Honors summer research leads student East — and into the College archives

June 29, 2017 | Janika Carey
Jessie Meager '18 and her Honors Summer Research faculty sponsor, Prof. Kimberly Morse-Jones, inspect a Japonisme artifact in Sweet Briar College's museum collection.

Jessie Meager ’18 and her Honors Summer Research faculty sponsor, Prof. Kimberly Morse-Jones, inspect a Japonisme artifact in Sweet Briar College’s museum collection.

Normally, Jessie Meager ’18 does most of her research in the library, or right in her dorm room. A fellow in the Honors Summer Research Program, she is studying Japanese artifacts collected in the late 19th century by the College’s founder, Indiana Fletcher Williams.

But occasionally, the archaeology and art history double major gets to study her topic hands-on at the Sweet Briar Museum. On a recent afternoon, Meager showed some of her favorite pieces to her faculty sponsor, Kimberly Morse-Jones, associate professor of art history. Among them: a red-and-gold box containing six smaller boxes and a mysterious bowl, both of unknown purpose. Together, they inspected every crack and ornament, noting discolorations and other signs of age or use.

“I have a list of the artifacts that we have, which I have to keep in mind: I’m not only studying the broad art historical movement, I’m also trying to see how much we know about our specific artifacts,” Meager explains.

A set of red and gold boxes is among the items Sweet Briar Honors senior Jessie Meager studied with meticulous care.

A set of red and gold boxes is among the items Sweet Briar College Honors senior Jessie Meager studied with meticulous care.

“This archaeological side is more complicated, because we don’t have much in the way of records. So, I’m reading as much as I can and taking copious amounts of notes.”

Getting a close, firsthand look at one’s research objects is crucial, says galleries and museum director Karol Lawson.

“Don’t trust anyone but yourself,” she reminded Meager while carefully placing one of the items back behind glass. “Always go back to the most primary of primary sources.” Inventory lists can contain mistakes, she added, and it’s possible someone else missed something important.

It’s a good thing Meager has eight weeks this summer to focus on nothing else.

“I love working in the Honors Summer Research Program because I can just sit down and extensively research one topic that I’m interested in,” she says. “I also set my own schedule, so I can wake up when I want to and work when I’m most focused.”

During the academic year, however, Meager embraces the opportunity to delve into various subjects. It’s another perk offered by the Honors Program.

“I took an honors class on the history of marriage, of all things; I’ve taken one on the role of biology in fiction, despite knowing very little about science/biology; and just this past semester, I took one on the art of comic books, when the only exposure to the world of comics I’ve ever had is through Japanese manga. The Honors Program always has a selection of interesting classes!”

Meager’s intellectual curiosity led her to declare a minor in medieval and Renaissance studies. It also lured her to the museum, where she came up with the idea for her project.

A detail of a Japanese decorative art box shows a style that became popular among wealthy 19th-century Americans.

A detail of a Japanese decorative art box shows a style that became popular among wealthy 19th-century Americans.

“I had been thinking of doing summer honors research, but didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she says.

“The Japonisme artifacts stood out to me immediately. I was fascinated by the story behind these perfectly ordinary artifacts: it’s this story of imperialism and East versus West, and these radical changes in art at the time. And also, at its heart, is this more personal story of a lonely woman whose daughter died young. These Japonisme items were something like a fad, so I was interested in why Indiana Fletcher Williams would keep them after her daughter died, if they only served as a reminder of a happy day at the fair years earlier.”

Most of the items, says Meager, were likely purchased by the Williams family at the 1876 Centennial Exposition or soon after. Meager wants to understand the fad of Japonisme among wealthy American families of the 1870s. The artifacts in Sweet Briar’s collection, she says, will help her connect the local history with that of a wider societal trend.

“Indiana’s artifacts can provide us with a case study of the influence of Japanese decorative arts in 19th-century America,” she says.

But she’s also interested in something else.

“More broadly, I hope to get a better understanding of Japan’s role in how we see art today,” says the Chesterfield native. “Japan was only opened up to trade in the 1850s; I’m looking at objects that were probably bought in the 1870s. So, this period is really a beginning, in which Japan is struggling to become a major player on the world stage, and they used exported art and domestic goods to establish themselves. And the West is immediately obsessed with this novel style of art that is being introduced to the public for the first time; consumers, artists, art dealers, museum curators, fashionable wives — everyone became obsessed with this new Eastern way of looking at art.

“I want to know more about this story.”

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