On Her Own Terms: Revealing Esther Van Deman

December 21, 2015
The Esther Boise Van Deman exhibition
Curator Valentina Follo with Andrew W. Mellon Professor-in-Charge Lindsay Harris.
Viewing Van Deman’s collection of objects.
Esther Van Deman exhibition
Esther Van Deman exhibition
Crowd gathers for talk at Esther Van Deman exhibition
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Over the last three years, a collaboration between the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies, or the Centro, and the AAR has given the Centro students an opportunity to use Academy resources to curate their own exhibition. This year, they worked with Academy curator Valentina Follo to tell the story of a pioneering woman - Esther Boise Van Deman.

For three months this fall, these undergraduates in classics carried out original research, both on Van Deman’s extraordinary archaeological collection and on her equally original collection of photographs, both part of the Academy’s special collections. The result was a show that described Van Deman as archaeologist/classicist as well as photographer - and one of the keenest minds of her time.

Born in Ohio and educated at the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, Van Deman first came to Rome in 1901 and was a Fellow of the American School of Classical Studies Rome in 1909. Upon retiring from the University of Michigan, she moved back to the Eternal City in 1930. Van Deman is best known in archaeological circles for her work on Roman masonry; she was one of the first to propose a chronology of masonry styles that even today helps archaeologists date Roman buildings. But her work on walls was only one part of a acute and restless mind that roved from the smallest Roman potsherd, to the construction of modern Rome.

The Centro students helped catalogue Van Deman’s collection of objects, selecting a particularly revealing sample for the exhibition. It included small lamps, pins, and needles, as well as more impressive objects like the sculpted head of a boy, which show Van Deman’s interest beyond the monumental, directed instead at the everyday life of ancient people. Her images, selected from the Academy’s Photographic Archive, likewise look beyond monuments: the fore- and backgrounds are populated with contemporary Romans, the modern city that was being erected around her, and her students and colleagues as they traveled, muffled in heavy skirts, around the ruins. Object and photograph together thus describe a mind as engaged with the present as with the past, with people as well as pots, and as a teacher who would have been thrilled to see what a new generation of students made of her meditations.