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Home | Articles | The Chipstone Foundation Opens New American Collections Galleries

by Sarah Fayen and Ethan Lasser

Fig. 1

The Chipstone Foundation has a long history of asking new and progressive questions about the material past. This Milwaukee-based nonprofit foundation is well known for its publications, American Furniture and Ceramics in America, and its national think-tank initiatives which encourage dialogue between curators, artists, and academics. These trans-disciplinary efforts bring diverse viewpoints and interpretive possibilities to the study of early American decorative arts.

As part of the foundation's long-term collaboration with the Milwaukee Art Museum, Chipstone's team of curators recently opened the new American Collections galleries at the museum. Displaying ceramics, furniture, and silver from the collections of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Layton Art Collection, and Chipstone, the ten-thousand-square-foot space offers visitors a radical twist on the traditional approach to art-museum displays.

Visitors will not find traditional text-heavy labels or specific style categories. Rather these galleries offer several very different ways for visitors to consider visually captivating, historically important, and culturally potent objects from the first few centuries of our national history.

In the galleries' introductory space (Fig. 1), visitors can contribute to a community-curating project in which they label or 'tag' a racially-charged display of three sculptural faces: a contemporary ceramic sculpture of a Native American by Michelle Erickson; a nineteenth-century water jug molded with the face of Haitian leader Toussaint L'Ouverture; and a idealized marble bust of Persephone, by Hiram Powers. A touch screen kiosk asks visitors 'What word comes to mind when you see these three objects?' Responses are projected onto the wall above the display.

Fig. 2

Nearby, interactive digital kiosks invite visitors to take a multiple-choice quiz that offers light-hearted explanations about the purpose of selected objects. Was the giant nineteenth-century ceramic jug a prop in a theatrical production of Gulliver's Travels or was it a sidewalk advertisement for a housewares shop? Who made that chair out of spinning wheel parts? Was it Arne 'Spinner' Svensohn who had a vacation home in northern Wisconsin? Or was it a patriotic homeowner in the 1880s who saw the spinning wheel as a symbol of the early American work ethic? This sort of humor can intrigue visitors who might not otherwise stop to look at decorative arts.

The American Furniture gallery (Fig. 2), a courtyard-like space with classically inspired plinths and dramatic lighting, uses the display paradigm traditionally reserved for galleries of Greek and Roman sculpture to present the finest examples of early American furniture. This approach literally and aesthetically elevates the furniture. Audio programs let visitors consider the aesthetic qualities of these pieces with respect to other artistic media including music.

Fig. 3

Until now, curators have rarely considered American decorative arts through an anthropological lens. This methodology is more common to the study of African and Asian artifacts in Natural History museums. Yet in the new Hidden Dimensions galleries, this approach is applied to artifacts from Colonial America. Hidden Dimensions (Fig. 3) considers and makes arguments about the way five primal aspects of human experience–kinship, power, myth, sex, and death–take shape in early American decorative arts. The Power section, for example, contends that armchairs, desks-and-bookcases, and Gothic hallstands marked authority and prestige at the moments when they were produced. In the Death section, coffin-shaped blanket chests and joined armchairs evocative of gravestones are presented as memento mori, reminders of mortality.

Fig. 4

A special section of the American Collections galleries called Loca Miraculi | Rooms of Wonder uses an unconventional approach to conjure the same feelings of amazement inspired by Europe's great cabinets of curiosities, or wunderkammern. Assembled by aristocratic collectors and thinkers from the Renaissance through the eighteenth century, these storied catalogues of natural oddities and artistic accomplishments helped to form the foundation of early modern scientific inquiry. The Chipstone Foundation asked Madison, Wisconsin artist Martha Glowacki to create a series of site-specific installations using historic decorative arts from the collections of the Chipstone Foundation and the Milwaukee Art Museum. The result is a series of five galleries that evoke the legacy of the cabinet.

In the mineral tableau in Room I (Fig. 4), a circa 1750 New York desk and bookcase with carving attributed to Henry Hardcastle is filled with minerals and fossils on loan from the Geology Museum at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Fig. 5

Scientific investigations and ideas of natural philosophy influenced the design of everyday objects–especially ceramics–in the eighteenth century. Room II of Loca Miraculi allows visitors to discover these surprising connections by opening the drawers built in to elaborate display cases (Fig. 5). Glowacki worked with professional cabinetmaker Jim Dietz to design the specialized cabinets. Inside, visitors find images, words, and even video and sound that relate in different ways to the ceramics above. The drawers in the 'Fossils & Agates' cabinet, for example, explore why and how English potters in Staffordshire used clay to create teawares that mimicked unusual geological phenomena.

Fig. 6

In a section of Room III, the final gallery, there are a series of five display cases inspired by colorfully painted originals from Halle, Germany (Fig. 6). Each case contains museum objects displayed under unusual headings: Rarities, Extinct Things, Mistakes, and Inexplicable Mysteries. From a dish that belonged to Catherine the Great to a figurine of Benjamin Franklin mistakenly labeled 'Washington,' these objects–presented in unexpected categories–are odd and intriguing. Through the central section, visitors enter a tiny room where they encounter three pieces of American furniture decorated with eighteenth-century images of Asia. This 'China Cabinet' evokes the historic wunderkammern that were filled with the porcelain, lacquer work, and silks imported from the Far East.

For more information about the new American Collections visit www.mam.org or call the Milwaukee Art Museum at 414-224-3200. For more information about the Chipstone Foundation and to see previous exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum visit www.chipstone.org. All exhibition design in the American Collections is by Michael Mikulay.

Sarah Fayen is curator of the Chipstone Foundation and adjunct curator of American decorative arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Ethan Lasser is curator of the Chipstone Foundation and Adjunct Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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