Trending: Ecocritical Exhibitions

On the first day of our southern field study, we drove over six hundred miles to Charleston on tree-lined highways that slowly became engulfed by southern yellow pines. After dinner at the Lizard’s Thicket, a South Carolina “meat and three” restaurant, a classmate noted that although we had spent most of the day driving (with a refreshing and fascinating stop at the home of a private collector near Raleigh, North Carolina), the cultural and natural landscapes we observed roadside were striking. For one, I’m not sure any of us will soon forget our rest stop at “South of the Border,” a colorful diversion at the heat-scorched border between North and South Carolina.

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A timely rest stop at South of the Border, a unique roadside attraction

But, through the rest of the trip, I was similarly struck by numerous museum exhibitions that linked natural and cultural ideas, tapping into the varying ways people have thought about, responded to, and modified the natural world over time.

At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, I happened upon “Organic: Photographs of the Natural World.” The exhibit highlighted select photographs from the VMFA’s collection that speak to the human impulse to take photographs of flowers, trees, and natural vistas, all the more relevant in this age of the smartphone. A favorite featured work was Lee Friedlander’s Car and Fence and Bush – San Diego, California, which captured an unexceptional moment of opposition and tension. I wondered how many times I have walked, biked, or driven past a poignant, fleeting scene just like that one. I then wondered how many visitors had paused at this photograph and similarly thought about this tension between natural and built environments. For me, “Organic” raised questions about nature and culture, both in museums and in the world at large.

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Lee Friedlander’s silver gelatin print, Car and Fence and Bush – San Diego, California (1970)

Later that day in Richmond, we visited Maymont, the Gilded-Age estate of James Henry and Sallie May Dooley. One of the museum’s current special exhibitions is “A Passion for Nature,” a theme evident in both the decoration of the mansion and the landscaping of the grounds. The centerpiece of the exhibition, which spread through numerous rooms and displays in the historic mansion, is the Dooley’s sizable collection of the Haviland White House dinner service designed by Theodore Davis for Rutherford B. Hayes’ presidency. Featuring the flora and fauna of North America, the service interests me as material evidence of the culture-laden decisions a late-nineteenth-century artist made in using images of nature to represent North America.

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Classmates approach Maymont Mansion in Richmond

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Hayes presidential china on display in the dining room at Maymont as part of “A Passion for Nature” exhibit

Finally, on our second-to-last stop on the trip, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, we learned about Washington’s domestic, political, and military roles through material culture. But we also learned about Washington’s role in constructing and modifying Mount Vernon’s landscape in an exhibition called “Gardens & Groves: George Washington’s Landscape at Mount Vernon.” Including remarkable drawings of Washington’s 1785-1787 picturesque design for the estate, featuring lawns, groves, and serpentine trails, the exhibition seemed to equip visitors to connect the artifacts and artworks on display with the landscape just outside the museum walls, encouraging visitors to question why the grounds look the way they do.

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Photographs weren’t permitted in “Gardens & Groves.” This is the view of the landscape from the cupola at Mount Vernon

Through their questions surrounding the relationship between humans and the natural world, these exhibitions might be considered “ecocritical,” a term defined by Alan C. Braddock and Christopher Imscher in their 2009 edited volume, A Keener Perception. In the introduction to that volume, they wrote, “By critically illuminating the environmental contexts of past cultural artifacts, scholarship in our view has the power to change the way we think about history while also contributing actively to current cultural conversations.” During our southern trip, I noticed that ecocritical exhibitions like the three highlighted above are certainly trending, but importantly so: environmental issues are pressing, and material and cultural studies have relevant and meaningful voices to add to this urgent dialogue.

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A concluding landscape view from our second day, overlooking Charleston Harbor

Many thanks to Rosemary Krill, Stephanie Auffret, the Winterthur Program, and all of our gracious hosts for the opportunity to experience these wonderful exhibitions and so many others during our southern field study!

By Katie Bonanno, WPAMC class of 2016


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