Exploring Japanese prints at the Sloane Art Library

July 25, 2022
Dana Cowen pictured seated on a brick ledge outside of the Sloane Art Library

Dana Cowen, Sheldon Peck Curator for European and American Art before 1950 at the Ackland Art Museum, at Sloane Art Library (photo by Alyssa LaFaro)

Between 1868 and 1912, Japan experienced a slew of social, political and cultural shifts that led to the modernization and Westernization of the country. During this time, called the Meiji period, Japanese artists began making inexpensive, colorful woodblock prints showcasing this rapid industrial overhaul — ships entering harbors, trains rolling through newly erected stations and Western fashions like hoop skirts and top hats. 

The Ackland Art Museum is home to nearly 500 of these prints, gifted by Gene and Susan Roberts, and is set to become one of the leading repositories for this material in the United States. The prints are being showcased as part of a year-long exhibition within the permanent galleries of the Asian art collection called “Pleasures and Possibilities: Five Patrons of the Ackland Art Collection.” It opened on March 11. 

Dana Cowen was tasked with choosing a collection of woodblock prints to display in the show. As the Ackland’s Sheldon Peck Curator for European and American Art before 1950, Cowen wasn’t well-versed in Japanese art — but the prints presented a fascinating topic to explore. To learn more about them and the period in which they were made, she traversed the back halls of the Ackland until she reached a door that led to a manicured courtyard facing a towering wall of glass windows: the Joseph Curtis Sloane Art Library. 

Since the art library is home to more than 100,000 volumes of books, films, documentaries and online resources on art from prehistoric times to the present, Cowen knew she could find what she needed there. UNC’s extensive library system is one of the major factors that drew her to the university in the first place. 

“I really needed to do research. I needed to have resources that weren’t available elsewhere, that were harder to come by,” she says. “I knew that UNC has this fabulous collection with multiple libraries and a lending program with area universities. So just the amount of material that I’d have access to was a huge selling point for me moving here.” 

Thanks to library resources and with help from Megan McClory, a PhD student in the history department, Cowen has curated a four-part installation for the next year. Because prints are light-sensitive, Cowen will change them out every three months. Each rotation has its own theme: the first focuses on transportation, the second the Satsuma Revolution of 1877, the third fashion and identity and the fourth amusements and entertainment. 

When she’s not engaged in special projects, Cowen stays busy curating a wide range of art — paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs and porcelain — for the Peck Collection. She also writes articles on the history and interpretation of various artworks to add to the literature for exhibitions and in journals. 

“The more information you have, the better the final product of your research is,” she says. “It’s so important to understand past scholarship about certain topics or artworks to recognize how your viewpoint might differ from others’, to help frame your own evaluations and to offer fresh perspectives.” 

Story by Alyssa LaFaro. This story originally appeared as part of the Endeavors article “Powered by Libraries,” examining the ways that Carolina’s libraries drive research.   

  • Dana Cowen is the Sheldon Peck Curator for European and American Art before 1950 at the Ackland Art Museum.