Changed and Unchanged: A Talk with Curator Ruth Barnes at the YUAG

Illustrated by Emily Cao

Ruth Barnes is the Thomas Jaffe Curator of Indo-Pacific Art at the Yale University Art Gallery. She is an art historian in the field of South and Southeast Asian textiles. She received her doctorate from Oxford University and previously served as textile curator at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. In this interview, Dr. Barnes discusses challenges the gallery has faced during the pandemic, the gallery’s role as an integral part of Yale education, and her current work at the gallery.

 Jiayi Liao: The YUAG closed and reopened several times during the pandemic. Most recently, the gallery reopened on May 14 this year. How has the pandemic influenced the YUAG and its interaction with the Yale and New Haven community?

 Ruth Barnes: We had some exhibitions up during the pandemic, but they were not always open to the general public. In accordance with the University’s protocols, the gallery was completely closed sometimes. When there was limited access, again, we made some of the exhibitions available. It was really very sad for those curators who had been involved with all the preparation. There is so much work that goes into an exhibition that it’s very sad when the full event can’t really be appreciated. At this moment, the gallery is open to Yale students and faculty from Tuesday to Friday and to the general public on the weekend. It is open in a very limited way now, but there has been much more response from the general public.

 JL: Yes, access to the gallery is certainly limited compared to before. I’ve heard that Gallery Guides are holding “Double Take” E-Highlight Tours instead of in-person tours. However, I also learned that a new exhibition just opened on September 10: “On the Basis of Art: 150 Years of Women at Yale.” Isn’t that exciting?

 RB: Absolutely. Do you know that the YUAG, founded in 1832, is America’s oldest university art museum? Moreover, the Yale School of Fine Arts is not only the first art school on an American college campus but also Yale’s first coeducational school. It welcomed women to attend Yale when it opened in 1869. The exhibition celebrates its 150th anniversary as well as the 50th anniversary of coeducation at Yale College.

 JL: Besides this new exhibition, I’ve heard some art history classes are holding discussion sections and gallery talks in the YUAG. How is that going?

RB: That has always been a special part of the art gallery. The gallery is so much a part of teaching at Yale. It’s not just an art gallery. We actually teach with the collection. For example, Edward Cooke’s class on materials this semester (“Introduction to the History of Art: Global Decorative Arts”) is a wonderful class that meets in the gallery every week. In the past two weeks, he’s been talking about textiles, including making the materials and how to decorate them. Students get to have sessions in the gallery. We have a teaching room, and we bring in ten to twenty items that students can look at. 

JL: I know textiles are part of your specialization. Can you tell me more about your work?

RB: My initial research mainly focused on Eastern Indonesia, but I’ve travelled through most of Indonesia. This part of the gallery is for the arts of Indonesia, in particular ethnographic art and superb, superb textiles. These are from Sumatra. Weaving is actually my particular interest. I’m currently working on some textiles at West Campus, which is for our storage and collections study. I did my research in Eastern Indonesia in a place where the major art form is the making of textiles. And that’s women’s work. It’s always women who make textiles in Indonesia. See, this is actually my loom on which I learned how to weave.

JL: Wow, that’s amazing! Did you learn it as part of your research?

RB: Yes, I did. I think when you want to study something, whether it’s pots, woodwork, metalwork, or weaving, you really need to, and should, know how to do it, because that in itself teaches you so much. By learning how to do it, you understand how something is made. You also understand certain approaches to the technique and solutions that people have found. This very complex pattern here is called “Ikat.” What you do is you take your thread, but before you weave it, you tie the pattern into the warp thread. To create the fabric, you go up and down with the weft thread. You then dye it with a root (the red dye) and indigo (the blue dye). You see all these knots? You open all these knots after the dye.

JL: Wow, how do you dye these detailed patterns so precisely?

RB: That’s the art! Actually, it’s applied mathematics, because you need to know how to count. I had a very funny experience. Once I was walking through the village where I worked. I had with me a good friend of mine, who was a wonderful weaver. I saw hanging on the clothesline a textile that had a pattern that I’d never seen before. I stopped to take photographs and make a sketch of it. But she got very impatient with me, and she finally said, “Let’s go. I can’t stand looking at this terrible textile anymore! This woman doesn’t know how to count!” You need to think ahead of time about how to make all of this and how to bring it all together. For that, counting is very important. Adding up and multiplying—it’s really a wonderful way of practicing applied mathematics.

The YUAG has gone through various changes in the face of the pandemic, including limited accessibility. However, certain things remain unchanged. Over 150 years ago, the gallery accommodated Yale’s first coeducational school; today, it actively engages in teaching and sparking conversations with its collections. As new exhibitions continue to emerge and faculty and staff like Dr. Ruth Barnes continue their passions for research, curation, and education, the YUAG remains a crucial destination on campus.

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