The American Academy in Rome is pleased and honored to announce the naming of the Norton–Van Buren Seminar Room, the culmination of the long-held dream to preserve and catalogue the Academy’s Archaeological Collection, and make this important resource more accessible to Fellows, students in the Academy’s summer programs, as well as to other researchers. We are grateful to Helen (Ili) Nagy (1986 Fellow, 2009 Resident), Eric Lindgren, and the Lindgren Foundation for their longstanding dedication to this collection and for their generous support for this project.
The story of this room begins with the archaeological collection itself, which T. Corey Brennan, 1988 Fellow and Andrew W. Mellon Professor-in-Charge, describes as “top rate”: “The quality of objects is genuinely striking, as is the range. For pottery, there is everything from Greek geometric vases of the eighth century BC to Roman common ware of the later Empire.”
“And that is just a start. Architectural terracottas, cinerary urns, votive objects, jewelry, coins, oil lamps, all sorts of sculpture (in terracotta and stone, in relief and in the round), Etruscan mirrors, even samples of the most important ancient marble types—all find representation in the AAR collection.
“Particularly notable is the collection of inscriptions in Greek and (especially) Latin, well over two hundred of them, some quite important for the social history of the Roman Imperial period, and most embedded in the walls of the Academy’s Cortile.”
This rich and eclectic collection was founded by Richard Norton, professor of archaeology (1897–99) and then director (1899–1907) of the American School of Classical Studies in Rome. (ASCSR, later merged into the American Academy in Rome.) Albert W. Van Buren (FASCR, 1906) had a long career with the Academy as librarian (1913–26), associate professor of archaeology (1912–23), professor (1923–46), editor and curator of the AAR Museum (1927–16), and juridicial custodian of the AAR during WWII. He and Gorham Phillips Stevens, Academy director (1912–13 and 1917–32), arranged the fragments for display in the Cortile and organized the collection, creating an inventory that reached no. 8725 in 1946.
In the years after the Second World War, the museum was closed and much of the collection was moved to storage closets and basement cabinets, at some remove from Fellows, students, archaeologists and other researchers. That was until Ili Nagy and a dedicated group of Fellows, Residents, and members of the Academy staff came together to make certain that these collections would again offer scholars—and artists—an invaluable hands-on experience of working with ancient Greek and Italian material culture.
Ili tells us: “I learned of the existence of the Collection in 1985 [as a National Endowment for the Humanities Post-Doctoral Rome Prize Fellow]. I was preparing my shop talk and asked Barbara Bini to produce some slides for my presentation and she pointed out that several of the objects I was working on had close parallels in the collection of the AAR. Thus began my long association with this wonderful resource.
“It was not long before Barbara, Larissa Bonfante, and I formed an editorial trip to organize, photograph and publish the collection. Our hope from the start was to make the collection known and available as a teaching and tool for a wide audience. The inscriptions mounted on the walls of the cortile have long served this purpose. Year after year, students of the Classical Summer School and other programs have had the opportunity to hone their epigraphic skills on the epitaphs of Gaius Attius, or young slave girl, Phryne. But with the exception of the large pieces in the vestibule, the rest of the collection remained mostly out of sight in recent memory.
“By the summer of 1989 we had assembled a team of approximately twenty scholars to work on the various categories of items in the collection. Little did we know that we had taken on a gargantuan task that at times bordered on the Sisyphean.
“Barbara’s untimely death in 1990 left us without a first class photographer. We are fortunate that our colleague, David H. Wright (1992 Resident), generously volunteered to take her place and continues to produce hundreds of quality images (now digital) for us. Jacquelyn C. Clinton (1969 Fellow) joined Larissa and me as copy editor and Katherine A. Geffcken (1955 Fellow) is our most esteemed historical resource. As fortunate, the Academy hired Professor Eric de Sena who helped us expand our vision for the collection as we were drawn into the computer age. With his dedicated work, instead of the paper catalogues, the entire collection is available and searchable on the Academy’s website (visit the database). We intend to publish highlights of the archaeological collection in the Supplements to the Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Wayne Linker, Academy executive vice president, was also a crucial member of our team. He took this project under his wing and began the long and careful search to find the right home for the archaeological collection.”
The Academy found the ideal spot for the Archaeological Collection in 5B, the building immediately adjacent to the McKim, Mead & White Building at via Angelo Masina, 5B. It was perfect not only for housing the collection and providing a computer station for searching the database, but also for providing ample workspace in the form of seminar room that could accommodate the individual researcher or a class, and a small private office. All of this is perfectly located all across a hallway from offices used by the directors of the summer programs.
The goal in designing cabinetry to house the collection was to organize and store the collections according to their individual history and typology of materials, and to do so in a way that would allow for easy access. Smaller items are housed in a run of flat drawer cabinets, and the larger pieces are stored behind a continuous wall where floor to ceiling doors open to reveal entire collections at once. This principal wall is executed in brass, used in modular pieces that recall large stones, treated to evoke older materials and the passage of time. Behind the wall are ordinary metal shelves sufficiently strong and flexible to hold anything from the individual object to the larger crates used by archeologists to hold materials. Three glass display cases set in the wall allow for selected objects to be highlighted on rotation.
All of us at the Academy are grateful to Ili and her entire team for their inspiration to return to the Norton and Van Buren’s vision for a true collection, their determination to expand on this vision by reaching out to new audiences—to creative artists and writers as well as to scholars and collectors—and their commitment to incorporate new technologies for online access to the database.
We acknowledge as well the project team for creating the Norton–Van Buren Seminar Room under the leadership of the Trustee Plant, Planning & Preservation Committee: Studio Einaudi, Architects; Fratelli Sebastiani, General Contractor; Trento Arredamenti: FF&E; and Cristina Puglisi, Academy Assistant Director for Properties.
We thank again the many Fellows, Residents, library readers, and friends who volunteered their time, intelligence, and energy, and the Lindgren Foundation for its generosity.
Norton and Van Buren would, indeed, be happy to see the rebirth of the Archaeological Collection.