CAA News Today
An Interview with Mary Miller, CAA 2017 Convocation Speaker
posted by Christopher Howard — Dec 06, 2016
Mary Miller, Sterling Professor of History of Art at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, will deliver the keynote address during Convocation at the 2017 Annual Conference, to be held at the New York Hilton Midtown in Manhattan. Free and open to the public, Convocation takes place on Wednesday, February 15, 5:30–7:00 PM. The event will include the presentation of the annual Awards for Distinction and be followed by the conference’s Opening Reception.
Miller earned an AB in 1975 at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. Six years later she completed her PhD at Yale, joined the faculty there, and has remained at the school ever since. Miller was recently appointed as senior director of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale. She also served as dean of Yale College from 2008 to 2014 and has taken many other professorial and administrative roles over the years.
Miller is the author of The Murals of Bonampak (1986), The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec (1986), and Maya Art and Architecture (1999). A frequent collaborator, she wrote The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya (1993) with Karl Taube and edited A Pre-Columbian World (2006) with Jeffrey Quilter and The Aztec Calendar Stone (2010) with Khristaan D. Villela. In recent years Miller edited Painting a Map of Sixteenth-Century Mexico City (2012), a study of a rare indigenous map in Yale’s Beinecke Library, with Barbara Mundy and completed The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak (2013) with Claudia Brittenham.
Miller has written essays for both of CAA’s scholarly print publications. In “A Re-examination of the Mesoamerican Chacmool,” published in The Art Bulletin in 1985, Miller proposed Maya sources for “the form, location, variety, and iconography” of the chacmool, the Mesoamerican stone sculptures of reclining male figures associated with war and sacrifice; previous scholarship had assumed they were of Central American origin and introduced to the Maya during the Toltec era. In “Shaped Time,” published in Art Journal in 2009, Miller considered George Kubler’s 1962 landmark study The Shape of Time, “so rich in its textured treatment of the ways that streams of history and art-making intersect.” She drew on her deep knowledge of ancient Mesoamerica to contextualize the book in relation to both Kubler’s research and other postwar scholarship in the field.
In 1988 Miller and Linda Schele accepted CAA’s Alfred H. Barr Award for museum scholarship for The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art (1986). The book, with photographs by Justin Kerr, was the catalogue for a traveling exhibition organized by Schele and Miller for the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
Among Miller’s many accolades are a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2010 she gave the fifty-ninth A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC—one of the highest honors in American art history.
CAA communicated with Miller via email last month. Here’s what she had to say.
How has teaching art history changed over the last twenty years?
Well, that takes us back to 1996, and just about then I volunteered to be the departmental pioneer (or guinea pig, take your pick) for digital images. I had to wrestle with the visual resources department to be allowed to build my own PowerPoints in that first iteration! And before I knew it, the slide cabinets had departed for remote storage. But that is the technical change. There are other changes that come along, especially in terms of what it is students bring to the class, and how the visual image is beginning to be the center for most of them.
What were the most important lessons you learned while serving as a dean?
You don’t want to know most of them! But, seriously, I gave a lot of thought to grading while dean. I also paid attention to learning outcomes, especially the importance of short assignments and detailed feedback early in the term. And I committed to developing opportunities for public speaking for students in class—a critical part of education but rarely intentionally instructed these days.
What does your current research concern?
My current research is focused on the gold disks of the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá. The only serious study of the full set of them was published in 1952, although everyone knows them. Or thinks they know them. They’ve turned out to be even more fascinating than I though they’d be: the material—gold—was entirely new to the Maya of the ninth century, the technique of executing imagery on it entirely new as well. And then the imagery itself quite distinct. All but one of the disks were burned, ripped into pieces, crumpled, stomped upon, and then hurled into the Cenote (and the “one” is distinct only in not having been torn apart). There is meaning embedded in that dramatic ending! But three other projects have been developing along the edges. I keep all the files and notes for one of them—a history of the dealers, collectors, and materials that are critical to the formation of pre-Hispanic art as a field in the United States, 1940 onward—in a folder I call “The Rabbit Hole,” which tells you it is a wild and winding journey.
What was your first CAA Annual Conference experience like?
Oh, gosh. I think I was the driver of a group of Yale graduate students to DC [in 1979] and I am almost certain that George Shackelford was in the car. I’d had the bad fortune to have my wallet relieved of folding bills while I snoozed in the Yale Art and Architecture Library, so I scrounged together $40 to make the trip. I slept in the basement of a house some of my college friends shared near the Washington Cathedral, and then I hiked down Mass Ave to the Hilton—a good distance, I can assure you. I attended a session chaired by Joel Snyder that thrilled me. I watched a grad-school colleague give a presentation on African time, among other talks, and I had a lot of fun.
What are two or three pressing issues that both artists and academics share?
We all share the problem of the Google search: no matter what I am looking for, once I start searching for images, by page three the algorithm is offering me pictures of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. If I am looking for a work of art, then surely I must want Sunflowers!
Seriously, I think the most pressing issue we share is that of conservation and preservation. How can the past—or the present—be preserved for the future?
Can you give us a teaser of what you will discuss at Convocation?
Well, last year I gave a talk at the Clark Art Institute in which I said art history can play a different role in twenty-first-century humanities than it did in twentieth-century humanities. I’ve developed these ideas more fully—and I hope I have some interesting things to say to the community of art historians, and the community of artists!
 See Mary Ellen Miller, “A Re-examination of the Mesoamerican Chacmool,” The Art Bulletin 67, no. 1 (March 1985): 7–17.
 See Mary Miller, “Shaped Time,” Art Journal 68, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 71–77.