Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Period Rooms Are Timeless

The image of museum professionals is that of a somber lot. That myth was thoroughly debunked by a Monday session at the AAM Annual Meeting, when talk of curatorship, literature and—egad, sex!—had a packed room roaring with laughter.

The session was titled "Exhibitions That Changed My Life," and leading off was noted educator, author and museum historian Marjorie Schwarzer. Her focus was on period rooms, their evolution in the museum toolkit and how over the years they have addressed history, immigrant assimilation, the desire to be rich and, yes, sex.

Schwarzer said that from the time of the first period room in America—George Washington's bedroom at Mt. Vernon, unveiled in the 1860s—period rooms have played a critical role in American institutions. Yet she also said that the perception of museums a century ago was that of "cluttered attics," and she had her audience laughing with her reference to John Updike's novella, "Museums and Women," in which he wrote movingly of his dread at the prospect of a visit to the local museum.

Yet, according to Schwarzer, period rooms also demonstrated our continuing "fascination with the super wealthy." She cited the Peacock Room of James MacNeil Whistler (now on display at Washington's Freer Gallery of Art), a creation that spawned numerous imitations—including one at Elvis's Graceland!—Dewey Blanton


Kate said...

This sounds like a fantastic, interesting, and informative session - wish I could be there!

Natasha said...

This sounds fabulous - and the whole blog is a great idea... particularly for those of us who couldn't attend (gives us something to do other than sulk.) Thanks so much for sharing! I look forward to reading more.