Art museum initiates ‘unconventional storytelling’ in historic period rooms

New interpretations spotlight different voices at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia)

A handmade rice winnowing basket, to recognize the agricultural know-how of the slaves brought from West Africa to the American colonies. A Turkish carpet, an ancient Koran translated into Latin and reproduced portraits of Muslim leaders, to illustrate the first Anglo-Islamic commercial relations. A traditional feathered Cherokee cape, to represent another aspect of the life of a Southern plantation owner who served as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the British.

“Living Rooms: The Many Voices of Colonial America” ​​ran from April 2017 to April 2018 | Credit: Minneapolis Art Institute

All of these articles and many more were presented at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) as a member of Living room project, a series of one-off exhibitions installed in some of the museum’s 17 period rooms.

“There’s always more than one legitimate story to tell,” said Jennifer Komar Olivarez, exhibition planning and strategy manager. “We work with history in the context of art to illustrate this.”

Artifacts from the museum’s collections, as well as items on loan from other institutions, were featured in this imaginative “revitalization” of period rooms, Olivarez said.

“Since 2012, we have introduced new interpretations, to entice visitors to linger in these historic spaces.”

Since 1919, period rooms have been on display at Mia, which opened in 1915. The Tudor Room was the first. Considered “the epitome of the spirit of the 17th century”, the tables, chairs and other pieces in the room have been positioned to evoke the upper-class lifestyle of Tudor and Elizabethan England.

“As Mia built a collection of furniture and objects, the idea was to show the citizens of Minneapolis what art, architecture, and decorative arts were like in faraway places,” Olivarez said. “Since 2012, we have introduced new interpretations, to entice visitors to linger in these historic spaces.” As each temporary installation closes, the rooms revert to more standard exhibits.

The exhibition project

As part of the Living Rooms project, from April 2017 to April 2018, “The Many Voices of Colonial America” ​​was installed in a 1770s dining room and parlor obtained from John Stuart’s home in Charleston, SC Olivarez revealed that in previous years, with the exception of the annual addition of Christmas decorations, both rooms had housed furniture and paintings that reflected the tastes of wealthy people of the time. The rooms had not been changed for over 85 years.

In the reimagined rendition, the rooms featured Native American artifacts and an exploration of the lives of the 200 enslaved West Africans living on Stuart’s two plantations. Because Stuart, a Scotsman, was the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the British colonies in southern North America, the living room was transformed into a gallery of Cherokee works of the time and also of contemporary works, including a feathered cape.

“Additionally, Stuart had a child with a Native American woman, and when we found a descendant — Beverly Bushyhead, who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota — we filmed an interview with her,” Olivarez said. “The video was shown on a monitor above the fireplace.”

Artifacts in the adjoining dining hall depicted the history of rice cultivation and the formidable agricultural skills possessed by slaves. Rice-winnowing baskets were on display, including one that Mia commissioned from Henrietta Snype, a sweetgrass weaver from South Carolina.

A room with wooden panel walls with Turkish rugs displayed.  Next Avenue, Period Rooms, MIA
“Turkish Rugs on Tudor Walls: 16th-Century Trade between England and the Islamic World” was on view from June 8, 2019 to February 21, 2021 | Credit: Minneapolis Art Institute

Video interviews available in the room included one with Snype; one with Jonathon Rose, a West African immigrant living in the Twin Cities; and one with Pierre Thiam, executive chef in New York and author of the cookbook “Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes From the Source to the Bowl.”

A reading room for Jane Austen fans

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s novel “Emma,” Mia converted the Queen Anne period room into a library loosely modeled after that of Austen’s brother’s home in England. Visitors to the museum were invited to sit on bright yellow chairs and leaf through Austen’s books, then move through the adjacent Georgian room, designed as a scene from “Emma.” Olivarez reported that visitors loved the experience, which was available from late November 2015 to early April 2017.

More recently, “Turkish Rugs on Tudor Walls” in the Tudor Room explored trade between England and the Islamic world in the 16th century. Ottoman spices, cooking utensils, books on Islam and portraits of English monarchs and Muslim rulers were on display.

“We look at the home through the lens of the city’s racial alliance that led to housing discrimination in the 20th century, as revealed by the Mapping Prejudice Project.”

In the Providence Parlor – once part of a three-story house next to the wharf in Rhode Island in the 1700s – visitors to the “Just Imported” exhibit were invited to open cupboard drawers, touch the fabrics and smell the spices brought to the colonies by the merchants. of the time.

“We weren’t so much concerned with the historical accuracy of the Russell brothers, who owned the house, as providing a moment of experience, a moment of playfulness,” Olivarez said. “We even had animated shadow puppets and seagull sounds.”

A period room inspired a dance. Mia’s Frankfurt kitchen, on permanent display, represents an efficient kitchen so popular in the late 1920s that around 10,000 of them were installed in Germany. Zoé Henrot, artistic director of the Ballet Co. Laboratory in Saint-Paul, choreographed a dance in a replica of the hall which was filmed by cinematographer Maribeth Romslo. Scheduled to premiere in March 2020, the event was canceled due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

New themes coming to the historic house

The pandemic is also to blame for a pause in the Living Rooms project, but changes may soon be evident at Mia’s Historic Purcell-Cutts House at 2328 Lake Place in Minneapolis. Olivarez, also its acting curator, said she and others have been considering expanded stories to bring to the house, which was built in 1913 in the style of the Prairie school. The house is expected to reopen in April.

A large house with leaded windows and a pond in the front yard.  Next Avenue, MIA, period rooms
Purcell-Cutts House, 1913, George Grant Elmslie; Architect: William Gray Purcell | Credit: Minneapolis Art Institute

“We look at the home through the lens of the city’s racial alliance that led to housing discrimination in the 20th century, as revealed by the Bias Mapping Project“, Olivarez said. “We also look at public health campaigns at the turn of the 19th century. The tuberculosis movement, which became the National Lung Association, distributed materials urging people to cover their coughs, wash their hands and get some fresh air. We reflect on how these tips played into the architectural design, and we would like to tell this story.”

Olivarez acknowledged that even with the Living Rooms project and perspective shifts regarding the Purcell-Cutts house, visitors still only get part of the historic picture.

“We’ve also learned that it doesn’t always have to be curators or museum staff telling the stories, and we’re reaching out to the community to help out,” she said. “With unconventional storytelling, we can encourage visitors to question everything.”

Photograph by Patricia Corrigan
Patricia Corrigan is a professional journalist, with decades of experience as a reporter and columnist in a metropolitan daily, and author of books. She now enjoys a vibrant freelance career, writing for numerous print and online publications. Learn more about Patricia at latetothehaight.blogspot.com. Read more


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Reggie S. Williams