Objects rare and poignant joined the Colonial Williamsburg museum collections in 2009. Chief Curator and Vice President for Collections, Conservation and Museums Ron Hurst describes the finds.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Today my guest is Ron Hurst, the Carlisle H. Humelsine Chief Curator and Vice President for Collections, Conservation and Museums. Ron, thank you for being here today.
Ron Hurst: My pleasure.
Harmony: We’re catching up with you early in 2010 to talk about some of the acquisitions of 2009. What have been some of the highlights that have been added to the collections of Colonial Williamsburg over the last year?
Ron: It’s been a really good year. Despite a challenging economy, the institution’s been fortunate to acquire some really important things that help to advance our educational mission.
For example, the Sarah and Fred Hoyt furniture fund covered the acquisition of several pieces of noteworthy American furniture. One of them is a sideboard table, made here in Williamsburg in Anthony Hay cabinet shop in the 1760s – exactly the kind of thing the institution’s always happy to get back.
It’s one of those things that we can firmly attribute to the shop because it has a distinctive foot form and the very same form was excavated from the streambed that ran underneath the cabinet shop in the 18th century, so there’s no question about where it was made.
The Hoyt fund also covered the acquisition of a really stellar New Orleans, Louisiana armoire made about 1815. It’s so interesting to us because it shows the convergence of two cultures in that very interesting early 19th century city where you have both French and American artisans coming together in the same place.
In this case, the carcass of the armoire is purely French in style, with its curved corners, its cabriole legs, and its overall great height. But on the other hand, the inlaid ornament that covers the entire surface is strictly in the American and English taste, and it’s clear to us that what happened is that a cabinet maker trained in French cabinet making traditions built the carcass and then another artisan, possibly a man named George Dewhurst, did the inlay in the style in which he’d been trained.
Harmony: How do you find these pieces?
Ron: They come to us in various different ways. For example, the armoire was something that we had known about for a long time. It was in a private collection, and when the owners decided to break up housekeeping because of advancing age the family worked with us to ensure that it got to a museum because it’s truly a museum piece.
Harmony: In other cases I imagine curators rambling through dusty attics in old plantation homes. Is it really that way?
Ron: It is often that way and it’s also often a matter of going to an auction, seeing an auction catalog and now with the Internet, it’s much easier to do that. And of course there are antique dealers in the field who understand what each kind of institution collects and will often bring things to our attention.
Sometimes it’s a matter of someone walking through the door. Frequently today people will come to us to say, this or that object has descended in my family it means a great deal to us but my children’s lifestyle is not compatible with the preservation of something like this, and we’d like to see that it’s put in care situation that will ensure its long term survival.
Harmony: So, some pieces come to you and some things you hunt for, how do you decide what you would like to acquire for the collections?
Ron: That’s actually nicely defined for us by our collections management policy. For us any kind of material culture, decorative arts in other words, furniture, metals, textiles clothing, paintings, that would have been in America in the period between about 1670 and 1830 and then expanding just beyond that other kinds of objects that illustrate better context for those goods.
Harmony: That’s still a pretty broad swath though.
Ron: It is, and it’s the reason that collections contain about 60,000 artifacts. But keeping in mind that we furnish about 220 rooms in the Historic Area buildings -- everything from stables to the governor’s parlor and of course two world-class art museums with a total of about 100,000 square feet of exhibition space.
Harmony: So of those 60,000 artifacts how many are able to be displayed at one time?
Ron: Well actually we run a very high percentage. Most museums have about 12 to 15 percent of their collection on view at an given time. We tend to run something like 35 to 48 percent on view, and again, it’s because we have so many venues for showing them. Some kinds of artifacts can’t be shown regularly because they’re too light sensitive, paper, textiles, some kinds of organic material like wood, and so that tends to drive what’s in storage as opposed to what’s on view.
Harmony: You mentioned some examples of furniture you were able to add to the collection over the last year, what other types of objects have come to us?
Ron: We were very pleased to acquire a silver teapot made in Boston in the 1760s by Daniel Parker. Colonial Williamsburg has probably one of the country’s best collections of English silver of the 18th century, but we have very little American material.
We’re really trying to concentrate on that now and so the opportunity to buy this great well-preserved, well-documented Boston teapot came forward. And it was funded for us by the Friends of Colonial Williamsburg Collections, a donor group whose gifts go exclusively toward to purchase of things for the collection. We also in folk art got one of the greatest objects that’s entered that collection in many a year. It’s a sculpture of 3 year old Amanda Armstrong. It was done in 1847 by a little known sculptor called Asa Ames. A poignant figure, Ames died at the age of 27, from tuberculosis.
But judging from what he completed in his short life, it’s hard to imagine what great things he would have accomplished had he lived longer. His life size sculpture of Amanda is a very moving piece because you can tell that he was actually copying what he saw rather than taking artistic license
Harmony: What makes that sculpture special?
