relationship with each piece. Every exhibition initiated by the Block represents the culmination of a lengthy undertaking. Curators started researching for Caravans of Gold 10 years before the exhibition’s start. In the two-year period prior to the opening, with advice from curators, Bottomley and her colleagues contacted various galleries and artists about lending and exhibiting their pieces. The Caravans of Gold exhibition involved reaching out to more than 30 lenders around the world.
The conversations, often back-and-forth emails over several months, can be specific. Even just for a manuscript propped in a glass case that museumgoers view for half a minute, myriad problems must be solved. What pages does the museum want to display? Does the book need a mount? If so, mounts need to be customized based on the weight and thickness of the manuscript. Some books can only be tilted at a specific angle and opened to a delicate degree to ensure conservation.
The connections can be long distance as well. Some curators personally deliver a piece, traveling from overseas. For many pieces, Bottomley files status reports back to the original owner upon the pieces’ arrival and departure.
“For the Caravans of Gold exhibition, Kristina went to Nigeria and Mali to help secure the loans, do the condition reports, and to escort the work,” says Silverstein. “It was an honor to be entrusted with that cultural heritage.”
Recently, controversies have risen in the museum world, the most notable being the Metropolitan Museum of Art selling millions of dollars of artwork that was meant to be displayed in its galleries. Talking about the future, Bottomley says she hopes museums will spend more time incorporating untold stories.
“It’s important for us when we work with countries in Africa that we not only borrow the objects,” Bottomley says. “We’re able to bring the archaeologists who discovered the objects to get their input and to really make sure we include more voices.”