Objects of Curiosity

This episode highlights Objects of Curiosity: What Will We Discover?, featuring Lisa Anderson-Zhu, Associate Curator of Ancient Mediterranean Art. We’ll also learn more about our viral sensation Fat Sparrow Netsuke with Angie Elliot, Terry Drayman-Weisser Head of Object Conservation.

Episode Segments

Overview of Objects of Curiosity: What Will We Discover?
Interview with Lisa Anderson-Zhu, Associate Curator of Ancient Mediterranean Art
Highlighting the Fat Sparrow Netsuke with Angie Elliott, Terry Drayman-Weisser Head of Object Conservation

[00:00:06] Karena Ingram, host: Welcome to Free Admissions, the Walters Art Museum podcast where we bring art and people of every background together to inspire creativity, curiosity, and connection. I’m your host, Karena Ingram, and in this episode, we’ll satisfy all of our curiosities and dig into our evolving exhibition, Objects of Curiosity, What Will We Discover?, with Lisa Anderson-Zhu, our Associate Curator of Ancient Mediterranean Art. Then a little birdie-turned-viral sensation enters the nest. We’ll chat with Angie Elliott, Head of Objects Conservation, about the Netsuke of a Stylized Fukurasuzume, or the beloved “fat sparrow.” No tickets needed—Free Admissions starts now.

Museums all around the world collect and care for objects large and small, famous and infamous, and even some works that are complete mysteries. Typically, these objects are presented to the public through exhibitions after years of research and scientific analysis have been completed, providing visitors with conclusions on the objects that may seem definitive.

Now, a recent installation in Hackerman House at 1 West Mount Vernon Place presents a selection of objects from the Walters that are still undergoing research, meaning that the Walters staff has unanswered questions about these objects, and they want to learn more. Objects of Curiosity, What Will We Discover? features many works which have never been on view before.

Each room in the exhibition focuses on key research questions that curators and conservators ask when beginning to study an object. Is it real? What is this? Why does it look like this? Where does it belong? The first phase of the exhibition, which originally opened in September of 2023, featured 11 objects, including works such as Standing Warrior Holding a Sword, Tabouret with Enthroned Prince and Courtiers, and Mirror with a Female Figured and Engraved Scene.

The installation also features an interactive component in Studio 1 West, where visitors are encouraged to take part in research processes, share their thoughts through art-making activities, and to submit their own curiosities to our team. The second installment of the exhibition, which opened in February 3rd, 2024, features almost 20 additional works and presents answers to the questions posed in the first installment.

And in its final installment this summer of 2024, all of the questions posed will have been answered, with updated labels that explain in detail the discoveries our conservators and curators found. Objects of Curiosity, What Will We Discover? gives the public a behind-the-scenes look into that fascinating process of questioning and discovery.

It allows visitors to put themselves in the role of the curator or conservator, providing them with more thought-provoking and involved interactions with some truly fascinating works from the collection. Ultimately, the exhibition aims to show visitors that work on objects in a museum is an ongoing process, and curators and conservators are consistently updating the stories we tell and refining our overall knowledge base.

I’m so happy to be sitting with the curator of this curious exhibition, Lisa Anderson-Zhu, the Associate Curator of Ancient Mediterranean Art. Lisa, welcome to the podcast.

[00:03:03] Lisa Anderson-Zhu: Thank you for having me.

[00:03:04] Karena Ingram, host: Yeah, of course. Just to open up this conversation, if you could give our listeners a little bit of your background here at the Walters and how long you’ve been here?

[00:03:13] Lisa Anderson-Zhu: Yeah, I’ve been at the Walters since 2017. I started with Christine Sciacca and Ellen Hoobler, so we have a nice little curatorial cohort over the last seven years. And I’ve been expanding my role in ancient Mediterranean art. I’ve done Objects of Curiosity as an installation. Also, the Excursions Through the Collection installation that was in 2019, 2020. And I’ve found some interesting objects to put into my galleries here and there, and otherwise, I spend a lot of time just cataloging objects, reading, researching, and updating the database.

[00:03:46] Karena Ingram, host: That feels like very much the essence and core of Objects of Curiosity, kind of finding these objects, researching and learning more about them. Can you speak a little bit more about what inspired you to showcase this behind-the-scenes process in an exhibition?

