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A Mystery Solved at The AGO

About a year ago, while I was considering my academic and professional options, I started to think seriously about applying to U of T’s museum studies master’s program.  So while I was trying to figure things out, I decided to volunteer at the Bata Shoe Museum as a docent and front desk attendant.  Bata is located at a neat intersection where Toronto’s two major museum’s,  The Royal Ontario Museum (or the R.O.M) and the  Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), are located and  its just a block east from Robart’s Library, home of  UofT’s  Faculty of Information Studies and their museum studies program. I tend to pass by all four institutions on my way to Bata, and despite my interest in museum studies, I rarely give them much thought.  That is until I read a recent Eye Weekly  article about an amazing discovery at the AGO by a UofT museum studies student and AGO intern, Vanessa Fleet.

I was actually riding the subway home from Bata when when I read the piece.  It turns out that the AGO had, in 2005, acquired a collection 1,702 photos whose author the museum’s assistant curator, Sophie Hackett, and her colleagues had been unable to figure out. Hackett, however, was able to date them to late 19th and early 20th century France. Fleet, who had studied the work of French photographer Eugene Atget and speaks fluent French, noticed on the back of one of the photographs was a handwritten inscription that read ” Auberive- l’Avenue de l’Abbatiale -ou je suis né, le 16 mars 1839.” (Auberive- L’Abbatiale Avenue- where I was born on March 16th, 1839). This was significant because not only did it provide a location, but the note was a first person inscription. So wasting no time, Fleet contacted the French parish responsible for the birth records of Auberive, and she discovered that on march 17th 1839  a single entry was made, and it announced the birth of a baby boy born the day before, and christened  Boulineau, Abel -Marie Nicolas.  After having conducted a quick Google search, Fleet discovered that Boulineau was the name of a popular 19th century painter whose birth date was the exact same as that of the mystery inscriber.  Still,  there was nothing to link the painter to the photograph.  Then at some point  Fleet came across  Boulineau’ s painting, The Washerwomen. She realized that the painting bore a remarkable resemblance to one of the photos in that collection. This painting turned out to be the missing link,  making Boulineau the likely photographer.

As the article points out, this is the type of discovery that can take a whole career to uncover  and remarkably this mystery was solved in the span of a 3 month long internship. By a student.  I’m sure this has some great implication for the study of the history of photography, but imagine being able to, when asked about your summer, answer that you had solved a historic riddle that the best minds at the AGO couldn’t figure out over the course of three months. It would be pretty amazing wouldn’t it?

Anyways, when I read this I nerded out for a good five minutes and thought I should share.



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