After ten years as the founding director of the John Nicholas Brown Center, Robert Emlen has taken on a new assignment as University Curator. A new position within the Library, the University Curator has responsibility for the historical collections in use on the Brown campus, encompassing everything from tall case clocks and silver tea services to stained glass windows and framed watercolor drawings of Rhode Island landscapes: all the fine and decorative arts that are actually used to furnish the University's buildings. Some, like the stern portraits of Brown worthies, were specifically commissioned as memorials of service to the University. Others, like the tables purchased in 1878 to furnish the then new library in Robinson Hall, pictured below, and recently restored, became part of the historic fabric of the University, providing continuity between the past and the present.
Creation of the position resulted from a survey of campus collections Emlen conducted soon after President Gregorian arrived. He had asked Emlen to prepare an inventory of the historical properties in every building on the campus. It took a team of surveyors almost two years to cover the ground from Ladd Observatory to the Marston boathouse, recording an artifactual history in a catalog now in the University Archives.
For years, Emlen has used the University's historic collections to teach material culture studies in the Department of American Civilization, assigning students to examine anything from the President's chair to the weathervane atop University Hall, as icons and relics of the school's past. The historical artifacts have other uses, helping to form the public image of the University, and give prospective students and visitors a sense of the stability and continuity of life at Brown. They also serve the cause of donor relations by demonstrating to alumni and friends that the University uses and appreciates the objects they donate. The campus is enhanced by the aesthetic value of these collections, which, of course, represent millions of dollars worth of investment and the value of the gifts of its donors over time.
As University Curator, Emlen is charged with protecting, preserving, interpreting, and developing the University's historic collections, even while they are actively being used in 253 buildings across the campus. The first step in accomplishing this will be an updating of the inventory. As in the past, students in his course, "Houses and Household Furnishings in Early America" will continue to choose fine arts, decorative arts or historic interiors for their research projects. At the same time, the Curator is at work identifying buildings which require more appropriate furnishings, and evaluating existing furnishings in need of restoration. Meanwhile, he is kept busy by constant queries about everything from outdoor sculpture to the eighteenth-century silver at Brown Food Services to the reproduction desk he had made for the Nightingale-Brown House.