Oh, the Places You’ll Go! in Museums

As Winterthur Fellows, the title of Dr. Seuss’ 1990 Oh, the Places You’ll Go! resonates with us perhaps more literally than the rhyming wordsmith intended for his inspirational book on dreams, discoveries, and possibilities. After all, one focus of our first-year studies is to begin differentiating between regional, place-based variations – like the differences between the Newport and Philadelphia Chippendale styles. One of the great benefits of the field studies that follow our first year is to build an understanding of these regionalisms in context. But, of course, regional differences aren’t restricted to the 18th century!

IMG 1 & 2For instance, a regional comparison of a Newport Chippendale-style side chair (left, ca. 1790) to a Philadelphia example (right, ca. 1760-1780)

Throughout our New England and New York field study at the end of August, I was struck by numerous exhibitions that explored ideas of place and region: what distinguishes a place or space? How do humans relate and respond to it? Why does our interpretation of place matter? The two highlighted exhibitions below answered these questions differently, but I’d argue that their answers have great potential impact for both local communities and visiting audiences.

IMG 3Willie Granston (WPAMC 2016) admires Olana, the spectacular home and studio of Frederic Church

On the first day of our trip, we explored Olana, the incredible home and studio of Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church in Hudson, New York. Just two miles away, across the Hudson River, sits Thomas Cole National Historic Site, the home of Hudson River School founder (and Church’s teacher) Thomas Cole. At Olana, we experienced one-half of the exhibition that Olana and the Thomas Cole Site are now jointly hosting: “River Crossings: Contemporary Art Comes Home.” The exhibition features the work of 28 contemporary artists, each with some connection to the Hudson River Valley. Installed inside the historic spaces, the art is in conversation with historic interiors and objects as well as “home” in a place – the Hudson River Valley – where a culture of contemporary American art blossomed in the 19th century.


Boott Cotton Mills at Lowell National Historical Park

Photographs were not permitted in “River Crossings,” but this image shows the Rip Van Winkle Bridge crossing the Hudson River from the bell tower at Olana (above) and Boott Cotton Mills at Lowell National Historical Park (below)

Traveling from New York through western Massachusetts, we spent an afternoon learning about industrial textile production and urban development at Lowell National Historical Park. Located on the Merrimack River north of Boston, Lowell was planned as a mill town and grew into one of the largest urban manufacturing centers in the United States by the mid-19th century. Attracting migrant workers and immigrants to work in the textile mills through the 19th century, Lowell became home to a sizable population of refugees during and after the Cambodian genocide (1975-1979). Refugee populations continue to make up a significant portion of Lowell’s population, the topic of a small temporary exhibition at the park entitled “Their Stories: Lowell’s Youth and the Refugee Experience.” The exhibition contains a community art project, “The Culture Tree,” and excerpts from oral histories with five young people from Bhutan, Burma, Congo, and Iraq. These diverse refugee narratives share a connection to place, Lowell.

The centerpiece of "Their Stories: Lowell's Youth and the Refugee Experience" was "The Culture Tree," a mural representing 18 refugee youths' pasts, presents, and futures through collage and assemblageThe centerpiece of “Their Stories: Lowell’s Youth and the Refugee Experience” was “The Culture Tree,” a mural representing 18 refugee youths’ pasts, presents, and futures through collage and assemblage

Of course, any museum visit entails some degree of engagement with place, but these two exhibitions are directly encouraging their visitors to consider the meanings of and responses to a place over time. Museums’ connections to place, hinging on their interpretation of historic and contemporary material culture, can bolster a sense of community that is vital to community and civic engagement. I think these exhibitions ultimately suggest one useful lens – place – through which material culture may be interpreted relevantly and meaningfully for visiting audiences.

Many thanks to Ritchie Garrison, Greg Landrey, the Winterthur Program, and all of our fantastic hosts for the opportunity to learn from these exhibitions and objects – and countless others! – during our northeastern field study!

By Katie Bonanno, WPAMC class of 2016

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