Curator, educator, and photohistorian Beth Saunders has joined UMBC as the new curator and head of special collections and the gallery at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery. She will oversee the management, preservation, and exhibition of UMBC’s photography, rare book, and archival collections.
“I’m really looking forward to working with and promoting UMBC’s Special Collections, and hope to increase engagement among students as well as the local Baltimore and wider scholarly communities,” says Saunders.
“One of the things that excites me about Special Collections is that it’s a nerdy collection in the best possible way, bridging the sciences, the humanities, the arts, and other fields of research,” she adds. “We have rare books on the occult and paranormal psychology, a science fiction research collection, and a huge number of comic books. Nerd culture is now mainstream culture, which is an interesting turn. Here at UMBC, we have an archaeology of that history.”
Holdings in Special Collections at UMBC include the fields of photography, the history of the biological sciences, the Baltimore Sun newspaper, science fiction literature and popular culture, alternative presses, UMBC history and records, and Maryland manuscript, photograph, and newspaper collections. Of particular strength, the Photography Collections were established in the early 1970s, propelled by the purchase of over 5,000 photographs by pioneering social documentary photographer Lewis Hine. Since then, the collection grew under the supervision of former curator Tom Beck, who retired in 2017, to encompass some 2 million photographs.
“The photography collections are really a treasure trove,” says Saunders. “I can’t think of another university collection with the depth and breadth of UMBC’s; it is truly remarkable.”
A photohistorian’s eye
Saunders will also bring her scholarly and curatorial training to the direction of the Library Gallery, which presents two to three exhibitions per year drawn from objects in Special Collections as well as shows originated by other institutions.
“In thinking about exhibition programming for the Library Gallery, I want to put our collections front and center,” Saunders says. “I’m interested in ways that we can bring together diverse types of materials from Special Collections — from photographs to science fiction fanzines to fifteenth-century scientific treatises — to tell new stories or to reconsider familiar objects or images in a new light.”
Saunders continues, “As a photohistorian, I’m interested in the intersection of art and technology and in the social function of photographs, both historically and in our present time. I also want to raise the profile of our collections by partnering with contemporary artists and by traveling our shows to other institutions.”
Saunders comes to UMBC from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was assistant curator in the Department of Photographs. While there from 2013 to 2018, she curated the exhibitions Quicksilver Brilliance: Adolf de Meyer Photographs (2017) and Paradise of Exiles: Early Photography in Italy (2017). She co-curated Dream States: Contemporary Photographs and Video (2016), Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play (2016), Grand Illusions: Staged Photography from the Met Collection (2015), and Fatal Attraction: Piotr Uklánski Selects from the Met Collection (2015). She also assisted on major traveling shows including Irving Penn: Centennial (2017) and Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs (2017).
A specialist in the history of photography, Saunders earned a Ph.D. in art history from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2016. She has received numerous awards in support of her research, including the Rome Prize Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, a Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Joan and Stanford Alexander Award from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Her writing on the history of photography has appeared in journals, edited volumes, and catalogs. Most recently, she published an essay on the artist Sarah Charlesworth’s Modern History series in the exhibition catalog for Everything is Connected: Art and Conspiracy (The Met, 2018). Saunders has also taught art history at Baruch College, Rhode Island College, and the Rhode Island School of Design.
The campus community is invited to a reception on November 14, in the Library Gallery, to welcome Beth Saunders and to celebrate the current exhibition in the gallery, Depth of Field: Acquisitions to the Photography Collections, 2008 – 2018. The exhibition will remain on display through December 19. More information on Depth of Field is available on UMBC’s Arts and Culture Calendar.
Featured image: Beth Saunders in UMBC’s archival collections. Photos by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.