Ron: The work of this particular artist is extremely good and extremely instructive in terms of American art of the 19th century. And because he died at such a young age, it’s also extremely rare. There’s very, very little of it and so finding anything in this particular realm is almost impossible.
And as with all art there are excellent examples, medium grade examples, and not particularly desirable examples. What’s come to us as a gift from Barbara Rice in the form of the sculpture of Amanda Armstrong is an absolute A+ example, a full height figure of this little girl in all its detail of her hair, her clothing, her face, and the fact that we know exactly who she was and everywhere this sculpture has ever been just make it all the more interesting and educational.
Harmony: I was reading that you were able to add example of a Hessian firearm to the collection this year.
Ron: We did and we’re always looking for things like that. This particular musket is exactly the kind that was supplied by Prussia to the, the Hessians who were hired by Great Britain during the American Revolution to fight against American rebels. And it’s the kind of arm that they would have been carrying with them in the field. So, that’s very illustrative to us and it’s the kind of artifact that can be used in both in the Historic Area and the museum exhibits at different times.
Harmony: What does it look like?
Ron: It’s actually in very good condition. Many muskets of the 18th century were later converted to a more advanced kind of lock mechanism. This one’s never been changed and that makes it especially appealing to us as a museum because it’s come down to us in its original condition. It’s no work of art, it’s not a great beauty, but artifacts don’t need to be particularly attractive to still tell a wonderful story about what happened in the past and that’s what this is.
Harmony: Where did that gun come from?
Ron: Came to us from a private collection. An individual who had been putting an arms collection together for a very long time had decided to part with something, and as always, we look at these kinds of things and decide whether or not it’s in good condition, whether or not it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be, and then whether the price is fair and in this case all three of those things were the case and we acquired it. Harmony: So we’ve made gains in furniture, metals, sculpture, firearms -- who are we missing?
Ron: Actually there’s hardly a field that wasn’t enhanced last year, the ceramics collection, the clothing and quilt collections, and probably one of the most exciting things that’s come across my desk in a long time: a sampler executed at a Choctaw mission school in Mississippi in 1830.
Many people are aware of the fact that the Society of Foreign Missions in the eighteen-teens began creating schools for the Christianization of American Indians and also for the purposes of teaching them to read, to write, and to practice what the missionaries felt would be a useful trade like coopering, or tinsmithing.
What most people don’t know was that these children came to the schools and were encouraged to give up their Indian names and to basically become American citizens in the model of the English settlers who had come to these shores in the 17th century. The kinds of artifacts that tell us about their experiences in these schools are almost unknown, so finding this particular sampler executed at the Choctaw Mission School in Mayhew, Mississippi was really a once in a career experience for me.
The piece was sewn by a little girl named Christeen Baker, and upon digging further we found that the records for the school survive in the archives at Harvard University and we were able to show that Christeen was 13 years old in 1830 when she made the sampler, that she’d been in the school for two years. We were also able to demonstrate that she had almost certainly been renamed for a very pious Boston woman named Christian Baker, who once a year sent gifts of food, money, and clothing to the school in Mississippi.
And the poignant part about this story is that within a few months of completing this piece of sewing, the treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was executed and under that treaty the federal government essentially forced the Chickasaw and Choctaw peoples to relinquish all of their lands in Mississippi and Alabama. The Indians were sent on a forced march to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma in the middle of the winter and more than half of them died on the way.
We don’t know whether Christeen Baker survived that march or not but the fact that her piece of needlework did tells us something about the experiences she had in being brought to the school, the kinds of things they were teaching her there and it even includes biblical verses that talk about the experiences on this earth and what lies beyond in the grave.
It’s also clear that the, the missionaries felt that they were doing a good and noble thing and that their, their aspirations were of the best. But very hard for us today to know how a child like Christeen was reacting to these circumstances. Was she glad to be there? Was she there because she had no choice? We’ll probably never know the answers but to have a tangible artifact that speaks to that experience, very exciting.
Harmony: Ron, you’ve mentioned all these wonderful artifacts, where can people come to see them?
Ron: Well many of them are on view in our museums and in the Historic Area and others are available online. If one goes to Colonial Williamsburg’s main web page, clicks in the museum button, and then looks for e-museum, there’s an opportunity to pull up an enormous array of artifacts.
Currently there are more than 4,000 of our antiques and works of art available online for study. One can get information about place, maker, date, condition, and there’s also a photograph of each object as well as a contextual label. Eventually there’ll be all 60,000 objects online.
Harmony: Ron, thank you so much for being here, and to our listeners, we will place a link to e-museum on the web page with this podcast, but if you’d like to navigate to it yourself that’s history.org/museums and you’ll see a link in the sidebar. Thanks so much for listening.