Community Celebrates Life of Beloved Professor Emerita

September 17, 2012

On September 15, 2012, a great number of friends, colleagues, and former students gathered in Jewett Auditorium to honor the life and work of Professor Emerita Miranda Marvin, a longtime faculty member in the art and classics departments.

Below are excerpts from some of the remembrances that were shared at the memorial service.

From John Borden, Cousin

For her first few years when she lived in New York, Miranda was a major part of our extended family, and we joined together for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other events. I am sure it wasn’t easy for her as our extended family numbered in the twenties and she was the youngest. But no blushing violet was she; even at that age she held her own verbally.

We will all miss her great sense of humor, her passion for politics, her obsessive reading of blogs and mystery novels.

From Virginia Redish, Friend and Former Bryn Mawr Classmate

From Miranda, I learned a lot about keeping house and, especially, about cooking. Miranda was a superb cook, and part of her wedding present to Joe and me was an album of recipes, especially ones from her post-graduation year in Greece. I still make her version of stifado—cinnamon stew—and our guests love it. I’ll continue to think of Miranda whenever I cook her specialties.

I will miss Miranda’s kindness, her generosity, her inspiration—and our chats that ranged from art and archaeology to travel, politics, news of the day, and, lately, the lives of missionaries abroad

From Toni Seymour, childhood friend

Five days before her death, on the day of the Supreme Court decision on the health care bill, I spoke with Miranda by phone. She was exuberant about the court decision, and challenged by the prospect of completing three tasks: a paper, an article, and a museum attribution essay. Most of all, though, she was delighted by a photo of a sign that had been sent to her by another Columbus School for Girls classmate from a road trip out west. Miranda found the sign so appropriate to all that faced her that she made it her [computer] desktop background image. The sign says: “Grizzly Bear Area, Different Rules Apply.”

From Cappy Lynch, Wellesley Dean of Faculty Affairs and the Katharine Lee Bates & Sophie Chantal Hart Professor of English

I am glad that the program today makes mention of the many different roles that Miranda ([her name] in Latin, meaning ‘wonderful’—‘impossible not to admire’—‘marvelous’) played—as a family member, a student, a scholar, and teacher at different levels of the Wellesley curriculum and in different fields. Interdepartmental appointments at Wellesley College are uncommon. It takes a special individual to make such cross-disciplinary positions work, as Miranda did by contributing to three departments: Art, Classical Studies, and the Interdepartmental Program in Classical and Near Eastern archaeology, which she directed. Miranda was unique in her ability to get along with people, to build bridges, to see everything in life from multiple points of view—and as many who knew her have said, “to get to the heart of a matter.” As one reviewer of her work wrote, she was a member of “a vanishing breed of comprehensive humanists in an era of narrow specialization.” She did things in her own way and in her own time, which gave her an unusual integrity and trustworthiness.

In a letter about her from her file, five years after she had arrived at Wellesley, her senior colleagues observed, “Already . . . she is one of the most colorful characters in the Wellesley College classroom. Over time her impact can only increase.”

From Carla Antonaccio ’80, Former Student

I got to Wellesley already smitten with archaeology. I was sitting right here in Jewett in the fall of 1976, enrolled in Art 100. We were enthralled from the beginning by Miss Marvin’s spellbinding lectures at the start of that course. She was vigorous—a physically energetic presence who bounded onto and across the stage, gesturing exuberantly, speaking lucidly without notes, and sometimes very funny.

Miranda is the teacher I try to emulate when lecturing to undergraduates, when I’m in a museum gallery or on a site: that enthusiasm coupled with a keen eye, impeccable delivery of insight, and above all the irresistible invitation to understand, appreciate, to learn, and to love the study. I missed the chance to see her twice last year, and all I can do now is offer these few words of love and appreciation to the person who was so crucial in setting me on the path of my life and livelihood. There was only one Miranda, so aptly named—irreplaceable and inimitable.

From Elaine Gazda, Friend

We both loved looking at sculpture—and we did that together as often as we could—poring over technical details, surface finishes, restorations, and debating matters of taste and style. [Miranda’s] intellectual energy was exhilarating. Traveling with her was great fun—even if exhausting. She didn’t want to miss a thing!

Miranda eagerly engaged with ideas drawn from a variety of periods and fields. She was always discovering exciting new thoughts to apply to her own area of scholarship. The ultimate fruit of all this interchange (and her broad and deep scholarly research) was her magnificent book of 2008, The Language of the Muses: the Dialogue Between Greek and Roman Sculpture, in which she sorts out with remarkable clarity the convoluted stratigraphy of the reception of Greek art, not only by the Romans but by modern critics from Vasari onward. Only a mind like Miranda’s could have pulled it off, and she did with her inimitable bravado.

A few days before she died, we talked about an article she was to write on the dialogue she had explored (indeed excavated) so profoundly in her book. She was worried that she had nothing new to say. Can you imagine Miranda with nothing new to say?

We have lost a formidable scholar and a dear friend.

