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

Very Funky Holiday Wishes, from Your Friends at VAM

We hope that this holiday season provides you with peace, laughter, and good times. Here's a little somthing to get it started off on the right (platform-shoed) foot:

Personalize funny videos and birthday eCards at JibJab!

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Lights Are Much Brighter There; or, “These are a few of my favorite things…”

In my memory, the holidays and downtown are inseparably entwined. Every trip downtown, whatever time of year, brings the song “Silver Bells” to mind:

For me, Petula Clark’s “Downtown” will always be a Christmas carol:

My grandfather drove a Yellow Cab, and I began riding with him as a preschooler. During the holidays, Papa (known to some as “Corn Willie”) and I would make the rounds together to share holiday cheer with his many friends of all classes and colors (and sometimes deliver a little bootleg liquor). The entire city was decorated inside and out; crowds were bustling everywhere from the train and bus stations to the downtown stores and restaurants. On cabstands and in his (numerous) favorite neighborhood bars, I’d sing Christmas carols in return for loose change, Cokes, and sweets.

My mother ran (was!) the back office for the big flagship store of the Raylass Department Store chain on East Broad Street until just before I went away to college. For many of those years, my brothers and I watched from the store’s fourth floor windows to see The Real Santa Claus arrive downtown at the end of the Christmas Parade. Later, as a Boy Scout, I marched in the parade dressed as a holiday clown, carrying one end of a big banner announcing the next float or band. My favorite Christmas movie will always be (the 1947 original) “Miracle on 34th Street.”

At age thirteen, I became a weekend “change runner” between Raylass and the other stores during the Christmas rush, leaving our store with my coat pockets stuffed with big bills and returning weighed down with rolls of coins and much fatter due to bundles of small bills as we all helped each other out on Saturdays when the banks were closed. The first presents purchased with “my own money” for family and friends came from Broad Street’s five-and-dimes.

At fifteen, I got my first “management job,” running Raylass’s toy department. That year, and for the next three, I waited on Christmas Eve with the store manager until long after all the stores were closed, hoping that every last toy and gift layaway would be picked up, then nearly cried as I walked to my car because some never were.

The department stores and movie theaters are gone now, but after some sad years, the arts and entertainment are bringing downtown alive again. Holiday lights twinkle from outlined office buildings to apartment windows above the old storefronts.

In the midst of your busy holiday schedule, treat yourself with a trip downtown. Visit with the reindeer at the James Center, take in a play, shop the galleries, have a great meal, or just stroll the streets listen for the sounds of the season. “The lights are much brighter there…”

Thomas Singleton Driscoll

Wanderer, Wonderer
4200 Stuart Avenue
Richmond, Virginia, USA 23221-1943