This evening, The New York Times published a blog entry about museum period rooms for Living Rooms by Joan Dejean: "Rooms Worth Keeping." Dejean speculates on why period rooms, or gallery spaces in museums (fine arts museum and house museums alike) that reconstruct a specific room at a specific moment in time, drew and continue to draw unflinching fascination among museum visitors. Dejean notes that "Museum period rooms are often...amalgams of elements of varying origins." She goes on to recount the fascinating and complex history surrounding the Fragonard Room at the Frick Collection(one of my favorites) in New York City to prove her point.
Many museum professionals and scholars of material culture, design, and other related fields, however, fear--and in some cases, have proven---a waning interest in the "period room" and/or house museum (filled with period rooms) concept. Period room interpretation needs to be refreshed.
Traditionally, the field of American material culture credits the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 1920s American period rooms as the first in a fine arts museum setting. Many other museums followed suit: the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, the Winterthur Museum, and countless others. Usually, period rooms are interpreted as snapshots in time, if you will--whether it be 1776, 1865, or 1920. Each room is arranged, designed, and decorated to a specific era.
Some house museums boast rooms caught in time. The Asa Packer Mansion Museum in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, is a personal favorite complete with a calendar open to the day its last resident passed away. Some fine or decorative arts museums have relocated such time capsules to their own galleries. On the other hand, some house museums and period room galleries display rooms furnished and arranged according to a curator's or other interpreter's idea of a specific era and place. There is a spectrum of period room interpretive possibilities, and there is something to be learned from each of these installations no matter where they fall on the spectrum.
Often, though, as Dejean observes, period rooms are "amalgams of elements of varying origins." In other words, they do not reflect just one period. Look around your own living space. Does it reflect the year in which you moved into your current domain? I moved to Apartment C in June, 2010, but it is filled with objects owned by my family as well as objects owned by complete strangers. A tour of my living room might highlight my paternal grandmother's chest which was made in Milton, Pennsylvania, and purchased and used by my grandmother in New York City during the second half of the twentieth century. Now, my tv rests on top of it, and I store Christmas decorations inside. Another highlight might include my sofa. My parents bought it for me from a furniture warehouse in Pennsylvania in 2007, and I have used it in three apartments in Delaware even though I had my heart set on an over-stuffed red velvet sofa that would have been monstrously out of proportion for any of my Delaware apartments. Finally, I might also highlight a late eighteenth-century Chinese export porcelain teabowl and saucer that boasts a provenance so fascinating that it inspired me to start a blog about antiquing and material culture. These are the stories that visitors want to hear. History is not cut and dry, and interpretations of period spaces should not be, either.
I am happy to report that I have recently been involved in two museums' efforts to interpret their period rooms in all their complexity. As a cataloguer working with the Winterthur Museum's furnishing textiles (upholstery, bed hangings, and window hangings), in some instances, I helped uncover long-forgotten furnishing fabrics once displayed and used by Henry Francis du Pont at Winterthur. Some of these furnishings are so different from those currently on display in the rooms (which are no longer called "period" rooms, just "rooms") for which they were originally designed in the early twentieth century that displaying them would dramatically alter the room's current interpretation. For example, the formal dining room has been a showcase for classical decoration, but at one time, the room was outfitted with mid nineteenth-century printed cotton seat covers adorned with exotic images of the near east. In addition, as a volunteer at my local historical society, I have been involved in considering how the society may alter its interpretation plan for one house that was built circa 1700, inhabited by craftsmen throughout the eighteenth century, and furnished during the Colonial Revival under the understanding that the home dated to the 1650s. Coupled with a growing interest in the history of collectors and collecting, I have high hopes that many museums will follow suit.
Yes, period rooms--whether they are part of house museum or galleries--are "rooms worth keeping," but as we have the time and money to grapple with and interpret what is often a layered historical reality, these new interpretations will reinvigorate visitors' and scholars' interest in what period rooms are, how they became what they are, and what they mean.
Further Readings (just a sampling of so many possibilities)
The Frick Collection, the Center for the History of Collecting in America, http://www.frick.org/center/.
The Art Institute of Chicago, Miniature Rooms: The Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2004).
James Parker, et. al., Period Rooms in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996).
John A. H. Sweeney, The Treasure House of Early American Rooms (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1963).