Summer Stories: Capturing Histories in the Gulf South
For students in the Winterthur program, the summer between the first and second year usually means scattering around the United States, involving themselves in thesis research or a variety of other projects. This year, I participated in the Classical Institute of the South at the Historic New Orleans Collection, joining CIS Coordinator and Research Curator Sarah Duggan (WPAMC, 2011) and art history graduate student Joseph Ramsey (Tulane, 2017) on a cataloging adventure to visit Woodville, Natchez, and Port Gibson, Mississippi for several weeks over the summer. The three of us traveled across Mississippi and Louisiana in a car stuffed with reference books, photography equipment, and care and handling tools. We visited houses that sometimes remain much as they were when they were furnished in the early nineteenth century and encountered objects with their own captivating histories, ranging from paintings by Benjamin West to utilitarian baskets potentially made by slaves.
CIS fellows Joseph Ramsey and Michelle Fitzgerald documenting argand lamps in Natchez, MS. CIS Instagram
Each year, the Classical Institute of the South at the Historic New Orleans Collection enlists the help of two summer fellows to visit historic sites in the Gulf South and catalogue objects with provenance in the region dating to before the Civil War. These objects often remain in situ from the time they were first introduced into the homes, having been originally manufactured in urban production centers like Philadelphia, New York, or Cincinnati. The objects are catalogued on site and included in the publicly accessible Gulf South Decorative & Fine Arts Database for the benefit of researchers to preserve and organize the region’s remarkable material culture.
For students in the Winterthur program who have spent their first year in connoisseurship training, this is an opportunity to put those new skills to the test. I saw connections we discussed in class made real through traveling trunks that had made their way to from Port Gibson to Liverpool, England and back again, or a Philadelphia gasolier presiding over a Natchez parlor.
Cataloging a Civil War Union sword in Woodville, MS.
The Classical Institute of the South at the Historic New Orleans Collection offers a valuable chance to not only experience objects in situ, but, perhaps even more importantly, to meet the people who live with them. In Natchez, we met Ron (WPEAC, 1972) and Mimi Miller (Executive Director, Historic Natchez Foundation), who are tireless advocates for preserving the history of the Gulf South through its objects and historic sites within the community. Over breakfast at their bed and breakfast, they enthusiastically shared the history of homes we were cataloging, and made us feel like members of a family.
Many times, the people whose homes we visited would share memories with us over an iced tea and treats. They told us why they loved their community, and how the objects we looked at from a cataloging perspective may be something they remember as belonging to their grandmother and have an entirely different meaning to them. In this way, the objects became more than a connoisseurship exercise. They became personal.
By Michelle Fitzgerald, WPAMC Class of 2017
For more information on the Classical Institute of the South at the Historic New Orleans Collection, please visit the program’s website: http://www.classicalinstituteofthesouth.org