Located in the heart of Philadelphia’s museum district on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Barnes Foundation is a unique collection featuring over 2500 objects that span different mediums and cultures. While there appears to be a focus on Impressionist and Modernist paintings, galleries also include various African sculptures, antiquities from the Mediterranean region and Asia, as well as Native American ceramics, jewelry, and textiles.
This summer, Tess Wei ’17, an honors studio art major with honors minor in anthropology and course minor in art history, interned in the Barnes’ conservation department. Wei is heavily involved with the List Gallery, where she interned last year and will continue to do so this year, as well as the college’s cross country team. A Philadelphia native, Wei remembers her initial impressions of the Barnes.
“I’d gone there when I was little,” said Wei, recalling visits to the Barnes’ previous location in Merion, PA. “Some people are very overwhelmed when they first enter the Barnes—which can be in a good or bad way. I loved it. I loved how unique that type of display was.”
The institution is named after its founder and original owner of the collection Albert C. Barnes, who established it to promote the appreciation of fine art. Objects from the collection are presented in unconventionally symmetrical arrangements called “ensembles,” which reveal specific connections Barnes made between the objects. Working in the conservation department under Barbara Buckley, the head conservator at the Barnes, Wei gained a special appreciation and understanding of these objects within their ensembles, but also outside of the typical visitor experience.
“I really got to interact with the paintings in an intimate way,” explained Wei. “This type of intimacy involved knowing its elements, knowing that if you zoom in really close you can see these tiny brilliant green specs that make up the canvas of a Cézanne, and seeing the process—I got to work with radiographs, or x-rays, so I could see the changes and density of the pigments used or the compositional changes, which was incredible.”
Employed by museums across the world, radiography is a non-destructive way of looking at an object’s internal details. Just as x-rays can pinpoint where a bone on the human body is broken, radiography can trace various fluctuations of material that are indiscernible to the naked eye.
Additionally, Wei spent time compiling the Barnes’ artist files and inputting information into the institution’s database. In the mornings, Wei checked the galleries and dusted some of the furniture, physically handling the objects that would usually be separated by a line. The Barnes also exhibited a mid-career survey of work by artist Nari Ward this summer, which Wei helped install. The internship gave Wei an inside look at the Barnes collection and how the institution functions, perfect for someone who wishes to pursue a career in a museum or gallery settings.
“The internship also introduced me to the idea of figuring out an object’s history based on the backside of the canvas,” said Wei. “One of the things that I’ll always remember is seeing the backside of the painting, because that simply isn’t something you see when it’s on view. Seeing the different stamps, seeing where it’s traveled, what time period it’s traveled, why, whose hands it was exchanged through… it’s a really interesting perspective on paintings.”
Last year, Wei was one of two List Gallery interns, where she gained experience with installations, publications, and the compiling of information on artists that have shown their work at Swarthmore. Wei’s supervisor, Andrea Packard ’85, director of the List Gallery, described the internship as collaborative and comprehensive in its introduction to curatorial practice, and only had positive things to say about working with Wei, who will continue interning there this year.
“Tess has been fantastic and it’s been a pleasure to work with her,” said Packard. “She’s an incredibly strong artist, very versatile, curious, and energetic in her own artistic practice and then also very eager to familiarize herself with the range of contemporary art that’s out there, so it’s been great to have her working in here, sharing our mutual love for art.”
Indeed, Wei mentioned how working at the Barnes also informed her artistic practice.
“I had access to the Barnes collection whenever I wanted,” explained Wei. “I could look at the pieces all the time. I was able to look at artists that really have influenced me and see new artists that will now, going forward, have influenced me. It was very helpful for me to kind of gather more references whether it was in style, technique, or subject matter.”
Working at the Barnes set a standard for Wei’s future workplaces. Wei described the people she worked with as nurturing mentors and she observed genial interactions between different members of the Barnes staff.
“I loved everybody there,” raved Wei. “I now know that a healthy work environment like that is possible in a museum. I never felt like an intern that was just doing busy work, which I think is rare for an internship.”
Internships like Wei’s provide an excellent opportunity for students to explore fields they’re interested in while also gaining actual experience. Given that it was her first time working in a museum-like setting, Wei was pleased that she left her internship with a cemented desire to work in museums or galleries and a stronger understanding of that work.
“It was just a really lovely experience,” said Wei. “Not only in terms of what I learned about the field and about myself, but also knowing what type of work environment I want to be in and knowing that type definitely exists at the Barnes. I really loved it all.”