Class notes from “Rethinking Period Rooms”, a series of lectures at BMA — 1. The Birth

Ironically, the American Period Rooms now displayed and treasured in the major art museums were born with little anticipation of being appreciated in themselves as art. Yet, even the notion that the period room was introduced as backdrop for displaying antique objects is not totally correct. In most cases, the silent rooms, dimly lit, cannot speak for themselves. Visitors, who step into the well or the corridor, can always be satisfied by narrowing in on something that ineterests them. In such a warm homely ambiance, one may easily forget to ask such an important pro-curatorial-perspective question. “How and why were these monstrous rooms moved into the museums?”

It was not accidental that the birth of period rooms coincided with the beginning of the Colonial Revival in the 1910’s and 1920’s. On the one hand, the great war had crashed the ideal images of old civilization in general American public. For them, the hierarchical societal system crowned by aristocracy and nobility upon which the culture and moral standards are based disintegrated with bullets, bombs and gas. The tastes, matters and characteristics of Europe after the great war evolved in such a mad speed that went beyond of the grasps of ordinary Americans. Thus for such a period, Americans either lost interests or couldn’t keep in emulating the cross-Atlantic life style, which provided a unique opportunity for them to look back with ease at their own cultural ancestry.

Such an examination of the past didn’t come in an objective way considering the social milieu which witnessed the foregone of an agricultural country. First, the kindled interest in colonial American at that time bears a tint of Romanticism reminiscence of the past. Citizens in industrialized metros longed for the missing notions that males took the challenges to civilize the wilderness while females stayed home from the colonial period. The symmetric and orderly of early American homes was an outlet for them to seek the missing “kindness, comfort and safety” in their real life. Second, patriotism played and obvious but important role in such a movement. Americans not only began to take the pride of the cultural past but also took the notion of supremacy and glory in Colonial period.

When the influx of new immigrants came to US at the turn of the 20th century, Colonial life-style was asserted as superior in that it advocated hardworking and home-centered family standard while the repose of the architecture commanded respect and obedience of social conduct.

In particular, two important milestone events laid the foundation for the birth of the period rooms. Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 showed two period settings. The Connecticut Cottage and the Old Log Cabin New English Kitchen. (An early similar setting happened in Brooklyn at the Sanitary Fair, a romantic nostalgic way of raising money for the Civil War. A wonderful print is still available from BMA’s library.) After the exposition, furniture makers saw a great opportunity of showing furniture in a historical setting for promotion. Such practice even was introduced into the department stores in big to create a homey ambiance.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Americans had gotten used to accepting period settings for their inherited nostalgia and sentimentality of the past, but not aesthetic values. However, the experimental Hudson-Fulton Exhibition in 1909, for the first time, featured exclusive and comprehensive American Art in an American art institution, thus completed the notion that period rooms are the assembly of higher morale standard, pure and unpretentious life style, glorified past and beautiful artifact. It is true that there were other events or museums which preceded or contributed the concept of period rooms; but none can match the far-reaching influence of these two events which attracted so many audiences.

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