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What are period rooms, really?

The December 1923 edition of the MIA "Bulletin" describes the Tudor Room as an "illusion of reality."

The December 1923 edition of the MIA “Bulletin” describes the Tudor Room as an “illusion of reality.”

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about period rooms. In fact, a small group of us at the MIA have been thinking about the period rooms at the museum for some time now: a multi-year initiative to understand how they came about, how people think about them, and how we might engage them going forward. But first, we need to agree on what they are.

Easier said than done. You might say, very simply, that they are paneled rooms where objects from the same period are shown. Or you might say they’re meant to show “how people lived,” or to be “authentic” presentations of architecture and decorative arts from a particular place and time. In fact, in the course of our research, some of you have said exactly this. And you’re right: one goal of creating period rooms in art museums is to showcase decorative arts in context. But the “authentic” piece is problematic.

One of the earliest surviving period rooms at the MIA, the Connecticut Room (top), installed in 1929. And one of the most recent, the McFarlane Memorial Room, installed in 1982.

One of the earliest surviving period rooms at the MIA, the Connecticut Room (top), installed in 1929. And one of the most recent, the McFarlane Memorial Room, installed in 1982.

Because our early period rooms don’t have consistent levels of verified history, we don’t talk much about “who lived there.” But early descriptions of the rooms tended to fill this void. When the Tudor Room was dedicated in December 1923, the MIA Bulletin described the carving of the woodwork and stained-glass window in great detail, but added that “To further the illusion of reality, many objects of decorative and useful purpose have been included in the room.” The article cited the inclusion of a copy of Chaucer’s Complete Works and a 13th-century church missal, helping the “casual visitor” (as opposed to a student) “find great pleasure in the vivid picture of the life of this romantic time.” The other early rooms built at the MIA in the 1920s and ’30s were similarly described—as constructions of reality, not preserved in amber.

Further muddying the waters, many of our early rooms were formal memorials, sponsored and even furnished by patrons with collections of paneling, furniture, and other objects: the Tudor Room (aka the John Washburn Memorial Room), the Connecticut Room (aka the Josephine Koon Room), the Charleston Rooms (aka the Bell Memorial Rooms, shown at their opening in 1931 at top). The MacFarlane Memorial Room, constructed in 1982, continued this tradition. While preparing for a (well-timed) period-room conference in England this past September (more on that in another post), I came to realize the significance of this— the period room, in a sense, as a different kind of object.

The "Duluth Living Room" (top) designed by John Bradstreet for the William and Mina Prindle House in Duluth, circa 1906, and Frank Lloyd Wright's hallway from the Francis Little House in Deephaven, circa 1912–14.

The “Duluth Living Room” (top) designed by John Bradstreet for the William and Mina Prindle House, circa 1906, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s hallway from the Francis Little House in Deephaven, circa 1912–14.

These memorials differ from our period rooms collected from the 1970s to the present, which are centered more around the designer or architect of the room, so they have a pretty good sense of authorship, similar to conventional artworks. These include John Bradstreet’s Duluth Living Room (1906) and the Frank Lloyd Wright Hallway (1912–14).

At the Period Room conference at the Bowes Museum, a lecturer proposed that the most satisfying period rooms were those like Frank Lloyd Wright’s, preserved in several museums with original furnishings. But the architect’s organic vision led those rooms to have cohesion from the start. How can we appreciate our more time-traveled rooms, which may retain only part of their original paneling and none of their original furnishings? And how can we better understand them as memorials?

More importantly, how do we engage the rooms—and visitors—in new ways? This could include different, temporary installations of all kinds. But before before we undertake any changes, we should understand what we have, and even get ideas from the past.