Weil-Worgelt Study. Decorated by Alavoine of Paris and New York. Paris, circa 1928-30. Brooklyn Museum.
As I wandered the Brooklyn Museum this weekend, I stumbled on a collection I accidentally find again and again – the Decorative Arts & Period Rooms. The rooms in the Brooklyn Museum are focused largely on fairly local domestic spaces that have been painstakingly dismantled from the original homes to be displayed in the museum. In the current exhibit, John D. Rockefeller’s Moorish Smoking Room from 1864 Manhattan mixes with the Schenck Homestead from 1676 Canarsie, a sleek Art Deco library sits next to a raucous Rococo Revival suite, giving an incredible breadth to the collection.
Hall, The Cupola House. Edenton, North Carolina, Circa 1725. Brooklyn Museum.
I’m sure a few of you also love lingering in these wings, though they are fairly unsung treasures. Often lightly visited and sometimes rather poorly kept up, these rooms nonetheless are carefully curated displays, meant to give museum-goers a glimpse into alternate eras. Doing historical preservation “right” is challenging in the best of circumstances, so this goal of meticulous and authentic curation has caused contention in the academic community regarding the validity of keeping these rooms.
As anyone who has worked on a period piece knows, as we retreat further into the past we are likely to take a few liberties here and there with decor. This is true of the museum spaces as well, and the concern about them inspired an international conference of museum professionals. At issue, literature about the event described (1), is that “As dislocated fragments, often remodeled to fit the spaces in the Museum, the Period Room is, for some: a signifier for the inauthentic, an outmoded method of display and an example of unfashionable museum interpretation. Many museums retain their Period Room displays, but the recent changes in the perspectives on Period Rooms have also led a number of museums in the UK, Europe and the USA to reconsider their continued relevance as museum objects. This may include dismantling or de-accessioning the displays, and in some cases, repatriating the Period Rooms to their places of origin (if they still exist).“
The Shaker Retiring Room, North Family Dwelling. New Lebanon, New York, 1830–40. Metropolitan Museum.
Once incredibly popular (2), Period Rooms are now “often seen as the cultural equivalent of grandma’s overstuffed couch that smelled like a fleet of cats”(3), it shouldn’t surprise me that the rooms in the Brooklyn Museum weren’t in perfect condition – but rather dark with few of the lamps lit and many windows turned “off” where they should have been blazing with faux sun. And it’s no wonder that these museums often try to spruce up the experiences by re-staging the activities in the rooms – an artist who specialized in period foods made the rounds adding edible feasts, and new artists have been commissioned to add contemporary art to the displays to liven them up. But as I peered in each space, through the thick plexiglass doors, I couldn’t help thinking that giving people a little more access, really letting people stand in the rooms, could help make them come alive for their audiences. But I guess that’s where we come in – letting audiences into spaces like these with our period projects. Even so, as I peered in each space, I was awed and, regardless of a lack of perfect accuracy, I think it would be a tragedy to let any of these collections disappear. So before that happens, here’s a list of other museums hiding magical spaces. They aren’t easy to find, so if you have more, please comment below with your favorites.
Standing Period Rooms Brooklyn Museum, NY
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
The Frick Collection, NY
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN
New Orleans Museum of Art, LA
Daughters of the American Revolution Museum, Washington DC
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
National Museums, Scotland
Universalmuseum Joannneum, Graz, Austria
Museum of Period Rooms (Apponyi Palace), Bratislava, Slovakia
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