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Objects of interest

Art museum is lab for learning

A motivation for innovation
JONATHAN COHEN
Hannah Hempstead, left, experienced hands-on learning by curating an exhibit with the help of Art Museum Director Diane Butler, right.

Walking through an antiques store this summer, Hannah Hempstead’s eyes stopped at an image of a medieval nobleman. A few months earlier she wouldn’t have cared; it wasn’t inherently beautiful or rare. Yet, she took it home. It was a rubbing of an English brass plaque, a reminder of the exhibit called Marking the Past that she is curating as an undergraduate intern at the University Art Museum.

Hempstead is a third-year art history major and a second-generation Anglophile. The antiques store find was a gift for her dad, who took her to England and fueled her passion for the country and the Victorian age. “I’ve been to England a few times, and I just love it. It feels like my second home,” she says.

Hempstead was taking a class called Inventing the Middle Ages, with Associate Professor of Art History Barbara Abou-El-Haj, in spring 2013 when University Art Museum Director Diane Butler brought in photos of a collection of prints owned by Grant and Mary Webster. Grant, a former Binghamton University English professor, and Mary have nearly 20 rubbings of original brass gravestone plaques they created in England in the 1970s. And they were willing to lend their respective collections to the museum for study by an interested student.

Hempstead was that student, and over the summer she began her internship with the museum.

“In the past, university museums tended to focus on having high-quality permanent collections that were a showpiece for campus,” Butler explains. “Museums were intended to be beautiful esthetically and a transformative experience for visitors to campus. Today, we want to expand the mission of the museum, make it more like a laboratory, to give students the opportunity to investigate questions through their interest in an object.”

Hempstead is not looking at the rubbings as original works of art. Rather, she is studying each individually to find its source and understand its iconography, and the collection as a whole to learn more about the context in which rubbings were made in 19th- and 20th-century England.

At the time of the Websters’ visit to England, rubbing was a fad. “England loves its history. The brasses and the rubbings are about a love for the medieval.” Which is also why the Monumental Brass Society now preserves and catalogs most of the original brasses. “The ones we have on display, you can’t make a rubbing of anymore,” Hempstead says.

“Creating one of these rubbings was a process — laying down the paper, rubbing a crayon on there, making your own impression — and it has damaged the metal and worn out the brasses,” Hempstead explains. “I want to provoke people to think about how we connect with our past. You were leaving your mark there, but you were also bringing it forward with your reprint.”

At first glance the rubbings look similar. But Hempstead started to notice different styles of dress and differences in the style of engraving. “The clothing matters,” she says. “The early chainmail with the long coat, then later more armor and more elaborate armor; the different ecclesiastical clothing — you had to get it right. People ordered these like a gravestone and had pretty detailed explanations about what they wanted. When you’re not connected to the period, you don’t think about it. But these are death memorials. This is how people wanted to be remembered.”

Her favorite subjects are the Peytons — Thomas and his two wives, both named Margaret. “It comes across so awkward at first, because both of his wives are right next to him,” she says. His first wife, Margaret Bernard Peyton, died after giving birth to their fourth child. He later married Margaret Francis Peyton.

“I sit there and look at them and wonder which one was his favorite, his first wife or his second. You look at them and he is just standing there torn between the two.

“Don’t think badly of Tom, he just likes his Margarets.”

– By Ashley Fazio