[00:04:01] Lisa Anderson-Zhu: Right, I mean, exhibitions really evolve in different ways. So, a curator can come forth with an idea, and there’s many different people who shape what actually happens. So in this case, Objects of Curiosity started with a hole in the calendar. We needed to have a show after Majolica, and during the pandemic, we were all curating from home and thinking about what can we do? What can we do that’s object-based, collection-based?

At the same time, we were also considering our off-site storage and our things that are in storage, because a big part of what we do is we try to activate the collection by bringing out new and interesting things—even if it’s not new to the museum—if it’s new to the audiences.

So, my initial pitch for this was to bring things that were in storage, put them on view—things that we couldn’t technically access for the most part—put them on view, and then do the research during the process of the installation. Because normally when you go to an exhibition, all of the research has been done already, and it’s just sort of a museum telling you, “This is what we already know.”

And it gives this idea that a museum knows everything about its objects, and that that information doesn’t change over time, which is absolutely not true. Otherwise, we wouldn’t, you know, we wouldn’t need to be here to do more research to update what we think about things. So originally, this was called Questions and Answers, where the idea was to bring forth the questions that we had about objects, and then to answer them later.

Which I think is still part of Objects of Curiosity, especially since the rooms are divided by question. Essentially, the questions that we use to approach an object that we don’t know much about: What is this? Is it real? Why does it look like this? And where does it belong? And then the answers come in where we are able to, after a few months on view, where we’ve spent some time doing some research, come back and say, these are the results that we got.

So, that sort of became the core. For a while we were also calling it Works in Progress to sort of show that there’s always a progression. And then we landed on the title of Objects of Curiosity: What Will We Discover? in a meeting with Visitor Experience, and that was just obviously the title at that point. And we moved forward with that, and it feels very good. And then, sort of to talk about the phases of it, because that’s part of the conception,

[00:06:28] Karena Ingram, host: Yeah.

[00:06:29] Lisa Anderson-Zhu: of this, you know. We were still working from home—it’s the pandemic, and in conversation with Conservation and Collections, the idea was like, “This can’t be a big drain on our staff resources.”

And so, the idea was to open up room by room. So, the idea was we would start with one question, and in particular, because we started with “Is it real?” those objects were all meant to be things that didn’t have any mounts that needed to be made. Everything had to be just ready to go immediately. And then the idea was we were going to open room by room and do results room by room. And so, I was happy to move forward with that. But again, in the curatorial world and the museum world, you kind of have to roll with the punches, you have to work well with people and understand their needs.

Then it became clear that we couldn’t do a room-by-room rollout anymore, so essentially, we opened “Is it real?” along with an object that’s a deep dive object, where we ask all of our questions about it—an Islamic warrior from the 12th century, who’s very interesting, never been on view before—as well as our deep dive studio object. We opened those in September 2023, and then everything else was installed in February. And we put in the results for, for the, “Is it real?” questions.

So, we are now in the process of writing our results for, essentially, phase two. We gave ourselves a little more leeway about the timing of when we’re going to install those results. So, we’re currently editing them, and those will go up in the summer? Probably July, early August, and we hope that people who are interested in the objects that they’ve seen since February will be able to come back and learn what we found out about them.

[00:08:17] Karena Ingram, host: So, everybody, stay tuned—follow our socials for updates on when the next phase is open for Objects of Curiosity. It’s interesting to hear this conception because it makes it not only a collaborative process for curators and conservators, but for the audience as well. Kind of encouraging visitors to return, to stay curious, to think these questions often when they go into any museum space.

And this exhibition consists of so many different artworks for our visitors to look at, some of which you mentioned have never been on view before. How did you work together with the curators and the conservators to narrow down the works that would be on view in this exhibition?

[00:08:54] Lisa Anderson-Zhu: When we were originally starting with things that were off site—so that was quite a long list—and sort of thinking through what would be interesting to bring out. What are we curious about?

But then as the topic started to narrow, the kinds of objects that we were using started to narrow. And it was really important to me to work with all of the curators. The only curator who couldn’t participate was Lynley Herbert because rare books and manuscripts can’t be in that kind of bright environment. There’s so many windows there.

