Critical thinking | Difficult issues: March/April 2022

Glenn Adamson Exhibitions, Magazine

Installation view of FUTURES, at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building until July 6. Photograph by Ron Blunt.

When you read the word “future,” what comes to mind? Your child’s graduation? Flying cars? A cyborg army? Atlantic surf lapping the slopes of the Adirondacks? Whatever your answer, I would guess it’s not a piece of brown furniture or a pewter porringer. We generally look to antiques to understand where we’ve been, not where we’re going. The glorious century-old magazine you’re reading is a veritable pageant of the past. There is invariably much in it to learn, to admire, and to ponder. Rarely, though, will you find in it so much as a prediction, much less a fully drawn picture of things to come.

Here, in the last installment of my regular column for this magazine, I want to make space for that kind of forward thinking. One of the most tired clichés in the design industry, after all, is “the antiques of tomorrow, today.” But what about the antiques of yesterday, tomorrow?

Since I began this column back in mid 2016 (and doesn’t that feel like another era!), I haven’t really been thinking in those terms. I’ve wanted, instead, to emphasize the present. My method has been a simple one: whenever a deadline was approaching, I’d look at the morning paper. Invariably there would be a headline that sent me back to the object archive. Debates about policing led me to a scary-looking “ceremonial nightstick” owned by George Washington Matsell, founder of New York City’s constabulary. The #MeToo movement got me thinking about the portrayal of women in decorative arts—where they often appear naked and subordinate. When fake news threatened to make Covid even more toxic, I looked into nineteenth-century patent medicines. In each case, I hoped that these “objects of dispute,” as I liked to think of them, would provide a broader perspective. Sometimes it’s good to remember simply that we’ve been here before, and that our urgent concerns have long histories.

Thirty columns and nearly six years later—at a less volatile moment, and a more exhausted one—I find myself thinking less about the now, and more about what might happen next. Partly, no doubt, that is because I recently served on the curatorial team for FUTURES, an exhibition in the re-opened Arts and Industries Building in Washington, DC. Completed in 1881 as the Smithsonian’s first museum, it was long shuttered because of its poor condition. Following a concerted campaign of renovation, though, it was ready to receive visitors, right on time for the Smithsonian’s 175th Anniversary late last year. The grand red brick pavilion, quite similar to those that had been erected for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, is a vivid contrast to the white classical and modernist structures that line the National Mall today. Stepping inside really does feel like time travel. And that makes it the perfect setting to encounter the future-facing objects in the exhibition—new-model robots, 100-percent biodegradable bricks, and yes, even a flying car.

One of my roles on the FUTURES team was to look after exhibits that had been loaned by other Smithsonian museums, among them Alexander Graham Bell’s prototype telephone, an 1880 patent model for an elevator, an early android (developed to test spacesuits), and parts of a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome. All were revolutionary in their own day. Yet, as it’s often been said, nothing dates faster than the future. As I spent time with all these hope-infused objects, I came to find them quite poignant, even a little melancholy. The thought came up over and over: we know so much more than they did.

Experimental telephone made by Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922), 1876. National Museum of American History, Washington, DC.

We call that the “benefit of hindsight,” but I sometimes wonder whether this is misleading. The retrospective viewpoint all too easily gives us the illusion of being wiser than our ancestors. If I were asked to look back at my own column and critique it, I might raise this objection. Who am I—who are any of us—to stand in judgment over things from the past? To weigh up their pros and cons? To extract lessons from them, like juice from an orange? If I’ve tipped too far in that direction, out of sheer enthusiasm, I certainly regret it. But maybe I can make up for it, here, by envisioning the shocking things that antiques might get up to in the future. Let’s put away the rear-view mirror, press the accelerator, and speed down the highway of the imagination.

The first thing to point out is that, having somehow survived this long, the antiques we know and love are quite likely to keep doing just that—surviving. Whether they’re kept in a museum or historic house, or the hands of a collector, they have entered a domain of care that the average contemporary commodity scarcely ever does. Almost everything we’re manufacturing now, unfortunately, will soon be in a landfill. But the chairs and china of yesteryear, having proved their value, are going to stick around for a while. In this sense, The Magazine ANTIQUES is actually a more convincingly future-facing publication than Wired or the Verge.

