Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Helen C. Gunsaulus: Collector and Curator

Frank and Helen Gunsaulus, 1915
Frank W. Gunsaulus is a recurring character in the story of the Alice T. Miner Museum, appearing most recently in our last post as a mutual friend and fellow collector of Alice and Emma B. Hodge. The close relationship between the Miners and Frank Gunsaulus extended to the rest of the Gunsaulus family and particularly his youngest daughter, Helen. As a young woman, she worked closely with her father to curate and research his collections, and eventually came to occupy an important position in the Chicago museum world in her own right. A recognized expert in Japanese art, she cataloged Alice Miner’s collection of Japanese woodblock prints in 1927.

Helen C. Gunsaulus was born in 1886 in Baltimore, Maryland, where her father was the pastor of Brown Memorial Church. The following year, Rev. Gunsaulus was called to the Plymouth Congregational Church and the family settled in Chicago. Helen attended Ferry Hall School, a girls’ preparatory academy in Lake Forest, Illinois, and then went to the University of Chicago, graduating in 1908. Like many young women of her class and background, she spent a year traveling in Europe after completing her formal education. 

Helen’s work in museums began through her own collecting (a selection of surimono from her collection was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1912) and her work with her father. In 1916, Frank Gunsaulus donated his collection of Japanese sword mounts to the Field Museum of Natural History, and Helen took on the task of preparing a catalog. Three years later, she was formally hired as assistant curator of Japanese ethnology, which (as the museum’s annual report stated) would permit “the systematic and intelligent study and disposition of considerable material in this division...Miss Gunsaulus brings to the work she has undertaken, studious habit and special training, with enthusiasm and aptness for museum practice, as the work thus far done upon the collections in this division gives evidence.” 

Helen Gunsaulus in her office
at the Art Institute, 1920s
In the early 20th century, as more white, middle- and upper-class women were joining the workforce, they found the museum field one of the most friendly and open to them. Unlike professions like law and medicine, which had educational and licensing requirements that were difficult for women to meet, museum work had no universal qualifications. The world of art could also be seen as an extension of the domestic sphere. Women like Helen Gunsaulus, who came from well-to-do families and had been raised to appreciate art and had the means to travel, in addition to being college-educated, were in many ways ideal museum workers.

In 1926, Helen became assistant curator of Oriental Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Although the Department of Oriental Art was only established in 1921, the museum had been collecting Japanese prints and other artworks since the early 1900s and had presented a groundbreaking exhibits of prints (organized by Frank Lloyd Wright) in 1908. Clarence Buckingham’s extensive Japanese print collection was first shown in 1915 and was formally accessioned in 1925. After the death of long-time curator Frederick Gookin in 1936, Helen Gunsaulus took over as Curator of the Clarence Buckingham Print Collection. Though Japanese prints were her specialty, she also wrote on a variety of other subjects, including Japanese textiles, clothing, and masks, Near Eastern embroidery, and Persian pottery.

Helen Gunsaulus (far right) at Heart’s Delight Farm, 1917
It was shortly after her appointment as curator of Oriental art that Helen came to Chazy to catalog Alice Miner’s collection of Japanese prints. The print collection had been assembled by Emma Hodge, perhaps with Helen’s advice. After her visit, Helen wrote to William Miner, saying, “Do not ever mention being indebted to me and mine after all of the generous and beautiful evidences of your friendship. I can never ever repay either if you for your kindness. Anything I can do for you is the greatest satisfaction to me. It was a pleasure to work on the prints and I learned a great deal in studying them and working out their meanings and the names of their makers.” 

Helen lived in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood with her partner, Helen Mackenzie, who also worked at the Art Institute of Chicago (first as curator of the Children’s Museum, and later as the curator of the Gallery of Art Interpretation). They both retired in 1943 and moved to their summer home on Cape Cod, where they were active members of the community, organizing exhibits and other programs at the South Yarmouth public library. When Helen Gunsaulus died in 1954, her extensive collection of Japanese prints went to the Art Institute of Chicago.


Information about Helen Gunsaulus’s life was drawn from census and other records available through, articles in the Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Field Museum publications, and the Chicago Tribune.


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