Thursday, April 5, 2012

Material Culture Minute: Christian C. Sanderson Museum

Filing past the parade of the national and the personal artifacts (melted ice from the South Pole, family Berlin work on perforated cardboard, a lock of George Washington's hair), I caught myself reaching and (almost, but not quite) grabbing objects as if I were browsing at an antique mall.  One of the reasons I felt compelled to shop is that many of the exhibits at the Christian C. Sanderson Museum in Chadds Ford, PA, provide minimal interpretation.  In other words, there are very few conventional "tombstone" labels and text panels here placing the objects in the war room within the larger context of American history.  Second, many of the artifacts include or are accompanied by hand-written provenance notes, which I love.  Therefore, it was easy to slip into "shopping" mode.

For those of you who are not familiar with this magical place, you should consider visiting when you're in the area.  The Museum was thoughtfully arranged and curated after Sanderson's death in the 1960s, and it has been lovingly made available to the public since then by a dedicated group of volunteers.  The Museum is housed inside Sanderson's home; two floors include a series of exhibits featuring about 1,500 of the museum's 18,000 objects.  The artifacts have been arranged by subjects such as "war" and "school."  (Despite these organizing themes, the war room does, in fact, include World's Fair memorabilia.)
The museum is still "collecting."  Here, a jar rediscovered around 2004 is displayed with matches.  Both jar and matches had been in the attic of the Sanderson since the 1967 "clean-up."  Christian C. Sanderson Museum, Chadds Ford, PA.
Yet just because a museum is inside someone's home does not mean that it is a house museum in the traditional sense (or what I believe to be the "traditional" sense).  In many house museums, the rooms   are as much a product of the curators who essentially "decorate" (with a lot of learned historical precision) as they are of the people who previously inhabited them.  There are plenty of exceptions, as there are plenty of house museums out there that have been barely touched since the last person who live inside of them died.  Therefore, the rooms at many house museums can be anywhere on a continuum in terms of the extent to which they truly represent how they looked as homes before they were museums.  One might argue that the Sanderson is not, in fact a house museum; it is not furnished in a way that would be a reasonable approximation of how Sanderson experienced his abode. There are two reasons why this doesn't look a like a "house."

First, what you don't get until you start flipping through some of the photographs on display in binders is that Sanderson was what we might call an extreme accumulator: upon his death, Sanderson's home did not look as neat and orderly as it does now.  Exhibiting the rooms in that state would make the spaces physically inaccessible.  Second, piles of stuff would not highlight the "collection" in the way that the museum can now.

And yet it is difficult to make sense of this place without the "home" or "house" context. When Tyler and I visited, we enjoyed a mini tour with a knowledgeable and friendly volunteer who started us off with a history of the how Sanderson and his mother used the home.  "The front room was originally inhabited by a blacksmith; Mrs. Sanderson used this room as a bedroom," etc.  The volunteer provided some of the much-needed context, as the collection makes little sense without it.  Even with the context, visitors are still left largely to ooo and aaah.

A panel on the second floor encapsulates how one observer remembered Sanderson: "He  has given his life to things that mean most -- in understanding American history, and understanding the American purpose."  If we were to take the Museum as an embodiment of that "American purpose," what might we conclude that "purpose" to be?  Maybe understanding this purpose derives from the objects that embody the history with which they are labeled, and the meaning of these objects is different for every visitor.  Perhaps that's the beauty of the museum.  Certain objects were selected to be displayed.  Many of these objects are labeled with notes that explain their links to the past.  Many objects are grouped thematically.  But aside form those "institutional" interpretations, you can make your own history.  There might be some missed interpretative opportunities here, but it was refreshing to concentrate on looking rather than reading.
Here comes Peter Cottontail:  a collection of Easter eggs associated with Anderson and his family, 1886-1944. Christian C. Sanderson Museum, Chadds Ford, PA.  
Further Reading

Visit the Christian C. Sanderson Museum web site to learn more about this enchanting Museum:  

If your interest in antiquarians and relics was not quelled with this post, you might like to learn about John Fanning Watson and his relics at Winterthur:  Yvette Piggush, "Fancy History: John Fanning Watson's Relic Box," Common-Place 10, 1 (October 2009).

For more on Easter-related objects from early America, check out Winterthur's exhibition "The Easter Bunny and a Decorated Egg: Two Rare Early American Treasures."

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