Many museums are reinstalling their ceramics collections in a manner that reflects the high point of innovation in Western ceramics—the 18th century. It was during the early 18th century that Europeans were finally able to produce the strong, thin, white-bodied ceramic known as porcelain, some 1,100 years after the Chinese began making it. Porcelain was so highly valued in the Western world that wealthy collectors displayed their collections not in large breakfronts or atop delicate tea tables, but in entire rooms filled floor-to-ceiling with “white gold,” as porcelain was commonly called.
Gallery five at the Honolulu Academy of Arts is the second gallery to be reinstalled as part of a year-long curatorial project that began with gallery four. The new design of gallery five includes a ceramics cabinet that reflects this curatorial trend of large-scale installations of porcelains and other ceramics. Currently, gallery five displays exquisite examples of 17th-century painting and sculpture. Soon, however, it will be reinstalled with European and American paintings and sculpture from the 18th and 19th centuries and will also include a floor-to-ceiling ceramics display, meant to evoke the great “ceramic rooms” of the 18th century.
I was hired in September as the Curatorial Assistant to Theresa Papanikolas, Curator of European and American Art, and, for my first project, Theresa asked me to research the Academy’s collection of European and American ceramics for the reinstallation. My academic background is 18th- and 19th-century European art, so this is a good fit and something I am enjoying immensely. For the past month, I’ve been scouring the Academy’s holdings of European ceramics to determine a checklist and to create a design for the gallery five ceramics cabinet. I find myself often visiting the Seattle Art Museum’s Guide to the Porcelain Room for inspiration.
At this point in the curatorial process, I have decided to focus on three main styles of ceramics that are well represented in our collection: chinoiserie, Rococo (the cornucopia-shaped vase pictured above is an example of this style), and blue-and-white. Each style will have its own identity in the display, and similar objects from a variety of manufacturers and decades will be shown in close proximity to each other, rather than spread out over several galleries, as has been the trend in the past. Academy visitors will get a sense of not only the range of ceramics available on the European market in the 18th and 19th centuries but gain an appreciation for the purely aesthetic qualities of porcelain and other wares. The end result will be a fresh, exciting display celebrating the Academy’s European ceramics collection. We aim to unveil the finished product in March 2012, so stay tuned for more updates on the reinstallation!