This is not to say, however, that antiques will occupy the same place in our lives. Professional futurists (there are such people) like to invoke existing trends as a way of making their prognostications. As the science fiction author William Gibson is famously said to have put it, “the future is already here—it’s just not very well distributed.” The idea is that you actually can know what’s coming, or at least make a reasonable guess, if you are attuned to the emergent phenomena of your own time. It seems pretty clear, for example, that the current expansion of virtual experience will continue apace, becoming steadily richer and more satisfying. Already, thanks to online museum collections, auction sites, and selling platforms, an artifact that can be handled only by very few people can be seen by hundreds, even thousands. ANTIQUES itself is part of this trend. With our “Antique of the Day” feature on social media, we aim to give followers a momentary, hopefully meaningful, but entirely digital encounter with an artifact.

Now, let’s assume that all this—the gradual drift of antiques into digital space—will continue to pick up speed, until it becomes actually immersive. What if you could visit the Smithsonian from a living room in Kenya? Not just visit, in fact, but have an experience that is superior in some respects to being at the museum in real life—you might be able to simply pick up each item on display and inspect it closely, for example. According to my new friends at the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, this possibility isn’t as far away as we might think. Already they have made hyper-detailed 3-D scans of objects available online. You can have an out-of-body experience crawling through the Space Shuttle Discovery, or closely inspect the wrinkled seams of the dress that Minnejean Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine, wore when she graduated from the high school she helped to desegregate.

So far, these 3-D scans, fascinating as they may be, are not really game changing. Indeed, in a strange case of history coming full circle, the miscellany and lack of obvious utility of the Smithsonian’s digitization portal calls to mind nothing so much as an early modern cabinet of curiosities. Extend the trend line, though. As 3-D scans improve in quantity and quality, as they surely will, and as VR (virtual reality) technology becomes more widely available—bringing about the muchtouted “metaverse” currently on every Silicon Valley company’s strategic plan—museums will be radically transformed. They’ll be as personalized as you want them to be, and you’ll navigate them using technologies borrowed from the video game industry. (Tomorrow’s museumgoers and antiques lovers are today’s Minecraftaddicted kids.) In principle, museum collections could be merged into gigantic aggregated platforms, which would be far more convenient for research and exploration. Which institution actually owns a physical artifact might become rather unimportant, maybe almost invisible— rather as a user of Spotify generally has no idea what record label an album is on.

Installation view of FUTURES. Photograph by Albert Ting.

As if all this weren’t enough to think about, the role of curators is likely to be utterly transformed, too. Already, the old expectation that they be walking encyclopedias, with their collections committed to memory, is being made obsolete by searchable databases. One fervently hopes that there will still be a place for connoisseurship in the future. But in an age of information saturation, what would that even look like? Will the effective curator’s knowledge base be more akin to that of a computer programmer? A novelist? Heaven forfend, a Hollywood scriptwriter?

That possibility begins to hint at some of the problems the field will soon face. Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, talks about the problem of the “deep fake.” Even a well-intentioned virtual interpretation scheme, she points out—say, a hyper-realistic visit to an eighteenth-century drawing room—could leave visitors completely in the dark about what’s real and what’s invented. That’s true of a period film, too, but when you sit down to watch the latest Jane Eyre adaptation, you don’t necessarily expect to see the 1810s as they really were. Museums will rightly be held to a much higher standard of accuracy. Merritt points to the precedent of archaeological reconstructions, in which new additions are clearly demarcated by a contrasting color or material. Maybe as we build the virtual museum of the future, we’ll need to develop new kinds of markers to denote authenticity—whatever authenticity even will come to mean.

We can go still further. There’s no reason why, in virtual space, you’ll need to ever know where you are. If you were to hang out in that eighteenth-century drawing room long enough, you might stop caring how “real” it is. In this Matrix-style future, then, museums might meld seamlessly with other kinds of space. Physical artifacts might still be important, but only as reference material. What now seems incidental to a historic object—the metadata attached to it—will be its most important feature. We might see antiques, as a category, dissolve into the great unbounded sea of intellectual property, the immaterial props that populate our collective consciousness.

All this may sound pretty far-fetched—though no more so than a smartphone would have seemed to Alexander Graham Bell. Whatever happens, it’s not likely to be a bump-free glide path to a better tomorrow. Small museums, without the capacity to effect such dramatic transitions in their identity and operations, will struggle to compete. Some will fail entirely, just as mom-and-pop stores have been crushed under the giant heels of global chains. Museums that are too big to fail might end up in a kind of digital arms race, not only with one another but also other cultural sectors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute has been an amazing success, in no small part because of its relationship with Vogue magazine and the rest of the fashion industry. What’s to prevent our institutions from plunging headfirst into similar collaborations with, say, Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook?

