April 8, 2004

The Johnson Museum Catacombs

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Entering the “vaults” of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art sounds like entering some ancient cavern filled with secret treasures you’ve only heard about in stories. I picture dark underground chambers filled with objects that have been hidden from the world for generations. After all, the Museum has over 30,000 works of art, many of which will never be on public display, but rather remain sheltered in storage or sold. However, my behind-the-scenes tour of the Johnson Museum with Director Frank Robinson quashed many of these misconceptions and presented many unsuspecting surprises as well. We begin the tour from the top.

The top floor that is. The behind-the-scenes tour of the Johnson is not just in the basement or behind locked doors — it exists throughout the Museum, on floors not open to the general public too. For example, not everyone sees the magnificent top floor lecture room, exclusively for special receptions and events, complete with an amazing view of Cayuga Lake below.

The fifth floor Asian Collection, affectionately known to many as “the floor with the view,” holds some fantastic secrets. Behind a discrete door is an entire collection of Asian art that far surpasses in size the one on display outside. Seven thousand objects, ranging from ancient scrolls to pottery dating back to the oldest continuous civilization in 2500 B.C. China, are housed in a single room of five very sterile floor-to-ceiling moveable shelves whose internal temperatures are carefully regulated by gel controls. What’s even more astounding than the sheer number of artifacts within arms reach is the fact that anyone can actually physically touch them. Students often have exposure through classes, but anyone can call the department and request access. And it’s worth it. The experience of actually holding an object that dates back to the ancient Korean Koryo Dynasty (around 1300 A.D) is unparalleled.

“It’s really important to hold something that’s thousands of years old,” says Director Frank Robinson. “Then you really understand it.”

The fourth floor houses all of the Museum’s 12,000 prints, 5,000 photos, and 2,000 drawings. Official-looking black boxes stacked on ceiling-high shelves are treasure chests filled with such pieces as daguerreotypes and tintypes that predate photos. These are one-of-a-kind works of art; not a single copy exists in the world. Traveling further down, we come to the Education Workshop. Nearly 18,000 school kids, community members, and adult visitors participate in museum programs and tours, a large number taking hands-on courses in this workshop, which resembles an elementary school art classroom, with the exception of the artifact on the walls. Also based out of here is the Omni Program, a project Museum staff are particularly proud of, which lends kits to local schools so kids have the chance to see, learn about, and touch actual art.

“For a lot of kids, it’s the first time they’ve seen anything older than their grandparents!” Robinson jokes.

An adjacent room, darker and less precisely organized than the upper floors, holds the African/Pre-Columbian Collection. Many of these are what Robinson calls “functional objects” like ankle adornments, combs, and even a tribal chief’s stool, and are proof that “useful things can be beautiful,” he says.

On the basement level a fascinating project is in constant progress: digitizing all of the works of art to make them available beyond the museum walls. A $100,000 camera and some impressive-looking digital photo equipment have archived about 19,000 pieces already. Only about 1,500 to go.

We finally reach what may very well be the most random assortment of paintings and sculptures ever assembled. There is no specific categorization method, so contemporary American paintings hang next to 18th-century Italian paintings, and ancient Syrian mosaics are near sculptures by Cornell professors.

It is astounding to realize how much history and culture we have available to us here, both on display and behind closed doors. The history of how Cornell acquired its world-renowned collection and how the Museum came into being is definitely worth knowing. Inspired by the vast libraries and museums of Europe, Andrew Dickson White began Cornell’s collection with Greek and Roman sculpture. It was White’s great hope that Cornell would someday have an art museum of its own on campus, and he continued to acquire pieces for the collection for as long as he was involved with Cornell. A museum would not be realized before White’s death, however.

Finally in 1953 the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art opened in what is now the A.D. White House. It was an instant success, with over 10,000 people visiting in just the first year and the collection rapidly growing. By the 1960s the museum was running out of space. So in 1967 famed architect I.M. Pei designed the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. Pei would consequently go on to design such marvels as the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. Pei is scheduled to return to add an underground addition to the Johnson, since the collection has again outgrown its museum space.

The museum will surely continue to grow too , as it sets out to accomplish a mission A.D. White imagined early in Cornell’s inception: to make available the best of every major culture throughout world history. Deep in the vaults of the Johnson Museum, we have at our fingertips a world’s worth of culture.

Archived article by Laura Borden
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer