Southern Field Trip, June 2010 Blog
Saturday, June 12, 2010 (slide show images 1, 2, 3, 4)
Our trip to the South began early, when we arrived at the University of Delaware Motor Pool around six on Saturday morning. Luckily for the eight of us, our leaders, Rosemary Krill and Greg Landrey, were willing to take the first shift of driving the two minivans. Our trip was made more enjoyable (and musical) by a custom soundtrack assembled by our own Nalleli Guillen.
Our historic site of the day was Prestwould Plantation in southern Virginia. Built in 1795, it was the home of the Skipwith family and was at the center or a network of agriculture and commerice. Today, Prestwould is an exceptional example of restored interior spaces and the plantation also includes rare surviving outbuildings. Inside, Prestwould has undergone extensive renovations to return the house to its federal-period appearance. Wonderful examples of period wallpapers, extensive new grain painting, and many unique furniture pieces make Prestwould a truly impressive historic house. Our guides to the collection, Julian Hudson and Willy Oliver, provided valuable insights on the origins and restoration of Prestwould. Just as Prestwould's interiors represent a unique combination of surviving objects and meticulous restoration, the plantation's grounds were also remarkable. Prestwould still maintains rare examples of plantation outbuildings, including slave quarters and a smokehouse. Prestwould was a great introduction to the culture and history of this region, and a wonderful place to begin our Southern adventure.
We ended Saturday with dinner at the massive "Red Dog" restaurant in Florence, and arrived late at our hotel in Mount Pleasant, just outside Charleston, South Carolina, where we would spend the next day exploring the old city.
Sunday, June 13, 2010 (slide show images 5, 6, 7)
Today the WPAMC Class of 2011 had the wonderful opportunity to explore historic downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Just driving around the "Museum Mile" of Meeting Street was a detailed lesson in colonial and early federal architecture. While Charleston's townhouses and churches are reminiscent of their counterparts in other American cities, they still displayed unique features and some European flair. Such characteristics were very apparent in our morning visits to two homes managed by the Historic Charleston Foundation. Our guide, Brandy Culp, impressed us all with her professionalism, breadth of knowledge, and determination to improve interpretation and conservation at the sites.
Our first stop was at the Nathaniel Russell House, which had restored interiors and a wide array of furnishings. When Russell built the house in 1808, he was hoping to cement his local reputation for wealth and prestige in order to gain good marriages for his daughters. His conspicuous consumption was readily apparent in details like the grand curving staircase, elaborate moldings even on the third floor, and monogrammed balcony railings. The furniture displayed in the house gave us a glimpse at the fine craftsmanship of Charleston's many artisans who imitated current English styles.
Our second stop, the Aiken-Rhett House, provided a dramatic contrast to the Russell home. A recently restored exterior belied the layers of decor and deterioration inside. While it is unlikely ever to be restored to its former grandeur, the house nevertheless presented a fascinating look at how Charleston developed in the nineteenth century. Built as a Federal style home in 1818, it was later adapted to the Greek Revival style. Today, the decaying interior spaces display wallpaper, paint and furniture ranging from the 1830s to 1870s. Fragmentary collections of hardware and light fixtures provide further opportunities for research.
At both sites, we learned about conservation and interpretation challenges unique to Charleston. Education about conservation is an ongoing process, especially when antique objects might still be in regular use by owners. Besides the obvious heat and humidity, hurricanes and earthquakes also pose a threat to historic houses. Both houses left us impressed with the care required to preserve the past, as well as the excitement of interpreting material culture for future generations.
Monday, June 14, 2010
Our first appointment today was with Drayton Hall’s Director of Preservation Dr. Carter C. Hudgins. Today, this eighteenth-century plantation stands as a rare survival from its time. In 1738, the wealthy and educated John Drayton constructed this mansion as his primary residence. The building remains largely unchanged, with much of the original masonry, framing, and interior carving still in place. Although subsequent generations altered the building, while one by one the building’s furnishings left the property, current archaeological and architectural research continues to reveal exciting new stories about the site and the men and women, both free and enslaved, that lived there.
Unlike other historic house museums, Drayton Hall remains completely unfurnished. As we explored each room, our discussions turned away from the impressive architectural details to questions about the preservation and interpretation of the house by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We concluded with a peak into storage and saw some the extensive ceramics collection, and a few impressive chairs, and marble-top tables owned by the family. Eventually, thee objects will be exhibited in the new visitor center’s planned for the site.
For lunch, our group stopped at the nearby Sunshine Café. Over fried green tomatoes, cheese sandwiches, and of course, more sweet tea, we all agreed Drayton Hall was an excellent contrast to the urban landscape and restored town houses we explored the day before. Men like Russell and Drayton were inextricably linked to the production of rice in the low country, a cash crop cultivated by thousands of slaves throughout the eighteenth century. To understand the decorative arts of the region, and to understand the craftsmen, merchants, and consumers who lived amongst these objects, it is essential to study the agricultural context of the region as well.
We continued our travels northward, briefly stopping in Columbia at the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina. Rosemary introduced us to the Executive Director Lynn Robertson. Lana Burgess, the Faculty Curator and Director of the Museum Management Certificate, and Jill Kovermna, the museum’s Curator of Collections, soon joined our group for a conversation about the art museum and its place within USC’s administration. It was also interesting to learn about the museum management certificate from Lana, since many Winterthur students take courses in Delaware’s Museum Studies program. Jill commented on her experiences working with students to annually curate small exhibitions within the galleries. This was our shortest stop on the trip, and within an hour we were back on the road, headed for Wintson-Salem, North Carolina.
After a delicious dinner at Downtown Thai, we checked into the Brookstone Inn. This late nineteenth-century textile factory now houses charming hotel, complete with reproductions from the nearby Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. Even though we were all exhausted, we explored our huge rooms and connoissed each reproduction before finally heading to bed.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010 (slide show image 8)
We began our day at Reynolda House, an early twentieth-century estate in Winston-Salem built by R. J. Reynolds. We were lucky to have a tour with Barbara Babcock Millhouse, Reynolds’s granddaughter and the founding president of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art. Millhouse provided a unique perspective on the process of restoring the house to its 1917 interior, as well as the changing interpretive focus from the museum’s outstanding American art collection to Reynolda as an historic house museum. The house also prompted some comparisons with Winterthur: where we take guests through period rooms and explain that they used to be bowling alleys and squash courts, at Reynolda those features are still intact. It was an excellent example of the early twentieth-century lifestyle that we often talk about, but do not always see.
Our next stop was Old Salem and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA). We toured the museum galleries that are in the process of being reinstalled with Associate Curator Daniel Ackermann, who spoke on MESDA’s efforts to rethink the traditional period room. Director of Collections and Curator Johanna Brown led our tour of the Old Salem campus and provided some history of the Moravian community in North Carolina. Director of Education Sally Gant and Research Associate Martha Rowe introduced us to MESDA’s rich collection of decorative arts resources, including some very thoughtful personalized suggestions for several of our thesis topics.
We ended the day with dinner at the home of Daniel and Melissa Engiman Ackermann (a WPAMC graduate), joined by many of the individuals we had met at Reynolda and MESDA and other Winston-Salem museum professionals. It was a great opportunity to talk more about what we had seen so far on our trip and the Ackermanns provided a lovely sendoff before we began our drive to Charlottesville that evening.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
During the second to last day of our Southern Trip, affectionately referred to as “The Presidential House Tour” portion of our excursion, we visited three wonderfully different house museums: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Monroe’s Ash-Lawn Highland, and James Madison’s Montpelier.
Monticello offered us the chance to experience the highest end of American house museums. Its new Visitor’s Center and gallery space offer their public some of the most technologically up-to-date and current exhibitions, creating a very interactive and enjoyable experience for even the most casual of visitors. In addition, after touring the house we sat down for lunch with members of Monticello’s staff, including 1980 WPEAMC alumni Leslie Green Bowman, who is now President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Speaking with a professional who has not only gone through our graduate program but also established herself within the profession many of us hope to join was quite enlightening and helpful as we begin planning the next step in our lives.
James Monroe’s Ash-Lawn Highland, just down the street from Monticello, was an interesting juxtaposition. Touring the house under the guidance of our classmate Leah Giles—who worked at Ash-Lawn before coming to the Winterthur American Material Culture Program—provided us with the chance to discuss many of the challenges of working in a small house museum with limited resources. Compared to Monticello or even Winterthur Museum, Ash-Lawn Highland is a humble site, but one with a rich history. It was an excellent place to go, as there are many more ‘Ash-Lawn Highlands’ than ‘Monticellos’ looking for the next generation of museum employees.
And finally, James Madison’s Montpelier was a fascinating example of the projects and types of work museum professionals face. Within the last ten years the house has been extensively restored, in order to return it to its appearance during Madison’s time. We were introduced to some of the evidence and techniques used to recreate that early nineteenth century appearance by John Jeanes, the Restoration Supervisor, and Lynn Hastings, Vice President for Museum Programs. It was a wonderful opportunity and a great end to an exhaustingly wonderful and rich day.
Thursday, June 17, 2010 (slide show images 9 and 10)
Bidding farewell to the lovely Linden Row Inn in downtown Richmond, we packed up the vans on the last morning of our trip and headed to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia’s premier art museum. The museum recently underwent a major expansion and opened its highly anticipated McGlothin wing.
Walking from the parking deck to the museum, the class expressed various reactions to the bold modern architecture of the new wing, which sparkled in the morning sun. Inside, we were in awe of the open, light, airy spaces we encountered, and everyone agreed the interior was a stunning success. Celeste Fetta, the manager of adult and higher education programs, met us for a tour of the newly reopened Lewis Art Nouveau and Art Deco Galleries. Sydney and Frances Lewis, founders of Best Products, donated this important and exquisite collection of some of the finest objects of Aesthetic Movement, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco design.
As we strolled through the galleries, Celeste explained the rationale behind their organization and display, from paint choices to label graphics. The VMFA is somewhat unique in that every installation is the collaborative effort of a curator, an educator, and a designer. Celeste, as the educator, reviewed the object labels and helped make the galleries more informative and accessible for visitors. Although both galleries displayed incredibly beautiful objects, especially furniture, I preferred Art Deco to Art Nouveau. The Art Deco exhibition platforms were deeper, so the objects could be arranged in settings which allowed visitors to get a better feel for how these pieces were intended to work together in a room. The platforms almost echoed period rooms, but in a more modern, less crowded format that highlighted the objects while making them shine even brighter on display together.
Next we met Beth O’Leary, Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts, to tour the American Galleries, which also mixed “fine” and “decorative” art, although no modern decorative art appeared to be on display. The most impressive part of the American Galleries was the Worsham-Rockefeller Bedroom. The 1880s Aesthetic Movement room belonged to a native Richmonder, Arabella Worsham, who sold her house to John D. Rockefeller, Sr. His son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated three rooms from the house to the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of the City of New York, who donated the bedroom to the VMFA.
Finally, we arrived to the exhibition we had all been waiting for, “Tiffany: Color and Light,” an extraordinary collection of the work of the renowned designer and master of glass, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). The VMFA is the only American museum which will show the exhibition, so it was a treat to be able to view it while it was in Richmond. Barry Shifman, Curator of Decorative Arts, 1890 to the Present, arranged the Tiffany exhibition at the VMFA and provided a brief introduction for us. We were then left to wander the exhibition on our own. Gazing at luminous church windows (leaded, not “stained” glass), lamps, and vases, I felt inspired and amazed at the creative talents and technical genius of Tiffany and his designers, glassblowers, and craftsmen and women. Tiffany deserves the recognition this exhibition so successfully provides.
We spent the afternoon of Thursday, June 17 with Southern decorative arts scholar and dealer, Sumpter Priddy. After a brief overview of some of the fine items in his gallery, Sumpter treated us to a walking tour of historic Alexandria, Virginia. We admired early Federal architecture including unusual, carved stonework keystones and cemetery headstones. We also walked by the largest furniture factory operating in the South at the beginning of the 19th century. We visited the Carlyle house where we toured the house and collection, including some very important Virginia furniture, with curator Sarah Coster. Our day concluded with a rare view of the stockroom of an early apothecary. Sumpter identified some of the late 18th century, bowed drawer fronts of the built-in cabinetry as probably attributed to a group of Philadelphia cabinetmakers who had moved to the area and were creating chests in this style. Sumpter was generous with his time, sharing knowledge of early southern craft with us all.