One Room, Three Ways
As WPAMC fellows, we engage with material culture in many ways. In addition to connoisseurship classes and field studies, students plan exhibitions, catalog objects, and give tours to museum visitors. Last month, we were trained to give this year’s spring tour, which inspired me to think about our changing interpretations of Winterthur’s rooms.
Guiding at the museum allows us to know a portion of the collection intimately, and because of the way tours are structured at Winterthur (they differ between autumn, the winter holidays, and spring) we learn the spaces in multiple ways. Giving different tours of the same room has shown me how the nature of material culture can change depending on the contexts in which objects are placed.
For example, the Chinese Parlor, an opulent room on the fifth floor featuring hand-painted Chinese export wallpaper and an arrangement of Chippendale furniture in the Colonial Revival style, transforms for each of the tours.
The fall tour, which for many fellows provides our first deep introduction to the Winterthur collections, highlights the arrangement of the furniture and objects, which coordinates with the wallpaper and brings the brightness and color of the Winterthur gardens inside the museum.
As winter approaches, the space is transformed for Yuletide, Winterthur’s celebration of the holiday season. This year, an exuberant Christmas tree adorned with electric lights captivated visitors, and baskets of gifts were scattered on the floor. This interpretation of the space focused less on Henry Francis du Pont’s arrangement of his room, and more on an imagined Christmas morning, in which the du Pont family celebrated by giving each other personal gifts. A great lover of bridge, Ruth Du Pont once received over 20 packs of cards!
Interpretation in the spring focuses on the du Pont family’s bustling life at Winterthur, including late-night snacks and coffee and enjoying American caviar. In the Chinese Parlor, guests enter into a scene that appears as if the du Ponts have just left. Cards splayed on tables hint at a game of bridge, and one easily imagines the family and their guests enjoying music flowing from the piano and the scent of fresh blooms as they enjoy their game.
During our time at Winterthur, we enjoy seeing galleries transform, exhibitions change, and tours evolve. As some of us go on to become museum professionals, this prepares us to transform the sites we will steward so visitors return to a familiar space that offers something new, and offers us new approaches and different aspects of material culture to study.
By Brooke Baerman, WPAMC Class of 2019