Monday, January 26, 2015

What a Mess

I love this photograph.

I can't quite make out who and what are pictured in the dozens of photographs arrayed on the wall. But that's besides the point. I love it because I can't help but think about the fact that a hundred years before this late nineteenth-century photograph was taken, it just wasn't possible to surround oneself with likenesses of one's friends and families in this way.

How did photography change the nature of remembering and sentimentality? 

I also love this photograph because it reminds me how much I wish more curators of period rooms in museums took a cue from "real life" and dared to fashion more cluttered and less sterile (if not physically, than perhaps intellectually) interpretive spaces. A question about how remembering and sentimentality changed over time probably would not be inspired by a period room featuring a token photograph on the wall. Indeed, it occurs to me that most members of the general public (as opposed to a historian/museum pro like me) get their history from house museums, not collecting and studying intently photographs of historic interiors. So it's really up to the keepers of museums to embrace what a mess history was and is and how fascinating and enlightening interrogating these messes can be.

One of the most memorable "messes" I saw in a period room was last winter at Colonial Williamsburg.

For me, at least, I started to think about the history of cleanliness, pest eradication, and even sex--not just the identities of the people who lived there in the colonial era.

So what are we waiting for? Find your museum's mess and stir it up. Or if you are doing this already (or have seen it done), tell me about it in the comments!

Further Reading

I wrote a bit about cleanliness and period rooms last February as it related to workshop period rooms. Check out that post about cleaning, inventorying, cataloguing, and reinstalling a duck decoy shop here.

Kitty Calash writes often and well about accessing "truth," "authenticity," and the like in historical interpretation at living history events and inside historic house museums at her blog, Confessions of a Known Bonnet-Wearer. Franklin Vagnone writes on some of these themes too. You can check out his stuff here.

For more examples of nineteenth-century interiors of people and their photographs, see Katherine C. Grier's Culture & Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850-1930 (1988).

No comments:

Post a Comment