So, once we knew what the questions were, I essentially kept going to my colleagues to say, you know, “What objects do you have that would fit in this question?” And especially, it was important for me that they be genuine questions and not something where, “Well, we think we have the answer.”

[00:09:38] Karena Ingram, host: Yeah.

[00:09:39] Lisa Anderson-Zhu: “But, you know, I just need to do a little bit more work and then we’ll know.” But so, it was essentially like that. We weren’t totally concerned about, “Are these beautiful things?” Which was great because in storage, many of them don’t look like much, but I think they all sparkle the way they’re installed.

And then it was just kind of a collaborative process of getting people to write initial labels, working with them in editorial, and especially with our Visitor Experience Team to make it a little bit light and a little bit less didactic. Sort of inviting people in to our process a lot more, as well as having basic descriptions, so that—it’s really important for me—if a visitor is coming here, that they can look at the objects and not be put off, like, “I don’t know what that is, that’s not really for me, I don’t understand your question.”

So, everything has three basic texts in the end. It has something that’s a basic description: “What are you looking at? What do you see here? And what was this used for?” And then another text that describes what are our specific questions about this object that we’re trying to understand. And then when you come back, and when we have our results, it’s, “What did we find out?” And sometimes it’s very definitive, and sometimes it’s like, “Yeah, we, we actually didn’t quite figure this out because some of these puzzles might take decades to unravel or we might never figure it out.”

So, my colleagues have been very helpful in, you know, the constant touch bases, like, “They turned in their results, okay.” “Well now I did a little bit of editing. What do you think of this?” “Okay, now there’s been more editing. What do you think of this?” And then we’ll go to our Exhibition Team, the people who make the labels and the displays, and we have to sort of decide how we want to deploy that in the space so that it’s not overwhelming, that it’s visually interesting, gets the point across, it’s also engaging. There’s so many different levels where we’re trying to hit the right spot and, at least in this case, we’re able to be a little bit experimental, I think.

[00:11:36] Karena Ingram, host: I agree. I think that that is achieved with Objects of Curiosity and the level of care that you all put into it to make it accessible and digestible for visitors is wildly important when we think about access in museums, even down to the interactive components.

Like you mentioned, there is a mirror activity in Studio 1 West. There’s a magnet board that you can actually try to recreate one of the pieces that has a question about it. Can you speak more about that process of collaborating with Visitor Experience or Gallery Experience to make those possible for visitors as well?

[00:12:10] Lisa Anderson-Zhu: Yeah, I mean, the easiest one I think is just sort of the selfie prompt with the Mona Lisa. So, the Walters’ Copy of the Mona Lisa, which is normally installed quite high up above a doorway in the 16th-century gallery, has moved so that you can really get quite close and personal with it,

[00:12:24] Karena Ingram, host: A quick editor’s note to put our security team at ease: While you can get close to this object, you can’t get too close. Please still follow our visitor guidelines, thank you.

[00:12:34] Lisa Anderson-Zhu: but we wanted to have it a little bit of fun with the way it’s installed.

That’s sort of the counter to our deep dive object where we answer all the questions. This is one where we’ve done studies on it and we kind of understand the copy, when it was made, and more about it. So, we sort of explain it in terms of our four questions.

But, thinking about the experience that you have at the Louvre with the original Mona Lisa, which is pretty far away, we painted the backboard a similar color, we kept it framed. It’s not the same frame, but you know, if you go into that space, there’s a spot on the floor—a metal ring that happens to be exactly where you should stand—and you can get a decent selfie with the Mona Lisa, share with your friends, see if you can trick them into thinking that you’ve been to the Louvre.

When the space first opened, I kept hearing visitors go in there to say, “The Mona Lisa’s in the Louvre! What’s, what’s it doing here?” And that was just really delightful. With the other pieces that are more interactive, that had to do with the creativity of our Visitor Experience Department. With Studio 1 West, which has been essentially their space, they chose one of the objects that I had slated for another room to make a more interactive space.

One of the ideas that we were not able to incorporate was to explain better what people do in a museum, because people are interested in museum careers, but I think the feedback that we get is they don’t often understand all of the different people who contribute to an exhibition. It’s not just the curator; curator is a very small part of it. So, in Studio 1 West, people are invited to join the team to try to answer a question that we have about this Etruscan mirror.

