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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sotheby's in the South: Charleston Day 3

With day 2 behind us, and a little more tired from the activities than expected, I decided to make day 3 a little bit less full so that there would be no issues with missing planes, or running out of energy at the very end.  On our agenda for the day were 2 historic houses: the Nathaniel Russell House for the morning, followed by some free time to explore the city, then touring the Aiken-Rhett House in the afternoon.  We were to meet curator Brandy Culp at the Russell house that morning, but some bad weather delayed her in Texas.  In her place, we had a fabulous tour of the house with Bridget O'Brien, historic Charleston's museum coordinator, who deserves a lot of credit for stepping in (at the 11th hour no less) and taking us through the house and collections.

Unlike most of the museums in the northeast, where southern furniture and decorative arts are largely ignored, the Historic Charleston collections are packed with great objects.  And unlike period rooms, where I always feel a bit like I am moving through a series of dioramas, the museum-house allows you to experience the the architectural setting of the environment as a constantly changing backdrop.  This means that you see much more than a typical period room environment can provide: the way that light changes in the rooms, the fluid relationship between interior and exterior which opens up views and vistas on the yard and town, and the acoustic properties of the space, the shift in sounds that each room and transitional space brings.  As always, one of the highlights of the tour was getting to see the storage area--this type of access gives a good sense of what the museum holds, and always features items of interest to our group.  Bridget's tour was no exception, she took us into the storage spaces, discussed the various strategies of presentation of historical materials that the foundation employs, and gave us a preview of their upcoming work.

Knowing that I had some time to spare before our next house museum, I walked through town, looking into antique stores, grabbing some coffee, and wandering up towards the Aiken Rhett house.  Along the way, however, I made two stops: the Confederate Museum in Charleston followed by the Joseph Manigault House.

The Confederate Museum was not at all what I expected.  Frankly, I didn't know what to expect, but there was no amount of preparation for what I encountered.  It is a small, densely packed space, with cases of exhibits, paintings on the wall, cannons, maps, and uniforms.  What struck me as odd (and admittedly, I am a bit of an outsider here) was the complete lack of any didactic material.  My impression was that the museum took for granted your knowledge of the civil war, assumed a familiarity with soldier's and officer's names, and thus decided to provide labels that were informational / factual (i.e., here is what you are looking at) rather than explanatory.  I was particularly struck by the lack of mention of slavery throughout the museum, with the exception of an urban slave tag on display.  Perhaps I am cynical, but I took the label to claim that slaves were sometimes allowed to work, as if somehow this was enough explanation.  What happened to the wages, the treatment of the slaves by their masters, and indeed the whole question of servitude was neatly sidestepped.

By contrast, the Joseph Manigault house was a little more clear in its intention, and more didactic in the presentation of materials to the public.  Part of this is achieved by requiring a guide for all tours, who leads you through the home's history, introduces you to the families involved, and provides information about the pieces in the collection.   Although in some sense your experience is dependent on the guide (and thus not guaranteed or necessarily repeatable), the guide I had was pleasant and knowledgable.

The museum features one of the nicer portraits by Swiss Painter Jeremiah Theus that I saw in Charleston, as well as beautiful gardens and architecture.  The collection is not quite a strong (on the whole) as the Museum's Heyward Washington House, but it does provide an additional layer of depth towards understanding the cultural, decorative, and architectural heritage of the city, and should be on anyone's list of museum to see who visits the city.

The last stop of the day for the class was the Aiken Rhett House, which provides a stunning contrast to Historic Charleston's other property (the Nathaniel Russell House) and shows the true depth of the foundation's didactic tools, as well as the range of its mission.  Unlike the Nathaniel Russell house, where all tours are guided, the Aiken Rhett House is an audio tour, and one which (I have to confess) I didn't hear.  The goal in the house was to have the students take the tour, then reconvene with curator Brandy Culp and me, to debrief.  What did they like about the tour?  What worked?  What didn't?  What did they want more of?  Less of?  In some ways, this (in addition to broadening the range of culture we cover) is the fundamental goal of this year: speaking to your audience.  While the students took the tour, I examined one of the museum's paintings, and then sat in on a conservation meeting discussing possible steps and strategies.

After the conservation meeting, but before our debriefing, I talked to the students briefly about the conservation plans, some of the issues with the painting, as well as the logistical issues of the conservation. Then, I went to the basement, awaited the students and the debriefing / question period began.  I was incredibly surprised by the depth of the students questions, the issues they raised, and the thoughtful critiques (both positive and negative) they gave of their tour.  While it would be difficult to say there was consensus on the issues, it was remarkable to me how keenly the students hit on major points, how sharp their eyes and observations were, and how much they had absorbed in the short time they had spent in the program.  One of the reasons the program has stressed connecting with audiences as a theme, is that it is a skill applicable to a wide range of careers open to students upon graduation.  Whether you decide to write, pursue a PhD, sell objects, work in museum education, work in development, or provide consultation services to collectors, the fundamental task of connecting with the audience remains the same.  Without this skill, the ability not just to repeat the facts, but to forge a connection and understand (anticipate even) the needs and desires of the audience, remains a paramount indicator of future success in the art world.  Based on what I saw in Charleston, and in Boston, and in the classroom, I have great confidence that this year's group of students will do exceptionally well.  

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