An installation at the Milwaukee Art Museum uses historical fiction, as well as extensive primary source research, to gain a deeper understanding of Early America. The exhibition was put together by Sarah Carter, curator and director of research at the Chipstone Foundation, in partnership with the Milwaukee Art Museum. Chipstone’s mission is to promote and enhance knowledge of American material culture (emphasizing the decorative arts) by scholars, students and the general public. They have been dedicated to providing primary source material by giving access to their extensive collection of objects at museums, through courses at the University of Wisconsin, and digitally, on the web. I should note that when I started out as a librarian, my first job was putting together a digital library for material culture at the University of Wisconsin, funded by Chipstone, and back in grad school at UW, I worked on an exhibition of items from the Chipstone Collection.
Mrs. M----‘s Cabinet is nothing like the label-heavy, glass-vitrine laden show my fellow art history grad students and I worked on. Instead, it is a complete environment of layered meanings and interpretations. To begin with, it is presented as a group of artifacts amassed by the ghost of a 19th century collector, whose enthusiasm for ceramics began when she was a child “mud larking” along the James River in Virginia. What we see at the exhibition are ceramics, and other objects related to Early America, whether made or used in America, or objects that provide the historical context for those items. The ceramics and furniture in the exhibition are historic, not reproductions. However, they are presented in a room that was specially created for the exhibition, in the style of a very fashionable, extravagant 19th century interior. Mrs. M--- herself is an invention, an invention based on careful reading of primary sources, but fictional nonetheless. The exhibit challenges the ideas of what America was like in the early days of the Republic, and changes the focus from a colony completely focused on Great Britain, to a more global, cosmopolitan settlement, claiming land already “discovered” and occupied by indigenous cultures. It also challenges the idea of what a “real” artifact is.
I am intrigued by this unorthodox presentation of what can be pretty dry material. I feel like the fictionalizing of the collector allows the viewer to ask all sorts of questions, which may have felt unreasonable in a traditional, label-bound exhibit. As Diane M. Bacha says in her review of the exhibit for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “this installation is less about interpreting objects for visitors and more about inviting them to find their own interpretations.” http://archive.jsonline.com/entertainment/arts/mysterious-fictional-character-created-to-bring-art-to-life-at-mam-b99687087z1-372564511.html Isn’t that just what we ask our students to do when they analyze a primary source using the TPS method?
Not all of us can make it to Milwaukee to see Mrs. M-----‘s Cabinet. However, the Chipstone Foundation’s commitment to innovative technology allows us to experience it online. Take a look for yourself at http://mrsmscabinet.org/