When Grace Leonard, ’12, applied for a position as a student curatorial and collections assistant with University of Richmond Museums, she imagined she’d be working behind the scenes. Instead, on April 9, she will present a half-hour curator’s lecture during the opening of “Best in Show: Staffordshire Dogs from the Collection," an exhibition at the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature.

Leonard, an anthropology major, never expected she’d ever co-curate an exhibition of Victorian-era porcelain dog figures as part of her job. “I didn’t know anything about them before I started,” she admits. “It seemed like a curious collection to me at first. Through working with them I realized that even the most mundane objects can have significance to a specific time in history. It is interesting for me to understand why they became a decorating phenomenon for a group of people in the 19th century.”

Leonard was interested in the job with University Museums because of past experiences with museum work. As a high school student in Sylva, N.C., she shadowed a professional at the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University, helping with a pottery exhibition. Last year, she worked as a student attendant for University Museums, where she helped create a pamphlet that guides visitors through an on-campus art tour.

The current exhibition came about after alumnus Fletcher Stiers, R’48, donated a collection of about 40 Staffordshire dog figures to the Lora Robins Gallery last fall. University Museums Director Dr. Richard Waller asked Leonard to help him co-curate an exhibit from the collection.

Leonard interviewed Stiers about individual items in the collection, learning how, where, and when he acquired them. Using a set of books Stiers donated with the collection, Leonard was able to research the history of Staffordshire dogs.

She learned that pottery factories in Staffordshire, England, have produced ceramic dogs since the 1720s. Staffordshire dogs, especially spaniels, were originally displayed on the mantels of Victorian homes. Today, they are some of the most popular collectible ceramics.

Spaniels were popular, Leonard explains, because of the breed’s association with the British royal family. “Staffordshire dogs were mostly bought by the middle class,” she says. “It was a way for them to have a tie to the royal family.” The figures were introduced to the United States by British immigrants and by U.S. veterans returning home after World War II.

Leonard has been involved in all facets of the exhibition –– from cataloging the figures and writing descriptions and exhibit labels, to planning the physical layout of the exhibition and choosing paint colors, background fabric, and even the typeface for the exhibition’s labels.

During her April 9 lecture, “The Spaniel on the Mantle: Dog Figurines in the Victorian Home,” Leonard will draw on her anthropology background to discuss the social context of the figures.

“I want people to understand what kinds of people would have bought the dogs and what collectors are looking for when they buy the dogs today, and how that has changed over time,” she says.

It’s hard to imagine that just a few months ago, Leonard knew nothing about Staffordshire dogs. “People keep telling me that it’s a big deal that as a sophomore I get to carry my own exhibit,” she says, “It’s amazing how much time other people in [University] Museums have been able to spend with a student. They have been really patient with me.”

Next fall, Leonard will spend the semester abroad in Ghana, where she will attend a program focused on arts and culture. “I feel like it will be similar to learning about the Staffordshire dogs,” she says. “I will be learning about Ghanaian art in a similar social context.”