As any Art History major can attest to, the decision to pursue a degree in the arts often meets with a measure of well-intentioned skepticism (read: "What are you going to do with
?"). Meet Grace Oh, a 2015 Wellesley graduate, who’s putting that degree to use in her coveted position as a research fellow at the Louvre!
In the interview below, Grace reminisces about her time at Wellesley (and shares her best advice), discusses what working at the Louvre is like, and gives us the low down on beauty finds, "pharmacie"-edition.
Name: Grace Oh
Major: Art History & French Cultural Studies
Hometown: Long Island, New York
Q: Tell me about this fellowship—what is it like working at the Louvre?
It’s absolutely phenomenal… just walking to work every morning seems surreal to me! I’m currently researching for a curator in the Near Eastern Antiquities Department who is the head of the Mesopotamian collection at the Louvre. All of the curatorial offices are located in the palace that you see above-ground and each department has access to the museum itself through secret passages (I know it sounds like I’m just recalling a movie but I promise it’s all real)! Sometimes when I walk through one of the connecting doors, tourists jump back a little because it looks like a person just walked through a wall.
The atmosphere in the department is great and the curator I’m assigned to really makes an effort to introduce me to everyone she works with. She also takes me to all of the cool conservation labs and storage units – definitely my favorite part about working at the Louvre. The best perk so far is having access to the museum when it’s closed to the public on Tuesdays. You walk around the different galleries and see curators and conservation teams scurrying around, moving small objects, putting all of these contraptions around sculptures to examine them – the museum is an entirely new world when it’s shut down.
Q: How did you land this fellowship?
My official title is the Liliane Pingoud Soriano Curatorial Research Fellow (wow, that was a mouthful!) and it’s supported through the Davis Museum and the Ecole du Louvre. Each year they choose one graduating senior (through applications, rounds of interviews, etc.) with experience and interest in the art world as well as fluency in French to work at the Louvre and attend the Ecole du Louvre.
Q: What is your day-to-day like?
Every morning I walk down an exceptionally long corridor to say hello to the curators. Despite the stereotypes Americans have about French people, I find them to be incredibly friendly (maybe it’s because I work with a lot of friendly archeologists?). My mornings start off with a quick chat with the curator on the projects that must be completed for the day or week. This could include anything from going through catalogues from 1824 in order to cross-reference object descriptions to helping the department organize the object list for an upcoming exhibition. But what follows for that specific morning depends on the curator’s schedule for the day – sometimes I get to attendexhibition meetings and sometimes I get to work in the conservation lab and work with daguerreotypes! Although I have a few long-term projects that I’ll be working on during my fellowship period, the curator has new plans everyday and it’s honestly more fun to tag along with her to explore the world of the Louvre.
Q: What is a highlight of your fellowship experience so far?
Definitely studying ancient jewels from 700 BCE (who doesn’t love playing with jewelry?)! They were excavated from a Mesopotamian site back in the 1800s but haven’t really been organized and put into the museum’s database yet. I’m doing some research for this project and it’s definitely been the highlight of the fellowship so far! I mean, the curator let me touch and move them around while studying them – surreal!
Q: How did you become interested in art? Were you influenced by someone in your life?
Honestly, I came into Wellesley with a firm belief that I’d be an economics and political science major but that was all scrapped after freshman year! I did enjoy those courses but you can’t really compete with the thrill that you get from studying Art History! I took ARTH 101 + WRIT 125, thinking it’d just fill my art and writing requirement. My friend really wanted to take it so I just tagged along. But after that first semester, I was sold. The truly interdisciplinary nature of studying art was icing on the cake. History? Science? Economics? Studio? It’s all wrapped up into one major! My parents were also fully supportive of my major change which made it so much easier (my mother actually studied ceramics in college!)
I do have to give credit to Professor James Oles too since he was my professor for that course and was the one who really influenced me to sign the Art History major forms. He basically asked me, “Don’t think before you answer: if you had $100,000 and no obligations what would you do?” I instantly answered that I would travel around France, go to all of the museums and look at the paintings we studied about, and absorb their culture. Lo-and-behold, I ended up as a very happy Art History and French Cultural Studies double major. Lesson learned: please study what you love and choose a major where you can’t think of skipping a lecture because you feel like you’d be missing out on something too good. You’ll be more motivated to study and do well and love your time while doing it!
Of course, the entire department is phenomenal, the professors are brilliant, and the staff (shout-out to the Art Library!) is awesome. I still keep in touch with several professors and the Art Library staff regularly – I can’t seem to let go of the Jewett life!
Q: What’s your advice for students pursuing similar fellowships?
