Fulbright Features: Art history scholar shares her experiences in Germany

Penn State students are traveling around the world to conduct research, teach English, attend master's degree programs and more as part of the Fulbright Program, a highly sought-after nine-month international educational exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State. This is part of a series of essays written by Penn State student Fulbright winners who have returned from or have just embarked on their trips. 

This year, 10 Penn State students received the prestigious scholarship. For more information about applying for the program, visit the University Fellowships Office’s website. Click here to read more Fulbright Features.


It is mid-winter in Franconia, but that did not stop the crowds from gathering on the streets for the Fasching Parade — a local form of carnival where free donuts and candy are given out before the beginning of lent. For me, it was a welcome respite from writing in my small apartment at the corner of the Altstadt.

I have been asked why I would want to come to this part of the country. It is known to be conservative and has a reputation for being unfriendly — perhaps a consequence of so many tourists engulfing the city for the Christkindlesmarkt.

Once I say I am an art historian, people have a different reaction. This was the home of Albrecht Dürer, one of the most famous artists and polymaths Germany has ever known. I am a stroll away from his former house, now a museum, which has windows onto the castle at the pinnacle of the city. I walk past his statue nearly every day.

What people do not know is that I actually picked Nuremberg because it was the home of a much lesser-known artist, Stephan Zick. He was an ivory carver who worked in the center of the city, plying the trade of his father and grandfather. At the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, you can still see some of his works — anatomical models whittled down from pieces of imported elephant tusk.

Like others in 17th-century Germany, Zick used his skills to make increasingly intricate and fascinating objects. Nuremberg was a center for craftsmanship in Europe, and Zick’s models of eyes, ears, and pregnant women became highly sought-after. My duty here is to write the first history of his minute ivory ladies and to explain how German artisans gave a new life to anatomical models.

Unfortunately, these models are fairly rare, and their story has been neglected through shifts in medicine and the loss of objects and records — as well as the lives of many of the dealers selling them — in World War II. Here, I have access to archives and objects that help me weave together the strands of their tale in order to reconstruct it.

As Nuremberg essentially has a medieval city plan, there are no straight streets, so I have only recently been able to navigate the entirety of the Altstadt with confidence. Just this week, I found that the coffee shop I had been meaning to visit (it’s hard to find good working spaces with internet in Germany) was actually the workshop of one of Zick’s family members.

As an American, it’s been a difficult but rewarding journey. I had to start the Fulbright process, alongside a colleague of mine now in Sweden, in September of 2014. I did not receive my acceptance until May 2015. I arrived early to attend a Sprachkurs (German speaking course) in Marburg and had to find housing quickly — a difficult task when you aren’t always able to meet the landlord. And due to the number of refugees applying for asylum in Germany, I did not finalize my visa until January 2016.

Nonetheless, this is an amazing opportunity to find facts I could not imagine finding without the assistance of local professors and curators, as well as the archives themselves. I can no longer count the number of renaissance-era German texts I have tried to piece together in their myriad fragments of brown ink and cursive script. Still, I know these tendrils of ink are part of a story much bigger than myself or any object — they explain why we create, what choices we make to spread our message, and how objects change over time.

As I sift through thousands of pictures and hundreds of possible sources, I have the city itself reminding me about the nature of my research. I sit in the coffee shop, imagining ivory-turners working and thinking next to me. I can only hope that they once imagined someone like myself, working and thinking about writing their story.

Art history doctoral candidate Cali Buckley is spending the 2015–16 academic year in Germany, working on her dissertation, “Early Modern Anatomical Models and the Control of Women’s Medicine.” 

Last Updated March 08, 2016