Johns Hopkins University students Christie YoungSmith and Gracie Golden helped curate the exhibition In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia.
When we signed up for “Photographs on the Edge,” a Museums and Society practicum course at Johns Hopkins University, we expected an unorthodox experience. The course description marketed the class as an opportunity to work as a curator alongside Smithsonian staff, researching the work of Turkish Armenian photographer Ara Güler to develop an exhibition. It was without a doubt an extraordinary opportunity for an undergraduate.
On the first day of class, we met our professor, Nancy Micklewright, head of scholarly programs and publications at Freer|Sackler. She shared a slideshow of striking black-and-white images to introduce the class to the collection we would be working with throughout the semester. Depicting medieval Seljuk and Armenian monuments throughout Anatolia, Güler’s images capture ruins as they appeared in 1965. Blown away, we wondered aloud how we had gotten the opportunity to curate images by Turkey’s most famous photographer. Professor Micklewright responded that only one student proposal would be presented to a group of museum staff for development into a full-fledged exhibition. “You’re going to have to come up with some really compelling ideas,” was the implication; we would have to think like real curators.
After splitting into three groups, we took several trips to the Freer|Sackler Archives to work hands-on with the collection and generate ideas for exhibition proposals. Conducting historical research and visual analysis and even drawing up floor plans, the groups produced three exceptional proposals. The first focused on Güler’s images of Akdamar Island, the site of an Armenian church built in 922 CE. The second attempted to emulate Güler’s travels throughout Anatolia, moving geographically among the 10th–12th-century Armenian sites found in his photographs.
Ultimately, the proposal we chose to advance centered on the photojournalist himself. Although he is well recognized in the art world, Güler rejects the idea that he is an artist, arguing that his photojournalistic images “capture the truth” while art is “fictitious.” Our exhibition, which opened December 14, examines this ongoing debate between document and art, asking viewers to draw their own opinions about Güler’s historically significant and aesthetically striking images.
As we originally suspected, “Photographs on the Edge” offered a unique class experience. Not many undergraduates are able to say they have guest-curated an exhibition at the Smithsonian. Working with Freer|Sackler staff to develop this concept has been a truly extraordinary and rewarding adventure.
Next up in this blog series, we’ll take a look at Ara Güler and the lost city of Aphrodisias. In Focus: Ara Güler’s Anatolia remains on view in the Sackler through May 4, 2014. Follow the conversation using hashtag #araguler.