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Symposia & Lectures
28 Jan 2017

How We Remember: Death in American Art & Culture

SOLD OUT—On the occasion of the exhibition Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America, thinkers from a variety of disciplines will gather to share perspectives on topics related to the art and culture of death in America. The exhibition, curated by Stacy C. Hollander, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, Chief Curator, and Director of Exhibitions, explores the tradition of preserving the likeness of a loved one as he or she appeared in life, particularly children whose short lives might otherwise be undocumented. Examining the legacy of iconography and symbolism of death in art, Hollander effectively traces the derivation of posthumous portraiture from shadows traced on a wall to the shadow secured by the photographer through postmortem daguerreotypes.

The morning panel will focus on the posthumous image in early America, discussing the cultural precedents for the tradition, as well as the way in which painted portraits and postmortem photographs cheated death to provide a “living” image of a loved one. The afternoon panel offers a broader perspective on the culture of death in the United States—both past and present. From the evolution of funerary customs to contemporary expressions of memory, the panel explores how Americans grieve(d). Together, the symposium asks us to consider the visual and theoretical implications of the shadow and the role of art in remembrance.



10 AM: Registration / Coffee & Pastries

10:30 AM: Welcome Address

10:40 AM–12 PM: Morning Session: The Posthumous Image in Nineteenth-Century America

10:40–11 AM: A Peculiar Intimacy: Death in Early America

Gary M. Laderman, Professor, Emory University

11–11:20 AM: “And If Thou Wilt, Remember”: Posthumous Portraiture in America

Stacy C. Hollander, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, Chief Curator, and Director of Exhibitions, American Folk Art Museum

11:20–11:40 AM: Photography and Memorialization: Images of Death and Dying in the Nineteenth Century

Dr. Stanley B. Burns, Historian and Cofounder of the Burns Archive

11:40 AM–12 PM: Discussion

Moderator: Joanna Ebenstein, Cofounder, Morbid Anatomy Museum

12–1 PM: Lunch

1–2:20 PM: Afternoon Session: Death and Mourning in American Culture

1–1:20 PM: Fashioning Mourning: Dress and Bereavement in Nineteenth-Century America

Jessica Regan, Assistant Curator, the Costume Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art

1:20–1:40 PM: From Mourning Veils to Veiled Mourning

Kate Sweeney, Journalist and Author of American Afterlife

1:40–2 PM: the epitaph project: A Tour

Joyce Burstein, Artist 

2–2:20 PM: Discussion

Moderator: Joanna Ebenstein, Cofounder, Morbid Anatomy Museum

2:30–3 PM: Closing Reception


Stacy C. Hollander is Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, Chief Curator, and Director of Exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum. She was most recently project coordinator for Infinite Variety: Three Hundred Years of Red and White Quilts presented by the American Folk Art Museum at the Park Avenue Armory (2011), and she contributed the introduction to Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum (2010). She has served as curator of numerous exhibitions at the museum, including Kaleidoscope Quilts: The Art of Paula Nadelstern (2009); The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red (2008, with catalog); Asa Ames: Occupation Sculpturing (2008); White on White (and a little gray) (2006); Surface Attraction: Painted Furniture from the Collection (2005); Talking Quilts (2004); Blue (2004); and American Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum (2001, with catalog). Hollander lectures and publishes widely and is a frequent contributor to scholarly magazines in the field. She received her BA from Barnard College, Columbia University, and her MA in American folk art studies from New York University.

Dr. Stanley B. Burns began collecting medical, historical, and memorial photography in 1975, and founded The Burns Archive in 1977. Since then, he’s authored dozens of award-winning photo-history books, and has curated and exhibited at dozens of major museums and galleries worldwide. A New York City ophthalmologist, Dr. Burns’ keen eye for iconic imagery has helped rewrite inaccuracies in medical history and played a large role in the rediscovery of postmortem photography and nineteenth century mourning practices. His contributions to medical and photography history are recognized by his official appointments at several institutions, including the National Arts Club, Bronx Museum of the Arts, the American College of Surgeons, and especially by New York University’s Langone Medical Center where he is Clinical Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry.

