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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Charleston: Sotheby's in the South Day 1

It's become increasingly aware to me in my time in New York City how the location of our studies determines, at least in part, the types of objects we discuss.  One of this year's initiatives was to broaden the discussion, to pay more attention to regional productions outside of the main centers (like Boston, Newport, Philadelphia, and New York in the Colonial period) so that students emerge with a better understanding of the textures and complexity of American culture.  While many at the Met still shudder to remember Joseph Downs' 1949 statement that "little of artistic merit was made south of Baltimore," one might reasonably ask what is being done to correct that stance.  I should point out too, that the bias Downs articulated was neither exclusive or particular to the Met, it seems part of a broader, largely unspoken notion that impacted collecting habits throughout the northeast.  Unfortunately, it is still virtually impossible to see any quantity of southern furniture in New York City (or Boston, or Philadelphia for that matter); this is a serious lacuna in these collections.  Fortunately, it provides an excellent reason for our program to travel south, out of the reach of Manhattan's autumn, and into Charleston.

Arriving as we did in the late morning, the first day was designed to allow students to get their bearings, get situated in the hotel, eat at one of the many fine restaurants Charleston has to offer, and then gather at the Charleston Museum for an overview of the art and culture of the region.  I'll be honest: this should be the first stop for everyone who goes to Charleston.  The museum is pleasant, incredibly informative, and acclimates visitors to the culture of Charleston perfectly.  The permanent exhibition in Lowcountry History Hall takes you through the history of Charleston starting with the settlement patterns, the regional agricultural concerns, demonstrating how the economy developed, details Charleston's involvement in the Civil War, and functions as the perfect primer for any visit.

We then met with Grahame Long, Curator of History, in the Loeblein Gallery of Charleston Silver.  The museum's collection is tightly focused and contains some really unexpected gems.  Want to see George Washington's christening cup?  They have it.  They also have a wide range of objects--from Colonial Gorgets, to 20th century spoon dies, to contemporary pieces like the beautiful bleu cheese bowl by Charleston silversmith Alfred Crabtree.  Grahame Long is exceptionally knowledgeable and accessible, and explained the purpose of the installation, the goals of the collection, and brought objects out for the students to handle.

 Probably the highlight of the silver gallery was when Grahame removed a number of slave tags from an envelope, placed them atop the vitrine and asked the students which ones they thought were authentic, and which ones they felt were fake.  

As it turns out, all of them were fake, which was good as none of the students were wearing gloves.  What ensued, however, was a discussion of authenticity: how does the museum guard against fakes coming in, what do they do when they find fakes, and how does one go about making the assessment.  Interestingly, the museum keeps fakes like this, which forms a useful tool in examining and authenticating works.  It also allows them to use these objects as teaching tools, informing both the public, students, and even collectors about things to be wary of.  From the silver gallery, we headed back into storage to see the nuts and bolts of the museum's operation.

The Charleston Museum is in fact the country's oldest.  Founded in 1773, essentially as a satellite to the British Museum, their mission has evolved over time, and much of that evidence remains in their storage facilities.  While there we saw virtually everything: from Ivory Billed Woodpeckers, to Demming and Bulkley Tables, to their "wet storage" rooms--a collection of specimens in bottles, ranging from fish to snakes to unmentionable things kept in locked boxes.  

It was fascinating.  Disturbing at times, but fascinating nonetheless.  Where else in America could you spend the morning looking at George Washington's christening cup, the afternoon seeing extinct birds beautifully preserved, and your free time seeing squid, fish, and animals from around the world still preserved?

From wet storage we moved back into the dry things, and were treated to the museums impressive collections of material culture.  One thing students began to understand was how the mission of the museum dictates its collection policies and helps shape the scope of the collection.  Unlike fine art museums in which the focus is on art, The Charleston Museum is focused on educating people about Charleston: its history, its culture, its productions.  This means that not only are the strategies for display different, but their didactic materials must be broader and able to speak to a wide range of audiences.  It means they collect everything from the finest Charleston Silver to the quirkiest of insecticides, all because these each have a place in telling the story their mission dictates.

Grahame Long was generous with both his time and knowledge, and a splendid host.  We will certainly make the museum a regular stop when we travel to Charleston.

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