Matthew Abess C’08 has a really cool job. He told me so the other day while standing beachside in Miami, only a few blocks from his office in the Wolfsonian-FIU museum.
He also said that the Wolfsonian’s collection is “extraordinarily eclectic.” It contains about 120,000 objects from 1885-1945, all of which belonged to a local businessman, collector and philanthropist named Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. “My own personal take on the collection is that it’s a very curious one,” he added. “There’s anything from an arts-and-crafts bed post to a World’s Fair admission ticket.”
Abess has been working in the museum as a curatorial research assistant since last October, and last month curated his first solo show there: Rewriting the World: Primers and Poetry in the Age of Confusion, on view through June 5. He says the exhibition developed in response to a local poetry festival called “O, Miami,” which “wanted every person in Miami County to encounter a poem sometime in April.”
To join in that celebration of the written word, the museum’s chief curator asked Abess to put together a show that would highlight some of the poetry artifacts and books in the Wolfsonian collection. Early on, he “started to notice some overarching themes,” and before long, he’d assembled an exhibition that “witnesses the attempts of an era to transform the world by the transformation of language itself.”
Rewriting includes a video installation and 17 objects, which range from evangelical alphabet primers and Czech photo-texts to typographic fairytales and National Socialist toothpaste pamphlets. “No effort at revision or writing is neutral, and these works were all part of particular social and political agendas,” Abess says. “The exhibition attempt to trace out the ways these agendas are inscribed in written language.”
“It’s so exciting to go digging through the museum archives,” he says of assembling the show. “This was my first time getting to do that, to really get my hands dirty, and I’m very pleased with the way it came together.”
At Penn, Abess majored in English with a concentration in creative writing. After graduating in 2008, he became a junior fellow at the Kelly Writers house for the ’08-’09 school year, researching the language of holocaust testimony and oral narratives. He also led a course titled “Topography of Testimony,” which culminated in a lunchtime event that was recorded here: