Beyond moonlight and magnolias

Another milestone was MESDA's purchase of eight examples of Georgia decorative arts-including a corner cupboard from White Oak plantation, a worktable by Thomas J. Maxwell, and a George Abbott watercolor-at Brunk Auctions' landmark sale of the Florence and William Griffin collection in May 2009. Georgia collectors Linda and David Chesnut subsequently donated the accompanying sideboard from White Oak, the Dozier family plantation in Oglethorpe County.

New objects from the southern backcountry fill the museum's Piedmont Room and Catawba and Georgia Galleries, along with galleries devoted to ceramics, silver, textiles, and maps. Dedicated Kentucky and Tennessee galleries are in the works. New approaches to interpretation and display accompany the acquisitions. In the past two years, MESDA has revamped thirteen of its thirty galleries.

"We changed the lighting, refreshed the floors and varied the texture and color from room to room," says Ralph Harvard, a New York designer specializing in historic structures who consulted on the project. Architectural woodwork was restored to its original appearance based on recent findings by Susan L. Buck, a Williamsburg, Virginia, conservator. Natalie Larson, also of Williamsburg, advised on historic textile treatments.

What MESDA used to call its period rooms are now galleries. In one striking change, a James City County, Virginia, court cupboard made between 1650 and 1660-one of only two known southern examples of the form-has been placed on a pedestal in the center of Criss Cross, a gallery devoted to MESDA's unsurpassed collection of seventeenth-century southern furniture (Fig. 11). The updated display allows visitors to study construction details in the round.

MESDA now treats architectural woodwork as the largest objects in these displays, rather than as backdrops for domestic vignettes. "There are two reasons why this is brilliant," says Couch. "With very few exceptions, you cannot use the best quality objects to convey historical truths about daily life. People were leaving MESDA with the idea that this is how people lived rather than with the more accurate notion that this is the best that people produced. The second is that when you restrict objects to their functional use in a display you prevent the accumulation of like objects for comparison. To perceive objects and artifacts is by nature a comparative endeavor," he says.

MESDA's updated interpretation is embracing difficult issues that are central to southern history, foremost among them race and ethnicity. In February, it introduced a forty-five-minute tour exploring objects created by African American craftsmen, including North Carolina cabinetmaker Thomas Day, South Carolina potter David Drake, and Maryland painter Joshua Johnson.

Wake Forest University history professor Anthony Parent is helping MESDA reinterpret its Edenton, North Carolina, rooms. Parent recently discovered that Harriet Jacobs, author of the 1861 autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, resided in the house from which the parlor's woodwork is drawn. Her searing account of her experience there is a story that MESDA plans to share with visitors.

Conscious that its archives-much of it housed in battered metal file cabinets in the basement of the Frank L. Horton Museum Center-are not easily accessed, MESDA entered a partnership in 2009 with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to digitize its databases and make them available through a jointly-sponsored portal specializing in southern decorative arts. Recently relaunched online at, the museum's scholarly Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts contains links to every article published since 1975, plus a preview of coming editions.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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