It’s made of bronze, though it’s heavily oxidized, so it’s not reflective anymore. There’s a mirrored disc, and there’s a handle in the shape of a woman. We know that the mirrored disc is rotated—it’s not facing the way it would normally have faced in antiquity—but our question was, did these two belong together in antiquity? And so our Visitor Experience Team took the different questions and gave some explanations about, “What is this?” It’s a mirror. “How is it used?” You know, “Where was it from?” A little bit about 4th century BCE Etruria in Italy.

But then they also have two interesting interactives in the studio space. There’s boxes: one where you can find out a little bit more about the mirror, including seeing x-rays of it and other, other similar mirrors. But the materials are very interesting because it gives you a far better sense of how it was used as a mirror.

So at my suggestion, they purchased replica mirrors from Etsy. So, you can actually see how the bronze would have reflected in antiquity. Like it’s exactly how it would have reflected. And then there’s a bronze ingot so that you can sort of hold it and see how heavy something like that would be before it’s shaped.

They also bought two replicas, which are much heavier, but it gives a better sense of how to hold this sort of mirror with a heavy handle, as well as a modern mirror, in case there’s any question about what this is, so that you can sort of manipulate that in your head a little bit and think about it more.

And they’ve also got a magnet board where people can answer the question and say whether they think the mirror and the handle go together. And that’s had a huge response. It’s so interesting. And then my other favorite part of that, again, to talk about, you know, how the team members work together is “Join the Team.”

So there’s, again, so many responses to this, where people sit down and you draw a picture of yourself and you talk about what you bring to the team. And so in the top row, there’s, museum staff have done that and explained some of what our jobs are. But the visitor response has been really, really lovely, from kids to adults, all levels of artistic ability, and just seeing people sit in that space and think, share with their families—I’ve seen that a lot as well—has been really inspiring.

The magnet board is also a very fun activity. I’ve seen a lot of people interact with that. So, essentially to explain what that’s for: We have glass pieces from an Egyptian wooden shrine, so it wouldn’t be too tall, some sort of wooden box. Maybe a foot, two feet high on each side. We don’t know the exact dimensions, so that’s why I’m being a little bit vague.

[00:16:48] Karena Ingram, host: Mmm-hmm.

[00:16:49] Lisa Anderson-Zhu: But we have all these glass pieces that we know from, like, just a handful of parallels would have been impressed into this wood. And we’ve got over a hundred glass pieces. I’m very curious to see if we can decide how they would have looked on the wooden panels in the past. Can we make a picture out of what we have?

So Roz in Visitor Experience chose some pieces, and she scaled them up with our Imaging Department and made magnets. And in the magnet board, visitors can come in and take those pieces and see what kind of pictures they can make. So that’s totally fun and is digestible, I think, for visitors to try to, like, “How do you solve this puzzle where you don’t know if you have all the pieces, you don’t know how big the puzzle is supposed to be?”

And so, what I have had to do on my own, because that doesn’t quite solve the problem for me—though I love how it invites visitors in—I had to print everything at scale and cut it out and sort of try to figure out how could these things have fit together. And then I was doing sort of an archaeological, a minimum number of individuals. “If I have this number of legs, how many people should it be here? How many torsos should I have? How many heads should I have?” And came to find out that we really are missing a lot of this, this shrine decoration.

To give a quick result, because I’m really, I’m delighted by this, there’s two crocodile heads that are part of the pieces. So, I thought, okay, this is probably a shrine to a crocodile god. Let me see if I can find some image from Egypt in the same period. This is Greek Egypt, so 4th century to 1st century BCE. You know, can I find something that can help me figure out how I would arrange the pieces that I have?

And I found a temple from the same period, Kom Ombo, dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek, and digitally overlaying those pieces onto this full-size stone temple, I actually was able to create a picture that makes sense. And so that gives us a much clearer idea of what would have been on the shrine. So, we will put up one of the pictures that I was able to make digitally.

[00:19:00] Karena Ingram, host: It’s interesting to think, with the evolution of the exhibition, and kind of taking visitors on the same or similar enough parallel journeys that curators and conservators go on, and then also displaying the results or research or new findings, was there any large discovery or one that kind of resonated most with you of everything that you’ve researched in Objects of Curiosity?

[00:19:25] Lisa Anderson-Zhu: I mean, I have a few favorites. One that I think would be unexpected in our “Where does it belong?” room: We have two very large 19th-century French vases from Sèvres. They’re covered with morning glories, butterflies, dragonflies. They’re just really beautiful in person, and we put them out with the idea of like, “Where did they come from? How did they get here?” Because those used to be in our staff entrance, 5 West Mount Vernon Place, which is the original home of William Walters that was inherited by Henry Walters.

The vases were part of the donation to the city in 1931 when Henry Walters died, along with everything in the house, but they weren’t tracked until the ’70s or ’80s, when they were just given sort of inventory numbers. They were kept in these niches that are near the Director’s office.

When our Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, Earl Martin, started at the Walters in 2022, he pointed to the vases and said, “I think these are actually kind of important. We should figure out what’s going on.” So, they were brought to our lab, they were cleaned, and we decided to put them on view in this installation in order to research how they got here and decide what to do with them.

So, Earl was able to find, after doing provenance research on the objects once they were already on view, an article in the Baltimore Sun from 1885 that very clearly describes them, talking about, “the collection is especially rich in Sèvres porcelain,” and describing these two superb, large vases with white morning glories on a neutral ground that were particularly beautiful specimens. And like, those are so clearly these two vases, so now we know when they came to the collection. We know that they were purchased by William Walters, and we will accession them to become actually part of the collection. So, that was very exciting, actually.

[00:21:17] Karena Ingram, host: Yeah, that’s a fun one. I think that’s probably one of my favorite objects and stories behind this exhibition. So I have just one last question for you. It may be a tough question, but what is your favorite artwork in the Walters collection?

[00:21:33] Lisa Anderson-Zhu: Well, my favorite artwork would be—to cheat a little bit—it’s probably the sarcophagus room. The Roman sarcophagi from the 2nd century to the early 3rd century of our era. Those overlap with interests that I’ve had since grad school. We had seven sarcophagi when I started. I was able to buy back the eighth, which used to be part of the collection, which was found as part of this tomb group and published as part of it, but had been deaccessioned. Well, I figured that out probably 2019, 2020. Then it came back for sale in 2022 and I was able to buy it back. It’s installed in the room now.

And in December, I was able to go to Rome to do some research on funerary landscapes, and the place where the sarcophagi were all found is a hotel. So I stayed at the hotel, and I was thinking about the, sort of, the landscape and the mortuary landscape, and I was asking the hotel owners about the land and the property and the history of it. And so, those have a really special place in my heart, so.

[00:22:36] Karena Ingram, host: That’s incredible. You can see that on view in our Level 2 galleries in Ancient World. Lisa, thank you so much again for talking more about Objects of Curiosity: What Will We Discover?

[00:22:44] Lisa Anderson-Zhu: Thank you.

[00:22:48] Karena Ingram, host: Thanks so much again to Lisa for guiding us through Objects of Curiosity: What Will We Discover?, an installation that’s generously made possible by supporters of the Walters Art Museum. You can see Objects of Curiosity on Level 2 of 1 West Mount Vernon Place.

In March of this year, the Walters Staff, or WAMFAM as I internally call it (It hasn’t taken off yet…), participated in Art Madness. This month-long bracket tournament mimics the March Madness sports fans know and love, but instead of college basketball teams, we let 32 art objects battle it out for the number one spot as the Art Madness Champion.

To continue the fun, we brought Art Madness to social media for the first time with only 16 objects and asked our audience to pick their favorites in a week-long tournament. We expected lively voting and passionate comments, but no one, not even me, as the person running the Walters’ social media accounts, could anticipate how viral our Art Madness Champion announcement would go.

The Netsuke of a Stylized Fukurasuzume, or “fat sparrow,” broke the internet—no pun intended. Fat sparrow quickly became the most liked post on the Walters’ Instagram, exceeding 21,000 likes and increasing average engagement by over 600%. Who knew this small bird packs such a hefty punch?

For those wondering, netsuke, or toggle fasteners, were fashion accessories for kimono-clad wealthy men of the Edo period in Japan. Netsuke functioned as toggles for securing small carrying cases, pillboxes, or tobacco pouches. Often humorously designed and always meticulously carved, netsuke were miniature sculptures that were appreciated then and now for their craftsmanship and playfulness. The decoration of a netsuke is determined by a factor such as the season, the occasion, the symbolism, or perhaps the admiration of sparrows.

