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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Williamsburg Antiques Forum

Williamsburg and I have had a slow courtship at times, I drag my heels, I am not particularly certain how to balance the aspects of preservation and reconstruction and quite get a handle on whether or not the place is authentic, and to what degree.  I maintain that the experience of walking through history--itself a blend of repositioned and re-imagined spaces is a useful teaching tool and that there are craftspersons working at CW that are second to none and provide useful lessons on craft, business, and production in the 18th century.  I also realize that its quite a lot to ask of students to visit solely for this experience, and thus we pair it with the Williamsburg Antiques Forum.  It's a way to keep them engaged with current scholarship, meet collectors, future colleagues, and mentors in the field and each year it seems to get better. 

This year there were particularly great talks and I thought it would be useful to recount for me what were the highlights.  Really, all the talks were very good but it seemed useful to provide a condensed view of the week here.

Karina Corrigan's talk "The Other Export Arts: Indian Textiles and Luxury Goods for America" on Sunday morning was exceptional.  As the H. A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, this is somewhat expected--she has access to a tremendous collection.  What made the talk so good though was her clarity, her pacing, the clear choices of images she chose to illustrate her points, and the care she took in preparing it.  It was a read paper (as most were) that didn't feel read.  She didn't lose her place.  She really commanded the audience from start to finish and (especially for myself who knew little of Indian export art) formed a cogent narrative.  For the students, this was an opportunity to discuss what distinguishes a very good talk from a great one, what did you like about her presentation.  The conference allows me to not only to expose them to objects and scholarship, but because we're there for an extended stay to talk about the art of presentation and deconstruct strategies for successful public speaking.  The nicest part of the day was when Karina joined a few students, Ron Bourgeault, and me at the BBQ Ron hosted.  It was a great opportunity for them to interact with her, ask questions, and show their appreciation.

Sunday afternoon we had a split schedule: we heard about the conservation of the Drayton Hall desk and secretary from Christopher Swan and Tara Gleason Chicarda; then moved through the galleries to view objects, hear from the curators, and think about design, display, and didactic materials.  The Drayton Hall desk looks great, and the conservation team really deserves credit for their thorough and innovative approach to the piece.  For instance, worried that replacing the original mirror (sadly missing) with quarter inch glass would strain the door hinges and threaten the structural integrity of the piece, they opted for a plexiglass replacement that is half the weight and aged to better blend in.  There were a few murmurs among the crowd that perhaps the restoration was too clean, but at the end of the day that was an issue more decided by the customer (Drayton Hall) then the conservation team.  The desk has something like 10 individual secret compartments and is well worth a visit.  It will be at CW for a few years while Drayton hall readies themselves for its return.

Throughout the week all the speakers were very good, but the other standout for me was Alexandra Kirtley's talk "It's all about the dress: Upholstery on Early American Furniture."  She took the audience not only through the state of scholarship on upholstery but really showed the practical side of why this matters.  Whether it was correcting the size of a squab (cushion) and showing how that corrects the proportions of a chair, or finding evidence of original upholstery campaigns and demonstrating the different challenges and options this presented her with, it was a fascinating side of furniture interpretation that is often absent or less obvious.   

The collections at the museum are deep and wide--and as it was pointed out to me, one could essentially use the museum as a teaching laboratory with a little advance planning and enough time.  Even beyond the collections, the craftspersons really make the visit worthwhile because they provide an intimate knowledge into the making of paces, and are a tangible example of how much labor went into the creation of objects.  The highpoints for me were the printer, because he reiterated to them the relative paucity of printed news in the colonies and made them consider populations, densities, and markets as a large component in the evolution of newspapers.  He's also fairly wonderful, quite amusing, and works non stop while he talks.

 I try to always take them to the bookbinder as well, since he's an excellent craftsman, a skilled teacher, and a pleasure to see.  It's easy to forget not only how labor intensive book-making was, but also that the top selling books were blank paged ones, for record keeping.  The level of skill required to bind books well, to tool the leather, and complete the gilding is exceptional. 

The milliner's shop is another favorite of mine too.  There, you can learn about fashion history, import history, clothes construction, wardrobe--really more aspects of the culture than you might believe at first glance.  Colonial Williamsburg seems to have combined the shop to represent both the traditional store as well as have an expert tailor on hand.  

And lastly, because everyone likes to see furniture made, we always go to the cabinet maker's shop.  It's one of the rare chances at Colonial Williamsburg to pull out drawers and flip over chairs to see the details of 18th century construction.  Admittedly, these are reproductions, but we're more interested in seeing and examining joints, having a sense of what finish looked like in the period, and feeling the weight of different woods.  Also, it gives students a chance to have hands on demonstrations and explanations of techniques they may not be fully able to envision, so it's quite useful.

At the end of a grey day in Williamsburg, during which it was windy and pouring, I admit that my enthusiasm for showing them every nook and cranny can be less infectious than I'd like.  However, despite some groans, I did make them see the Governor's palace because I think that walking through an interior (even a reconstructed one) is much different than seeing a slide, and because I really like the kitchen there, the types of preparation they do, and the manner in which somehow seeing and smelling food makes a deep impact that helps the students connect with the space.  I don't always love the interpretation of the palace, and the idea that we (as citizens of the 21st century) have been mysteriously been invited to a ball on the 18th of January and we should be excited to meet the governor--I like a straighter interpretation of spaces and materials.  I will say, however, that our guide was excellent, and that upon learning they were MA students, he tempered the talk to social issues and served as historic and social issues guide, rather than beckoning us to the ball.  All in all, another great trip.

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