It’s difficult to know what the teacher, identified only as Mrs. L.C. Harris, was telling her pupils. That the chess set in Mia’s Charleston Drawing Room was made in China in the late 1700s? That it was carved from ivory, in a time before elephants were endangered? That the piece she’s holding was known as an Elephant Castle, literally a castle atop an elephant, because of the ivory but also a history of heraldry going back to Charlemagne and Indian war elephants?
Or perhaps: Isn’t it fun that we can touch things at the museum?
It was 1953. The kids, Karen Rhedin and Dick Sager, went to Mattocks School in St. Paul (demolished in 1979). They were preparing for the museum’s field trip program that began on October 11 that year, called Meet Your America.
In many mid-century photographs of the museum, schoolchildren are handling the art, if not manhandling it—playing with suits of armor, peering through African masks. Either museums were different, or publicity photos were, or the guards were often looking the other way. In 1960, however, a chess piece went missing and has never been recovered. There aren’t many photographs afterward of visitors touching art.
Certainly the period rooms were meant to be immersive. The Charleston Room, and nearly everything in it including the chess set, was a gift from James Ford Bell and his wife, Louise Heffelfinger. Bell, who formed General Mills in the 1920s, was an avid collector—of silver, antique books, maps—and liked the idea of sharing his rare objects in rooms that were themselves a kind of collection.
The same year this photo was taken, Bell opened his so-called “Treasure Room” within Walter Library on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, to store his rare books and maps collection. It features, among other anachronisms, stained glass from the late Middle Ages, a stone fireplace from the 1500s, and red-velvet reading chairs from the 1600s.
When the Treasure Room opened, Bell gave a speech, which he called “Bound Fragments of Time”—an apt metaphor for a collection or period room. “One seeks those objects which reflect his interests,” he said. “He awakens to the possessive urge to gather them about him. He treasures them for those qualities which bespeak his interest, often far better than his own words. They form the historical background of his present cultural environment. He, in effect, becomes a collector.”