Fifteen years ago, American art historian and archaeologist Katherine Schwab started working with graphite and pastel pencil on paper to create a new way of documenting her studies of the artwork on the Parthenon that were defined by a palpable balance between what had been lost and what was able to be preserved. This tension is apparent in her work as curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Plaster Cast Collection at Fairfield University, where Schwab supervises and works with students on a growing cast collection.

Andrea Valluzzo: What inspired you to become a curator?

Katherine Schwab: As an art history professor specializing in ancient Greek art, the opportunity to bring together class content with full-scale plaster casts became a greatly desired goal. Our plaster cast collection began in the early 1990s thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some of the Met casts remain on long-term renewable loan basis, while most have been given to us. The collection includes gifts from the Acropolis Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, the Slater Museum and from individuals. We now have a collection of 100 plaster casts, with ancient, Medieval and Renaissance examples. Most of the casts are historic, meaning they were made in the late 19th century or early 20th century. In some cases, the casts preserve information on the surface no longer visible in the original sculpture due to the passage of time and the corrosive effects of air pollution.

Valluzzo: Tell us the most interesting or surprising fact about the museum’s plaster collection.

Schwab: We have some examples of casts of Parthenon sculpture without parallel in the U.S. Anyone who is seeking these examples will need to come to our campus. Due to my research focus, the sculptural program of the Parthenon, not only do we have a greater concentration of casts representing Greek sculpture, but importantly we have one of the best plaster cast collections representing Parthenon sculpture in the greater New York City region.

Valluzzo: How has the pandemic impacted plans for future exhibits?

Schwab: The pandemic has not impacted our plans for programs or exhibits. We are currently in the process of transferring data from an older cast catalogue online to a new system. We anticipate making the entire collection readily accessible online through the Fairfield University Art Museum’s website by the fall.

Valluzzo: You’ve had your sketches of the Parthenon exhibited in galleries. What inspired you to sketch this landmark and what is it about the Parthenon that speaks to you?

Schwab: For several years the central focus of my research has been a large component of the Parthenon sculptural program called metopes. These are the square marble panels above the columns on all sides of the building. In my research I have been examining the east and north metopes, which are among the most damaged. I began drawing the compositions in their current state to understand better what I was seeing. This is a long exercise in close observation, to say the least. My work with Parthenon graphite drawings continues during annual research trips to Athens. This year is the exception, due to the pandemic. I’m already looking forward to my return next May.