Working for the Decorative Arts Trust regularly puts us in contact with talented museum professionals around the globe, which we consider it a splendid fringe benefit of the job. When the opportunity came up for me to meet with Emilio Ruiz Pérez, a young museum curator from Cuba, it was both an exciting and significant moment. Since political relations between the U.S. and Cuba deteriorated in 1959, most contact between the two cultures ceased. Until quite recently, I had never considered travel to Cuba, or the ability to meet with someone who was not a refugee (or descended from one), as a possibility.
Emilio’s journey to the United States was, largely, an unexpected journey. In fact, it was something of a surprise to everyone involved. Emilio’s sponsor, Ulysses Grant Dietz of the Newark Museum, was seeking to hire an graduate intern for this summer, until a call from appraiser and decorative arts historian Louise Devenish shook up his plans. Recently back from a trip to Cuba when she met Emilio and thought him a perfect candidate for the opportunity to come research and work in the United States. After jumping through several state department hoops, Ulysses gained a summer research fellow. Emilio’s main task is to help plan the installation of a permanent American silver gallery in the Newark Museum, but in the process is getting the chance to explore museum holdings, learn about the decorative arts, and see as many museums on the mid-Atlantic seaboard as possible.
I met Emilio and Ulysses at the Newark Museum, which was also my first visit to that venerable institution. Over lunch I learned more about Emilio’s background. Cuban museums are run by the state, and staff training begins during students’ university years, ultimately achieving a five year licensing degree for museum work. Museum studies as an academic field is nearly nonexistent within the Cuban educational system, and Emilio fell into his job by chance. As part of his degree requirements in art history, he took on a practical project on East Asian decorative arts, particularly focusing on ivory. He worked with the collection of the Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas in Havana, the museum dedicated to decorative arts made outside of Cuba, housed in a 1920s mansion decorated by Maison Jansen. After his graduation, Emilio’s practical experience with the collection netted him a job at the museum. At 27, he is not only one of the youngest museum curators in the country but has purview over a diverse collection that includes 6,000 pieces of European porcelain, 4,000 pieces of Asian ceramics, as well as furniture, silver, textiles, and artworks. As a summer research fellow at the Newark Museum, Emilio is the first Cuban curator to spend an extended period of time in the United States since 1959.
Of all that Emilio has learned and experienced, it’s the collections and education aspect of American museums that has had the biggest impact so far. By and large, Cuban museums maintain an institutional slant towards anthropology, which sometimes poses a challenge for a curator’s connoisseurial ability. Indeed, Emilio and his colleagues have found themselves hampered by a lack of bibliography and research sources for their international collection. Their primary resource is a collector’s library from the 1920s, formed when the house that is now the museum was built.
Many more resources in American museums are also dedicated to education programs, an aspect that Emilio particularly appreciates. Right now, his museum relies entirely on static displays to engage visitors. He feels that educational programs based on museum collections, like he has experienced at the Newark Museum and other institutions, would be a wonderful addition to public engagement in Cuba. By introducing such services, Emilio hopes to reach out to the general public and particularly to younger visitors to engage them with both local and international history.
Both Ulysses and Emilio have enjoyed this summer immensely, and it was a pleasure to speak with them of the experience’s impact. We hope to hear more from Emilio as his career in Cuba progresses, and look forward to seeing what he accomplishes!