The scenarios I’ve been describing may or may not come to pass. The fact that they are conceivable at all, however, suggests that we may want to get ready for new and unfamiliar ethical dilemmas, and potentially, a massive shift in values. Nor is this story necessarily all going to be driven by technology. For me personally, it began in 2002, in a classroom in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was teaching at the time. As an experiment, I put images of two chairs up on the screen. One was from the famous Cadwalader suite, the apex of Philadelphia rococo, with sublime carving by Hercules Courtenay. The other was a classy but relatively simple mahogany chair made by John Hemmings, a joiner at Monticello— and a half-brother to Sally Hemings, the enslaved mistress of Thomas Jefferson. I asked the students which chair they would want to acquire, if they were curators with an unlimited acquisition budget. (This was, as you can see, a fictional scenario.) Every one of them, without hesitation, said the Hemmings chair—even though the Cadwalader chair would have been far more valuable in the market.

I wasn’t surprised by their reaction—these were after all liberal arts students, highly attuned to narratives about diversity. That was two decades ago, though, and those undergraduates and their peers are now curating in museums nationwide. It’s no coincidence that in the intervening years, such Black artisans as David Drake (a.k.a. Dave the Potter), stoneware manufacturer Thomas Commeraw, dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, and furniture maker Thomas Day have received a great deal of attention. Scholars like Tiffany Momon (whose groundbreaking work I first learned about on ANTIQUES’ podcast, Curious Objects) are conducting unprecedented archival research, to learn more about the history of Black makers. Traditional citadels of Americana such as the Met, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are all putting concerted effort into diversifying their displays and acquisitions.

The Architect’s Dream by Thomas Cole (1801–1848), 1840. Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, purchased with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in Memory of her Father, Maurice A. Scott.

So this is a second emergent trend happening in the world of antiques: a broadening of the narrative, to include everyone who has been a part of it. What happens if we hit the acceleration pedal, and zoom ahead to consider the possible consequences of these efforts? One thing that won’t happen, we can be sure, is the discovery of a hundred David Drakes. The inequities of the past can’t be unmade, and celebrating lone geniuses certainly isn’t a future-facing strategy. What seems likelier to happen, in fact, is just the contrary: an overall emphasis on broader social themes. The ample forms of John Cogswell’s serpentine- front, bombé chests may come to be talked about primarily in relation to the international timber trade, an ugly story of labor exploitation well told in historian Jennifer L. Anderson’s book Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America. We may even find ourselves in a situation where silver made in shops known to have employed enslaved artisans becomes more valuable, because of the interpretive possibilities these objects offer.

Don’t get me wrong: the traditional tasks of research, attribution, and authentication, will doubtless remain. But the stories our field tells, particularly when addressing the general public, are very likely to change, and drastically so. It will be interesting to see how the marketplace, with its conventional focus on individual authorship, will react to this. Will we all agree to participate in a new cult of the relic, in which everyone agrees that the value of objects (monetary and otherwise) should be determined more by historical resonance than artistry? Or, as seems more likely, will we see a divergence between the interests of auction houses and collectors on the one hand, and “woke” historians and curators on another—a pattern that, worryingly enough, would replicate the ideological conflicts so evident elsewhere in our society?

These questions, which would rightly be called political in nature, bring matters back full circle to the themes I’ve pursued in this column. I began writing for ANTIQUES, truth be told, in a spirit of intervention. I wanted to help shake up the conversation. Whether that’s been at all helpful isn’t for me to say, but I hope at least on occasion, I’ve managed to bring the past to life in a new way. Because that, of course, is the goal. And when it comes to antiques, it always will be. I’m put in mind of Thomas Cole’s wonderful 1840 painting The Architect’s Dream. It looks for all the world like a futuristic fantasy, until you realize that all the buildings it depicts are historic structures: a Greek temple, a Roman aqueduct, a Gothic church, and looming in the distance, an Egyptian pyramid. Cole’s imagined landscape is entirely compounded of antique elements. To us it may seem wonderfully silly, as deliriously impossible as any sci-fi special effect or VR experience. But I wonder what he thought, in that moment when he put the finishing touches on the seven-foot-wide canvas. Did he believe he’d arrived at his own personal utopia, if only for an instant? I sure hope so. All we can ask for is something like that: an occasional moment of clarity, pinioned between past and future, whoever and whenever we may be.