The Sara Roby Collection
Modern American realism, works of art from late Nantucket collector Sara Roby, returned to the island on loan to the Nantucket historical Association from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. the exhibit was the debut for the NHA’s new Fine Arts Gallery, which opened in June.
by: Brian Bushard
Dan Elias walked into the Winter Antiques Show at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan in January. He ran into a familiar face: Nantucket Historical Association executive director James Russell.
They had known each other for the past 25 years. Elias, the former host of PBS’ nationally-syndicated television program, “Antiques Roadshow,” and former curator at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, was looking for his next job. Russell told him the NHA curator, Michael Harrison, was preparing to leave the Nantucket Whaling Museum. One month later, Elias had a job on Nantucket.
He recently sat down with Nantucket Today in the museum to talk about his move to the island, his transition from television, and a new public exhibit at the museum.
You were the host of “Antiques roadshow” for three years. Are there any parallels between hosting a show where you talk about antiques and curating a museum exhibit? Are there any lessons you can take to a museum from your time in television?
“Telling a story is part of what i’ve been doing for my entire life, and part of what makes me an untraditional curator. ‘Antiques roadshow’ gave me a tremendous appreciation for the audience, because the audience was the source of everything there. they brought the objects to us, and we made a museum around them by providing information about them.
The objects, either in the show or in an exhibit, are, in some cases, the only physical, tangible history we have. the Whaling Museum has stories that are associated with those objects. I became fascinated with how humans can invest meaning in these objects through stories.”
What is your philosophy, as a curator, when designing an exhibition?
“For me, everything begins with the visitor. it begins with a broad range of visitors, people from different backgrounds, and ancestries, and physical and audio and mental capacities. there’s a big range of people out there and we want to approach them where they are and engage them with good information, with accurate and complete information in a way that they are interested and not overwhelmed.
I’ve got to make people feel like they’re almost in the collection and that they’re able to see how beautiful these things are, and that they’re really getting a sense that they’re peeking behind the scenes.
We can’t communicate everything about an object in a label. the best thing to do is communicate something that captures people’s imaginations, and then give them a way to find out more, which is where our website comes in.”
What does that principle look like in action? how can you arrange a room full of objects to tell a story about Nantucket history?
“It’s like any creative job, where you use what you have in your arsenal to make something come alive. it’s like a writer or an actor or a designer. it’s saying, ‘What story can i tell with this stuff?’
The traditional knowledge at a museum is, ‘i have my stuff and i know all about it, and I’m going to put it out so you can see it and you can hear what i think about it.’ but it’s a model that’s failing.
My mission is to show the objects and get people excited about them, to share our excitement and figure out how to share them in ways that people understand.
An area scholar is deeply excited about their area, but getting them to communicate about it can be very difficult. My job as a curator is about connecting meaning to the things in front of you.”
How did you land the job hosting “Antiques roadshow?”
“My wife is the Ceo of skinner Auctioneers & Appraisers in boston. it’s an auction house for decorative arts. she and her specialists had been asked to help when ‘roadshow’ was taking off. there was another guy who was host for three years before me (Chris Jussel).
One of the appraisers working for my wife said, ‘talk to Dan, he’s a good appraiser.’ i didn’t know anything about what came on the show, but i had intelligent ways to talk about art. i went into my interview knowing i had no background in television, and no knowledge of antiques. i knew they weren’t going to hire me.
But i was also a gallery owner and curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art, and i was free to ask them all these questions about the show, and after an hour-and-a-half, she had a big smile on her face and the rest is history.”
“You have led classes in museum curating, and launched your own exhibits on indigenous peoples at the Peabody essex Museum. is there a learning curve in learning about whaling and Nantucket history before starting to prepare your own exhibits with the NhA?”
“Absolutely, there’s a learning curve. For a curator like me, who’s not familiar with Nantucket history, i have to figure that out quickly. this whole spring has been like drinking from a fire hose, and trying to integrate the aesthetics of the objects with the political and financial history of the island. it’s been a huge brain dump of the island into me.
There are going to be people who come here who know much more about Nantucket, and much more about decorative arts than me, but that’s always true for curators. A curator is only one person, and they have one set of experiences. the audience is vast and multi-dimensional.
I’ve been here since February. i don’t know anything about Nantucket. i’m brand new to this. Michael (harrison) has deep area knowledge and we complement each other very well. i have been relying on him for that institutional, historical knowledge.”
What projects are you working on now?
“We’re always working on something new. Now, we’re working on ideas for next summer and the summer after that, on what to put in our new fine-art gallery space.
We love this stuff and there must be a reason why we love it. We need to be able to communicate that reason to other people.”
Brian Bushard is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.