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New Material Culture Lab opens in Goldwin Smith

By: Linda B. Glaser,  A&S Communications
Thu, 05/10/2018

On May 2, a ceramics collection hidden away in a Cornell basement for decades got a new home, as the new Material Culture Laboratory in Goldwin Smith Hall had its grand opening. The lab belongs to Astrid Van Oyen, assistant professor of classics, and is the former home of the Temple of Zeus. Now, instead of soup, the space offers tantalizing glimpses of past cultures; instead of event posters, the walls are adorned with exquisite renderings of multi-colored pottery. Shelves display unique, intact ceramics, lit by ceiling lights for better viewing.

“Object-oriented research often gets done abroad, and this lab is a way to bring it to campus,” said Van Oyen in her remarks at the opening celebration. She invited visitors to interact with the potsherds on display, noting that the opportunity to handle, touch and smell the sherds offers a very different experience from how such objects are encountered in museums. 

The lab will be used by Van Oyen to conduct research related to the excavations she directs in Tuscany, Italy (the Marzuolo Archaeological Project); by graduate students working on object-based research; and by classics faculty for hands-on teaching, both in ongoing courses such as Archaeology of the Roman World and in new courses in relation to the Department of Classics’ Active Learning Initiative. 

A drawer full of potsherds

While the Material Culture Lab is a self-standing entity, it will be a close partner to the Landscapes and Objects Lab in McGraw, both operating under the aegis of the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, with collections, equipment, and events in both labs complementary.

“The Material Culture Lab represent a much-needed expansion of the facilities for object-based research and teaching, which tend to require both space and time,” said Van Oyen. “Archaeology’s deep empirical and conceptual engagement with objects gains new resonance in the current material turn – which manifests itself at Cornell, for instance, through the Media Studies initiative.”

Many of the ceramics housed in the Material Cultures Lab were collected from Antioch, Athens, and other areas in the eastern Mediterranean in the beginning of the 20th century by Fred Waagé, founder of the Fine Arts Department (which became the Department of History of Art and Visual Studies). Van Oyen and her student team, led by Jessica Plant, a graduate student in the field of history of art, are working to rehouse the under-utilized collection and make it more accessible for teaching and research.

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