When not collecting, Dr. Burns spends his time consulting, lecturing, creating exhibits, and writing books on under-appreciated areas of history and photography. He has authored forty-three photo-historical texts, over one thousand articles and served as editor of several medical journals. His forty-fourth book, Stiffs, Skulls & Skeletons: Medical Photography and Symbolism was released in 2015. Recently, he has been advising productions on the accurate portrayal of the history of medicine. He was the on-set medical, historical, and technical consultant for The Knick (Cinemax), and was also the medical, historical, and technical advisor on the Ridley Scott-produced Mercy Street (PBS).

Gary M. Laderman, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Religious History and Cultures at Emory University, is the author of Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States. He is also the author of two books on death in America: The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death17991883 and Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America. He also has coedited two encyclopedias, the three-volume Religion and American Cultures: An Encyclopedia of Traditions, Diversity, and Popular Expressions (voted best reference by Library Journal in 2003) and the two-volume Science, Religion, Societies: Histories, Cultures, Controversies. Over the last decade, Laderman has been interviewed on topics ranging from death and funerals to horror films and televangelists in a variety of media, including the New York TimesLos Angeles TimesWashington PostUS News and World ReportEbony, NBC Evening News, and Today.

Joanna Ebenstein is a Brooklyn-based artist, curator, writer, and graphic designer. She founded the Morbid Anatomy blog and website, and is cofounder and creative director of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York. Her book The Anatomical Venus was the product of ten years of research, image collection, and photography. She is also coauthor (with Dr. Pat Morris) and featured photographer of Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy; and coeditor (with Colin Dickey) and art director of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology. Ebenstein’s writing and photography have been published and exhibited internationally, and she lectures at institutions around the world. She is interested in investigating in words, images, and immersive spaces the places where spectacle and edification, science and art, and myth and fact overlap.

Jessica Regan is an assistant curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute specializing in eighteenth and nineteenth-century fashion. She earned her MA in art history from University College London and her BA in art history from New York University. Since beginning her career in The Costume Institute as an intern in 2001, she has worked on numerous departmental exhibitions and educational initiatives, most recently cocurating Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire (2014) with Harold Koda.

Kate Sweeney lives in Atlanta where she writes and creates public radio stories. While pursuing her MFA at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, she spent time with obituary writers, funeral directors, and ordinary Americans who found themselves involved with death and memorialization. The result is the popular nonfiction book, American Afterlife, which Paste Magazine called “the perfect story for our time, in the best possible way,” and was endorsed by bestselling author Thomas Lynch as “a reliable witness and well-wrought litany to last things and final details.” Kate’s radio stories appear regularly on Atlanta’s NPR station, WABE 90.1 FM, and she has won four Edward R. Murrow awards as well as a number of Associated Press awards for her work. Her writing has appeared several times in Oxford American, as well as Utne Reader Online, Atlanta Magazine, and New South, among other outlets. She is curator of the popular bimonthly nonfiction reading series, True Story, which Atlanta Magazine voted a Best Literary Event of 2012. She has taught creative writing and English at Emory University, Clayton State University, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Joyce Burstein is an artist based in New York. Her epitaph project, on view in Securing the Shadow, is an interactive sculpture—a blank slate-lined tombstone with available chalk and eraser—that encourages observers to write their own epitaph. The project is permanently installed in cemeteries in California and Ohio, and has had temporary installations at the Socrates Sculpture Park in New York and other venues. The epitaph project challenges the pervasive taboo on confronting death by literally providing a blank slate on which to consider impermanence, selfhood, history, and absurdity with both humor and high seriousness. Through discussion, a slide show, and a portable version of the project (attendees are invited to write their own epitaphs) she’ll explore aspects of permanence and ephemerality, collaboration and conviviality, and participatory art. Joyce Burstein has an MFA in sculpture from the San Francisco Art Institute, and is the recipient of a Pollack-Krasner Foundation grant.


Image credit: The Farwell Children, Deacon Robert Peckham (1785–1877), Fitchburg, Massachusetts, c. 1841, oil on canvas, 53 1/2 x 40 1/2 in.; 62 1/2 x 48 in. (framed), collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.11. Photo © 2000 John Bigelow Taylor. 

10:00 am–3:00 pm

$25 for members, students, and seniors; $30 for non-members

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