In “The Art of Living”, Jeffrey Trask analyzes the role of The Metropolitan Museum (The Met) in the Colonial Revival Movement in establishing an American “identity”. To create The Met’s American Wing in the early 1900s, de Forest and Kent began donating or collecting an earlier elite population’s decorative arts for exhibit. With a carefully scripted narrative claiming to be organic, they presented an elite and sanitized history of American life and art unrepresentative of most households. Next they bought American architecture, furniture, and antiques from formerly well-to-do southerners and reluctant Virginians without funds to resist. New England preservationists and proud Bostonians, however, shut them out. A collecting boom ensued with prices “skyrocketing” for Americana. Other museums followed The Met’s lead, underpinning that image. Men now professionalized and controlled the Americana field, leaving women preservationists and collectors without access, while early collectors (and Met allies) were forced out by newly prohibitive prices. Post WWI, Halsey focused on wealthy interiors and the work of craftsmen, hoping to influence citizens to emulate the founding fathers’ good taste; uphold traditional values; and resist societal changes.
This week’s essays discuss the appeal and influential power of nostalgia. Trask provided eye-opening details about the impact of the American wing’s development from the Colonial Revival Movement and the establishing of American-ness, to barriers for women in the suddenly lucrative world of Americana as it became a professional boys’ club. For all his accuracy and high standards, Halsey reminded me of Peale, wanting to influence the people (again, postwar) with visual patriotic messages hoping to create “better citizens.” Interior design as civic pride is a heady concept.
Harris traces museums’ fall and rise as taste-makers while they competed with the World’s Fair and department stores for the public’s attention. His meticulous detailing of the fantasy and lavishness provided by department stores is intriguing, as is the wonder, excitement, and thorough planning of the fairs. The Fair vaguely recalls the “ritualized space” of the museum with attendees dressing up, being on their best behavior and taking part in a performance. How unfortunate the Fair changed tone and went “avant garde” – reminiscent of MoMA’s 1930s redesign and (mistaken) vision of a utopian future. Bold but impersonal was not what fair-goers wanted. Harris’s six-factor “comeback” story of the museum was like a Rocky movie. Emphasis on the advent and psychology of the museum store was persuasive; everyone wants a small piece of the museum, like a religious relic or beautiful memory, to take home.
If the attraction of museums comes partially from a sense of nostalgia, what happens if/when a younger generation does not share that sense of nostalgia? What must museums do to survive?
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