Robert E. Saarnio, director of historic houses and curator of university collections at The Johns Hopkins University, is one of 30 leading artists and scholars to win a Rome Prize in the American Academy of Rome's 109th annual competition.
Saarnio will be awarded a fellowship, including a stipend and room and board, to spend 11 months in Rome studying stewardship and interpretation techniques used at the city's historic sites in order to inform best practices at similar urban historic sites in the United States.
Structures of historic and architectural significance housing cultural collections pose distinct stewardship challenges, Saarnio said. They must balance the environmental needs of the building itself, the collections, and human occupants, such as staff and visitors. Often the optimal conditions for the furnishings and collections inside the building are at odds with what's best for the building itself, or for visitor comfort, Saarnio said.
His project also includes an assessment of Italian heritage-site professional practice regarding target periods of significance, as exemplified by the distinction between a single date or tightly focused period that determines the furnishings plan and tour content, versus a multi-decade or multiple-generation approach with differing periods furnished and interpreted.
"North American house museums have been working very actively in recent years to identify principles and adopt guidelines that can serve as a basis for such fundamental interpretive decision-making," Saarnio said. "Rome in particular will present an opportunity to examine heritage sites as diverse as the Villa Pamphilj and the Palazzo Nuovo, to undertake a comparative analysis of the Italian site-museum interpretive experience."
Saarnio will also study how officials are putting more pressure on historic sites to maximize attendance as a sole metric of success and thereby boost local economies in an era of increasing reliance on cultural tourism. "Issues of legitimate carrying capacity and physical impact on historic fabric and collections are often subsumed, as boards and ownership organizations equate raw growth in visitor numbers with fiscal health, and as tourism officials celebrate ticket counts in a turnstile economy," Saarnio said. "I propose to examine Italian heritage-site practice in these realms, with a particular focus on management of optimal carrying capacity and visitor access-loading in historic interiors. Sites such as S. Maria Della Pace, the Pantheon, and the Colosseo may serve as Roman exemplars for comparative study."
Saarnio, a curator, architectural historian and specialist in historic preservation, has been director of historic houses at Johns Hopkins since 2002, responsible for Evergreen and Homewood House, two landmark historic houses owned by the university and open to the public as museums and centers for art and history in Baltimore.
He came to Johns Hopkins from Cranbrook Educational Community in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where he was curator and collections manager for the community's cultural properties. Previously, he was curator of architecture at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Saarnio is a 1992 graduate of Harvard University with a concentration in the history of architecture. He earned a master's degree in historic preservation in 1994 from the University of Pennsylvania.
Saarnio will maintain an affiliation with Johns Hopkins as a research associate during his fellowship.
The Rome Prize is awarded annually to 15 emerging artists and 15 scholars through an open competition judged by leading artists and scholars in different fields. Established in 1894 and chartered by Congress in 1905, the American Academy in Rome is a center that sustains independent artistic pursuits and humanistic studies. It is situated on the Janiculum, Rome's highest hill. Information is available at www.aarome.org/press/2005pr.htm. To speak with Saarnio, contact Amy Cowles at 443-287-9960 or email@example.com.
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