Friday, December 10, 2010

“What’s that you’ve got there?”

Way back in my early career as an organizer of museum-held stuff, I trolled through boxes of one museum's permanent collection looking for objects appropriate to include in an exhibition. I had a truly wonderful time, because there were tags saying things like, "blades of grass taken from Stonewall Jackson's grave." My thought then was, "Wow, those folks were serious about Stonewall Jackson..." my thought now is, "are you SURE this is what it claims it is?"

I'm not cynical - much :) - but do feel it is important to double-check the true history of the works in your collection. The simplest reason to do so is that truth about an object is what your visitors expect to hear from you, and what your donor has told you may not be the actual truth. Case in point from our collection: We received a be-grimed portrait which was reputed to be painted by Rembrandt or Charles Wilson Peale. In fact, this was written on a label, attached to the back of the work, by the great-aunt of the donor. While the work was being conserved, it became pretty evident that not all of the painting was expertly painted, and that the technique was not all that Peale-ish. So, back to Square One. We called the painter of this work "Unknown American," hung it in storage, and started checking in with our colleagues who were expert in early 19th-century painting. The eventual concensus was that the painting was in the style of Jeremiah Paul, an itinerant painter who worked in the mid-Atlantic region. So we say on the label, "Attributed to Jeremiah Paul" when we exhibit it.

I do not think the great-aunt was a liar, but I do think a story passed down several generations can work awfully like a message-passing game. Have you ever played one? You start out whispering a phrase into someone's ear, they whisper it to someone else, and so on around a group. The end person then repeats the message they got... which is often ridiculously different from the original. I guess we're lucky that the main confusion was "Peale" for "Paul" and we could sort it out.

Now, that example of grass from Stonewall Jackson's grave -- that's a toughie. How could you determine the real origin of that grass? For instance, has the cemetery documented the species growing there in the mid-1860s? I'm not betting on that... but you've still got the story of someone thinking that blades of grass which could possibly have come from Stonewall Jackson's grave are sufficiently significant to give a Civil War repository, and for the late 19th- early 20th-century caretakers of that collection to accept the donation. That says a great deal about the culture of the time. However, if you were offered those blades of grass today, how would you feel about accepting them? Do you think there's a strong enough story there to counter-balance the uncertainty of the grass's origin? Just asking... and you should as well.

Mary LaGue
Collections Manager

Taubman Museum of Art

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