The Significance of Place

Stone Hill WilliamstownBy Julia Munemo

Williams faculty members Henry Art and Mark Taylor are neighbors on the southern end of a hilly, rocky ridge that holds a special place in the heart of Williamstown. Stone Hill was named by mid-18th century European settlers who cleared the land for farms, and today much of it has reverted to forest, although it also houses the Clark Art Institute, the Buxton School, and a number of private homes.

In the exhibition Sensing Place, at the Clark’s Lunder Center until Oct. 10, Art and Taylor make Stone Hill itself a work of art to be considered and explored. In so doing, they got the help of five other faculty members, including Heather Williams in biology, Jim Shepard in English, and Patricia Leach, formerly of the art department, each of whom interpreted an object for the exhibition.

“In today’s high-speed mobile world, place disappears in screens where reality becomes virtual,” says Taylor, the Cluett Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, who co-curated the exhibition with Art. “Sensing Place creates the opportunity to slow down and rediscover who you are by reflecting on where you are.”

Art, the Rosenburg Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology, says he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to reflect on where he is, when Stone Hill is central to his life and so connected to his work. “My own research has been in looking at how past human use of land has shaped the way that biological communities are structured,” he says. “My role in this exhibition has been to identify my perspective of interacting with this landscape for the last 46 years and to help provide information and content.”

That content includes a series of aerial photographs Art collected and later added to with his own aerial photography technique, to create a time-lapse video on display in what he calls “the context room” of the exhibition. “The video shows changes in the landscape from 1935 to the present, and it really is quite dramatic,” he says. “You watch as pastures are filled in by trees and eventually see the construction of the Lunder Center itself.”

Also in the context room are images of a sculpture garden Taylor has created on his own corner of Stone Hill and maps and portraits of the ridge. On one wall is a video created by David Dethier, the Edward Brust Professor of Geology and Mineralogy, showing the ridge’s geological history, including the period after the most recent ice age, when everything except the two summits of Stone Hill was under water. “The story of Stone Hill stretches back to ancient geologic times and considers how past and present inform what this place is today,” Art and Taylor write in their reflection for the exhibition.

In order to consider Stone Hill in more depth, visitors next enter what Art calls “the object room,” where items including a bear hunter’s rifle, the skull of a cow, samples of soil from various locations on Stone Hill, a two-man saw, and a root ball are on display. Each object is accompanied by an interpretation from local artists, writers, scientists, and historians.

“Over the last 10,000 years, Stone Hill has assumed many forms: lake bottom, forest, woodlots, and farms,” writes environmental journalist and Class of 1946 Environmental Fellow-in-Residence Elizabeth Kolbert in her discussion of four soil monoliths on display. “Each of these identities is preserved in its soil—a history recorded in rot.”

Assistant Professor of English Jessica Fisher, who interprets a two-man saw on display in the object room, writes: “This place, I try to show [my children], is layered like the paper birch that are now giving way to the next generation of trees. We peel the surface away to see what lies underneath.”

This fall, Art’s students will have the opportunity to discover what lies underneath the surface in his course Natural History of the Berkshires: Stone Hill, which will be conduced in the Irene M. Hunter Studio at the Lunder Center. “We’ll start each class in the museum, and then go out into the field so that students can develop their own projects about Stone Hill,” he says.

Art hopes visitors to the exhibition, like his students, will take advantage of the trail system outside the Lunder Center’s doors. “The invitation is for the visitor to go out on Stone Hill and actually experience the Stone Hill of out there,” he says. “If that doesn’t happen we feel it’s been an incomplete experience.” The trail systems on Stone Hill have recently been standardized, so that visitors can follow easy-to-read trail maps available at the museum and at kiosks along the way.

“The history of every place is different,” Art and Taylor write in their introduction to the exhibition, “but by reflecting on one specific place, we can come to consider the significance of place in our own lives.”

For a listing of events linked to the Sensing Place exhibition, including a schedule of tours of Mark Taylor’s sculpture garden, visit Use #SensingPlace to share stories on Twitter and Instagram about what place means to you.