Here’s Angie Elliott, our Head of Objects Conservation and fat sparrow’s biggest fan, to share more about why this tiny bird resonated in the hearts of thousands.

[00:24:45] Angie Elliott: Hi, my name is Angie Elliott. I am the Terry Drayman-Weisser Head of Objects Conservation, and I’ve been at the Walters for a total of 11 years now.

I have the great privilege of being able to browse through storage when I’m here at the Walters, and when I would take someone on a tour, I would always open the drawers of netsuke because I really just love the materials, and I love just the animals and the figures that get represented. They’re really fascinating.

But the second that I saw this adorable, squat sparrow that was just so impossibly round, I just couldn’t help myself. I kept going back. Every time I went into storage, I would look at him more. He was just so adorable, I couldn’t stop. I became so obsessed with fat sparrow and his cuteness, I would talk to everyone in the museum about him that I saw.

And he became a bit of a lab mascot for us in the Objects Conservation Lab. Everyone that I saw, I would talk more about him and how cute he was. And I began cutting out pictures of him and putting him over my desk. I realized that others responded to him in the same way, so I thought he would be a great addition to the Art Madness competition. And also because I’m a bird watcher, I really enjoy seeing birds represented in our collection.

With fat sparrow, I really love his roundness. He seems impossibly flat and reminds me of a bird that’s taking a dust bath. If you’ve ever seen a sparrow maybe in the dirt, kind of bopping around and opening its wings and getting really flat, they’re taking on the dirt to kind of help them deal with parasites and also to absorb some of the oil in their feathers. So, they get incredibly low and squat in a way that you don’t usually see a bird. And it’s just cute.

Something about round things like that—round, puffy, cute things—I think we’re all attracted to, and I think that you see that in the comments on Art Madness that you see on Instagram. We’ve received some really adorable comments and things that made me think differently about fat sparrow. I really love that people called him a “round boy,” a “chunky boy,” and I’ll let everyone dive into the internet a little more to understand what that means, what cute bird culture is. But also, people were a little confused about what he was too, and called him a blobfish, maybe an angry flounder.

One of the funniest comments to me was that “I would carry him in my cheek,” which just brings to mind something like a squirrel. You want to take the thing you love, tuck it in your cheek, and preserve it for a while, which really just makes me laugh. So everyone’s had such a positive reaction. I think they also are responding to the same cuteness that I am.

And I know that there are studies that show that humans really prefer kind of round things over angular things, and I think that’s part of it. You see a round, cute baby bird. It’s just hard to resist. And we have many amazing objects in the Walters collection, but there’s something about the cuteness factor that gets me here.

I hope everyone will come out to the fourth floor of the Walters and see fat sparrow in the Across Asia exhibition. And then also while you’re on the fourth floor, if you’re here on a Friday or Saturday, you’ll stop by and see conservators in the Conservation Window, where you can talk about materials and objects with us while we’re working.

[00:27:44] Karena Ingram, host: Thanks so much, Angie. You can see fat sparrow in person in Across Asia: Arts of Asia and the Islamic World on Level 4.

Free access to the Walters Art Museum online and in person is made possible through the combined generosity of individual donors, foundations, corporations, and grants from the City of Baltimore, Maryland State Arts Council, Citizens of Baltimore County, Howard County Government, and Howard County Arts Council. To learn more about engaging with or supporting the Walters, visit thewalters.org/give .

A big thanks to Lisa Anderson-Zhu and Angie Elliott for talking with us today. Free Admissions, the Walters Art Museum podcast, is made possible by Marketing and Communications Director Connie McAllister, Communications Manager Sydney Adamson, Head of Graphic Design Tony Venne, Graphic Designer Rachel Minier, Web Specialist Dylan Kennett, IT Specialist Frank Dickerson, and edited and hosted by me, Karena Ingram.

We hope you enjoyed this episode. If you did, please leave us a review and share this episode with your friends. You can visit thewalters.org for more information and to plan your visit. Again, I’m your host, Karena Ingram. Hope to see you at the museum soon.