Bringing hands-on experience to ancient culture
Cofrin Curator of Asian Art
Harn Museum of Art
To understand history, Jason Steuber believes, you have to feel it—to touch it with your own two hands, if possible, to grasp the link between long ago and now.
Steuber, the Cofrin Curator of Asian Art at the Harn Museum of Art, first had this insight when he was studying in Nanjing, China, as a graduate student. Upon his return to the U.S., he visited an art museum during a graduate-level art history class. There, Steuber handled a bronze vessel from 1600 B.C. He felt a rush as he cradled thousands of years of history, tarnished and green with age. He peered inside the vessel, where he saw a name carved into the metal.
This belonged to someone, he thought. I’m touching something somebody touched 3,500 years ago. What was that person thinking when he or she held this?
From then on, Steuber was hooked. He finished his master’s degree in East Asian languages and cultures, spending as much time as possible volunteering at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., beginning in 1994. By the time he left in 2006 to accept a fellowship at Glasgow University, Scotland, he was the assistant curator at the museum.
In 2008, Steuber came to UF, where he’s responsible for acquiring, promoting and explaining art from China, Japan, Korea, India, and other Asian countries. His arrival couldn’t have been timelier — the Harn recently broke ground on a 25,000-square-foot Asian art wing.
Steuber’s job is to make the exhibits as exciting and relatable to visitors as they are to him.
“We can take something we don’t know and see it in something we do know,” he said. “All of a sudden, you’re transported back.”
He writes descriptions for the artifacts and meticulously arranges each piece of artwork so that visitors must move from one piece to the next — sandstone temple markers lead to weather-sculpted Lingbi stones that lead to hand-painted scrolls — and so on.
In the temporary international loan exhibition, “Fashioning Kimono: Art Deco and Modernism in Japan,” 97 kimono are displayed in a curving DNA helix pattern that Steuber planned out in a scale model so the exhibit would flow smoothly and make reference to the wide range of ages and people whose kimono are on display.
Boys’ kimono with airplanes, soldiers and baseballs are displayed next to men’s kimono. Girls’ kimono and women’s formal kimono from the 1920s and 1930s are also on view, some embroidered with gold and silver thread more than 80 years ago. The exhibition is on view through May 17.
Steuber worked with local donors to also provide some kimono for visitors to touch and try on in the Harn’s Bishop Study Center.
“It’s tangible, it’s relatable,” he said. “It’s a memory.”
- Photo credit: Ray Carson — University Photography