From Ray Starr, Theodora Stone Sutton Professor of Classics and Chair, Department of Classical Studies

Miranda taught me almost everything I know about teaching, not because she gave me particular advice or teaching tips (though she did do that), but because she took her own teaching so seriously, cared about it so passionately. Miranda also taught me most of what I know about being a scholar, even though our fields were radically different. She taught me by caring so much, by taking scholarship so seriously that I had to take it just as seriously myself. I remember calling her up very early one morning because I had finally figured out a question I’d been thinking about for months—suddenly it all fell into place, and right then I just had to tell Miranda, no matter what time it was. Who else would understand the elation? Who else would be so happy for my elation, share in it so generously? I remember the morning I got tenure—the doorbell of my apartment rang, and there was Miranda with a bottle of champagne at 9:00 in the morning.

Whenever I needed advice on how best to approach a problem of academic politics, Miranda was the one I called: Her sense of etiquette, coupled with her delighted savvy, always meant that, however at sea I had been, I always hung up the phone clear-headed.

When Miranda finished her book, we were all so proud of her and so happy for her that it was a problem: We all wanted to proofread it. She handled the situation with her characteristic tact and sensitivity and generosity: She let each person proofread a little, but not very much, because, she said, she didn’t want to impose on us. But the real reason, I think, was that she understood how much we all wanted to be a part of her, just as she was so much a part of us.

From Pat Berman, Chair of the Wellesley College Art Department and Theodora L. and Stanley H. Feldberg Professor of Art

I was fortunate over this last summer to receive from her ex-students numerous tributes to Miranda’s brilliance and charisma, and to her humanity. I would like to share some of those letters: No one could make the past seem more vital, or the present more urgent, than Miranda.        

“In Art 100,” writes an alumna from the class of ’76, “she would always begin her lectures with her hair swirled in a bun on the top of her head, but as she galloped around the stage, laughing and calling our attention to this or that detail in a projected image, the bun would start to unravel. By the end of the hour, her hair would be in disarray, but our brains would have discovered a new order in the universe.”

An alumna from the class of ’84 wrote, “Miranda certainly did have a flair for words! I enjoyed every minute of her classes. I graduated in 1984 and I’ll never forget how she introduced [a statue at the Metropolitan Museum]: ‘Here's Aphrodite without her nightie!

An alumna from the class of ’75 concurs: “I fell in love with art history partly because of Miranda Marvin. I was in total awe of her lectures and completely won over when she decided to pose as some of the sculptures she lectured about.… She was a professor with the best-most wonderful sense of humor and deep love for her chosen field.”

“Miranda had a wonderful, occasionally self-deprecating, wit,” recounts an alumna from the class of ’67, who co-taught with Miranda. “One time she was speaking from the podium about a work of art, and it was very clear there was a different picture on the screen. I squirmed and thought about how embarrassing it was. Miranda, on the other hand, eventually looked up and, without missing a beat, said dryly, ‘The pictures may change, but the notes never do. The entire auditorium roared!”

Miranda’s knowledge and passion, and the delight with which she shared it, highjacked many a student.  An alumna from the class of ’90 was one student redirected by Miranda from biology to a major in art and archeology: “I came to Wellesley thinking that I was going to be a biologist, took Intro to Art History and that was that. No more bio. I have to say of all the courses I took in art history, my course in Greek art was one of my favorites—Professor Marvin demanded excellence in all of her students…[and] inspired me toward a lifelong study of art and architecture and a career as an arts advocate in this modern world—and for that I am thankful.”

Another case of hijacking was recounted by an EX-pre-med major from the class of ’87: “I was a student of Miranda’s in the mid-80s and I am one of the many who had their lives changed by knowing her.…When my son started his ancient civilizations unit in middle school this year, my first words to him were, ‘Egypt is the gift of the Nile!’”

An alumna from the class of ’86 sums up the experience of many such converts to art and archaeology: “At Wellesley, I had transferred as a sophomore and it was more than time to choose a major.… I had taken one course with Miranda and I was stunned—I thought, you mean I could just listen to her all the time?! I would actually get credit for enjoying myself??”

An alumna from the class of ’94 remembers some of Miranda’s quirkier advice that turned out to be a prognostication “[As] Chair she agreed to sign my art history declaration form on the condition that I vowed one day to be elected to my local school board. Seriously. I still think about that promise I made in the early 1990s.”

Finally, an alumna from the class of ’89 named her daughter after Miranda. Shortly after Miranda “junior’s” birth in 2000, Miranda “senior” wrote the following, and I close with her words: Miranda is a great name to have. It is pronounceable in every European language, spelled just as it sounds, and there are very few of us around. In Latin it means “she who must be admired”—which is not at all a bad moniker to have. The only drawback is that people tend to get it wrong if they aren't familiar with it, and she'll have to get used to being called Amanda, Melinda, Melissa and, should she become a classicist, Minerva (shudder). I am also interested to see if she ends up with a nickname. Somehow I never did—except Randy in summer camp, which didn't last long. If you find yourself in these parts, please look me up, and keep me posted on Miranda's doings… I would love to slip her a little memento.

Well, Miranda has slipped mementos to us all, large and small, through the medium of her scholarship, her mentorship, and her friendship. We were all so lucky to have been transformed by her.