I don’t know about other cities, but in Paris, the Wellesley Network is very strong. I was super lucky to meet an awesome young Wellesley alum towards the beginning of my fellowship (at a professor’s exhibition opening in Paris!) and my friend from Wellesley decided last minute to move to Paris and pursue some studies here too. Knowing some people in the city is definitely a must, so if you can’t really form friendships with co-workers then you should make an effort to reach out to as many people as possible – it really helps! I know this sounds cliché, but the experience is really what you make of it. I try my best to ask people around me what they’re working on, what their job entails, etc. Sometimes I feel a bit awkward at first just asking them questions like that, but they see me as the “New American Girl” and love sharing their ideas and research proposals. The French are friendly, I promise!
Q: Are you planning on working in the art world in the future?
I definitely see myself sticking to the art world in some shape or form in the future. Not quite sure exactly what role that entails, but I wouldn’t rule out the idea of pursuing a PhD and law degree in the future.
WE WANT TO KNOW…
Q: Tips for surviving/living in France?
The curator keeps telling me that I got lucky with this weather, but usually Paris rains a ton this time of year so don’t forget your umbrellas or raincoats! However, rain boots aren’t popular here so maybe leave those at home (they’re also really heavy to bring). Do learn the language, because people will really appreciate it! But of course, the city is extremely metropolitan and if you go to all of the tourist destinations and restaurants/cafés the staff will most likely be fluent in English. Oh, and be sure to say “Hello/Thank you/Good bye” to the cashiers – it seems like common courtesy but you’d be surprised at how weird it feels sometimes (considering I’m from New York, most times it’s just a quick scan, payment, leave situation).
On the subject of food, the produce here is so fresh and delicious that honestly, I enjoy having a home-cooked meal more than eating at a restaurant. So if you’re moving here or going the Airbnb route, definitely make yourself a French meal! Throw a few veggies together and pair it with a baguette and wine – you’re good to go. (It may not be the highest quality, but you can find very affordable foie gras and a variety of cheeses at the supermarket – just a tip!)
Oh, and don’t forget to take a trip to a Pharmacie here! Their drugstores sell literally the best skincare products from Nuxe to A-derma to Vichy that come with a range of prices and don’t break the bank (think of your mainstream CVS products but with much better ingredients). I’ve done so much damage at these stores that I’m embarrassed to even say anything in detail, haha. If you google “French pharmacie” you’ll get a million lists of the best products so check it out!
Q: What’s the difference between French and American style? Favorite wardrobe staple/piece?
French girls are so effortlessly chic and put together – I feel like I’m forever trying to duplicate their style! As most people already know, they are very much into big scarves, perfectly structured coats, and leather or suede ankle boots (but sneakers are very in now - thank god – it makes walking all around Paris so much more comfortable). Wearing a red lip here is no big deal at all, and I love it. I walk past the Isabelle Marant offices on my way to work most mornings and there are always such stylish and laidback girls standing around the door with their leather jackets and messy hairdos – ugh they’re so cool!
There’s also a blog by Garance Doré that I follow religiously; Garance is a French illustrator turned fashion photographer and her blog is addicting. She writes articles about fashion, beauty, lifestyle and everything in between. I think she currently lives in New York, which is why she does a lot of New York vs. Paris posts now, which are fun reads as well. She just published a book called Love x Style x Life. Here is the website that accompanies it!
Q: How would you describe your own style?
I love neutral colors, cozy sweaters, and I own lots of black. Emmanuelle Alt has forever been my style icon, so think lots of skinny jeans, white tees, blazers, etc. But I have been trying to add color into my wardrobe (being in Paris hasn’t helped with that though)! I used to only stick with coral lip colors but moving to France has seriously made me become obsessed with trying every shade of red out there.
Q: What’s one thing you can’t live without?
Mascara and YouTube! (Can’t pick just one)
Q: What does your ideal Sunday look like?
I live in The Marais in Paris, which is an awesome spot for Sundays. Most shops are closed in France on Sunday but The Marais is full of life! Street performers, open shops, and bustling cafés fill the scene. After church, I usually walk around the area, grab a drink, and enjoy relaxing while people watching.
Q: Favorite Wellesley Fresh menu item (if unavailable, current favorite food item)?
Definitely the cookies they have for brunch in the campus center! In France, I can’t live without Comté cheese.
Q: What do you miss most about Wellesley?
I miss having all of my closest friends living in the same building! If I wanted to grab dinner or just talk, they would be two minutes away. Now we’re spread all over the world so it’s difficult to chat all at the same time. It’s easy to get caught up in the stress of being a college student, but be sure to study hard while also making time to hang out with friends and have late night chats over wine in your room - appreciate the time you have at Wellesley!
Photos courtesy of Grace Oh