When I first received an email last September from Dr Sadiah Qureshi of the History department at the University of Birmingham, explaining that paintings by George Catlin (1796-1872), were returning to England to be exhibited for the first time since the 1840s, and that a research project with the National Portrait Gallery was available to Birmingham students to assist in this exhibition, I could only think of two things. Firstly, what an amazing opportunity it was, and secondly, I hope I get it! After discovering a bit about Catlin, my excitement for the research project that I was possibly about to embark on grew even more as I discovered what a fascinating artist he was. Born in Pennsylvania, he made a series of paintings in the 1830s that documented the lives of America’s indigenous population. His paintings became known through an ‘Indian Gallery’, which toured America and Europe for a decade.
After successfully applying, a group of twenty Birmingham students travelled down to London to have our first meeting with the George Catlin exhibition team at the National Portrait Gallery. After explaining to the rest of the group not to worry as ‘I grew up in London and know my way around’ I then spent half an hour wandering round the back streets of the gallery trying to find the office where the meeting was being held… One day I will realise that I need to stop relying on my appalling sense of direction. After getting a friend to rescue me, everyone finally gathered in the meeting room where we could observe Catlin’s Native American portraits that were scattered around the table, all the while having a sense of pride that we were actually helping with the exhibition.
As was expected, we had a long day ahead of us. Firstly, we were told how we were going to contribute to the exhibition. The plan was that groups of five were to research a topic surrounding George Catlin and his works. We would then present our findings in videos which would appear on the exhibition website, and later give gallery talks on the exhibition. A buzz of excitement quickly filled the room.
We were then given a tour of the Victorian wing of the gallery where we were told about the many problems that can arise when holding an exhibition. For example, they discussed how long it took to decide what colour they were going to paint the walls, as everybody seemed to disagree which one would complement the paintings most! After a quick break for lunch, we were taken back to the office and given talks by the curators, Dr. Stephanie Pratt and Dr. Joan Carpenter Troccoli, about possible topics that we could research. There was a nervous energy in the room as people started to realize how quickly this decision actually had to be made!
After meeting with the rest of my group, we decided to focus on Catlin’s original exhibitions in Europe in the 1840s – that is, how he exhibited his works, and how the European public reacted to these Native American portraits. The research project consists of both single and joint honours History students, and seeing as I was the only History of Art joint honours student, it gave us more of an incentive to look at the project from an art historical approach, as it was very likely that we would be the only group to do so. This was perfect for me as it meant that I was able to combine both the History and History of Art aspects of my degree very well, by linking in historical social issues with Catlin’s art. Luckily, the gallery was thrilled with our research topic and loved our original idea of looking at Catlin’s work from an art historical perspective.
The rest of the first semester and the Christmas break soon passed and we realized how fast the filming day for the website videos was approaching. After putting together a text, we frantically tried to memorize it before filming day to avoid us reading from the script. On 25th January, filming day arrived, and as we walked into Winterbourne House in Birmingham with light boxes, microphones and recording equipment all set up, I looked at the rest of my group, who suddenly all became very quiet!
During the filming I think it is fair to say that we all surprised ourselves. Everyone remembered their lines and delivered their speeches with confidence, surprising the film crew as to how few takes we took to record the videos! These videos will be accessible through the online exhibition page when the exhibition opens in March.
Even though the experience is not yet over (we still have the gallery talks to prepare for in May!), I am confident that everyone has thoroughly enjoyed meeting new people and that the students in particular have gained a lot from finding out what it is actually like to work on an exhibition. For this, I would like to thank all of the exhibition team at the National Portrait Gallery and Sadiah Qureshi, from the History Department at Birmingham, for putting the project together. I am very grateful that Birmingham and the National Portrait Gallery were able to work together, and I would highly recommend anyone to seize this kind of opportunity!
George Catlin: American Indian Portraits is on at the National Portrait Gallery from 7 March – 23 June 2013 click here for more information.
A conference, American Indian Images: Making and Breaking George Catlin’s legacy will take place on 8 March for more information, see the NPG’s website.