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Q & A with Seán Hemingway '89, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2003

During Seán Hemingway’s time at Dartmouth College (Class of 1989), he was a Classical Archaeology major and a Hood Museum of Art senior curatorial intern, researching the Greek and Roman collection. He received his Ph.D. in Classical Art and Archaeology from Bryn Mawr College. His archaeological fieldwork has been in eastern Crete, Athens, and Corinth. Among other awards, he was the recipient of the Fellowship for Excellence in the Classics from Bryn Mawr College, the Giles Whiting Foundation Fellowship, the Doreen Canaday Spitzer Fellowship for Classical Archaeology from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and the United States Fulbright Cultural Exchange Fellowship. Most recently, Sean was the Metropolitan Museum visiting curator at the American Academy in Rome earlier this year. His forthcoming book, The Horse and Jockey from Artemision: A Bronze Equestrian Monument of the Hellenistic Period, will be published by the University of California at Berkeley Press in 2004.

Q: What are your memories of Dartmouth and your study of Classics here?

I remember taking a Greek lyric poetry class my freshman spring, wonderful material by the early Greek poets Alcman, Sappho, and Alcaeus. There were only three of us, myself, a bohemian senior, and a visiting professor from the University of Michigan. During breaks, we chatted as the professor smoked his Mersham pipe and the senior rolled cigarettes. It seemed so avant-garde to my freshman eyes. I also attended Dartmouth Classics Foreign Study Programs to Greece and Italy. These trips, led by professors Jeremy Rutter (Greece) and Norman Doenges and Edward Bradley (Italy), were out- standing experiences that introduced me firsthand to the monuments and archaeological sites of the ancient world.

Q: Did working with actual objects during your college years influence your career path into museums?

Yes, the internship at the Hood was certainly one of my most valuable experiences at Dartmouth. My intern project was to update the catalogue information for the Cesnola collection of Roman terracotta oil lamps. Luigi Palma di Cesnola was foremost among a number of collectors and amateur archaeologists before laws prohibited private excavations. He amassed large numbers of antiquities and later went on to become the first director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I did not know at the time that I would work with the Cesnola collection at the Met, which is the single largest collection of Cypriot antiquities outside of Cyprus. As an intern at the Hood, I remember being particularly impressed with my supervisor, Tamara Northern, whose curatorial responsibilities included the tribal arts of Africa, Oceania, and Native American Indians as well as the art of the ancient world. Her weekly tutorials on various aspects of curatorial work were an invaluable education. Certainly working with actual objects at the Hood was a thrill, and it remains one of my favorite aspects of being a curator.

Q: Can you describe a high point from your time working at an archaeological dig? What was your most exciting find?

Without question my most exciting day of excavation was in June of 1990, when I unearthed the remains of a gold and ivory statuette of a standing male figure in a building at the site of the Minoan Palaikastro in eastern Crete. The gold sandals and belt of this figure, now known as the Palaikastro Kouros, glittered in the earth like the day they were made. The upper part of the figure had come to light during excavations of the nearby plateia in 1988. The statuette, now restored, is on display in the local Siteia Museum. The figure is surely a deity and may well represent a Minoan precursor to the youthful Zeus, who was worshipped at the site in the later Greek period. Archaeology, the systematic recording of facts, is slow and painstaking work that yields scientific information more often than spectacular finds. Besides its outstanding artistic value, the well-documented archaeological context of the Palaikastro Kouros distinguishes it from many of the other known Minoan gold and ivory statuettes, some of which are without provenance and likely fakes.

Q: What advice would you give to Dartmouth students today on how best to prepare themselves for a career in museums?

Know thyself. If museum work is truly something that you want to do, I wholeheartedly encourage you to pursue it. It is extremely gratifying. The road to becoming a museum curator, however, is a long one. Nowadays, a Ph.D. in art history or the equivalent is almost a prerequisite. It can be difficult to be a student for so many years and then go into non-profit while you watch your fellow Dartmouth classmates move forward up the economic ladder. You will question yourself many times over the course of your career, so I often encourage people to take a year off before going to graduate school. There are also many positions at museums besides being a curator that do not require as much previous experience and education.

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