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Art Museum Initiates ‘Unconventional Storytelling’ in Historic Period Rooms

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

By Patricia Corrigan

A handcrafted rice winnowing basket, to acknowledge the agricultural expertise of enslaved people brought from West Africa to the American colonies. A Turkish carpet, an early Koran translated into Latin and replicated portraits of Muslim rulers, to illustrate early Anglo-Islamic trade 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.

A living room with gold colored window curtains and woven baskets on display. Next Avenue, period rooms, MIA
“Living Rooms: The Many Voices of Colonial America” was on view April 2017 – April 2018  |  Credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art

All these items and more have been featured at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) as part of the Living Rooms Project, a series of occasional exhibits installed in some of the museum's 17 period rooms.

"There always is more than one legitimate story to tell," said Jennifer Komar Olivarez, head of exhibition planning and strategy. "We're working with history in the context of art to illustrate that."

Artifacts from the museum's collections, along with items loaned from other institutions, have been featured in this imaginative "reinvigoration" of the period rooms, Olivarez said.

"Since 2012, we have introduced new interpretations, to encourage visitors to linger in these historic spaces."

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

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

The Living Rooms Project

As part of the Living Rooms Project, from April 2017 through April 2018, "The Many Voices of Colonial America" was set up in a 1770s-era dining room and drawing room obtained from the home of John Stuart in Charleston, S.C. Olivarez revealed that in previous years, except for the annual addition of Christmas decorations, the two rooms had held furniture and paintings that illustrated the tastes of wealthy people of the era. The rooms hadn't been changed in more than 85 years.

In the reimagined interpretation, the rooms displayed Native American artifacts and an exploration of the lives of the 200 enslaved West Africans living on Stuart's two plantations. Because Stuart, a Scot, was the superintendent of Indian Affairs for Britain's southern colonies in North America, the drawing room was turned into a gallery of Cherokee works from the period and also contemporary works, including a feathered cape.

"Also, Stuart had had a child with a Native American woman, and when we found a descendant — Beverly Bushyhead, who lives in St. Paul, Minn. — we filmed an interview with her," Olivarez said. "The video played on a monitor above the fireplace."

Artifacts in the adjoining dining room depicted the story of rice cultivation and the formidable agricultural skills possessed by enslaved individuals. Rice winnowing baskets were on display, including one that Mia commissioned from Henrietta Snype, a sweetgrass basket 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 June 8, 2019 - February 21, 2021  |  Credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art

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, an 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

In celebration of the 200th birthday of Jane Austen's novel "Emma," Mia converted the Queen Anne period room into a library loosely inspired by the one in Austen's brother's home in England. Museum visitors were invited to sit down in bright yellow chairs and page through Austen's books, and then move through the adjoining Georgian room, which was styled as a scene from "Emma." Olivarez reported that visitors loved the experience, which was available from late November 2015 through early April 2017.

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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, kitchenware, books about Islam and portraits of English monarchs and Muslim rulers were on display.

"We're looking at the house with the lens of the city's racial covenant that led to housing discrimination in the twentieth century as revealed in the Mapping Prejudice Project."

In the Providence Parlour — once part of a three-story, wharf-side home in Rhode Island in the 1700s — visitors to the "Just Imported" exhibit were invited to open cabinet drawers and touch fabrics and smell spices brought to the colonies by merchants of the era.

"We weren't so much concerned with historical accuracy about the Russell brothers, who had owned the house, as in providing an experiential moment, one that had a playfulness to it," Olivarez said. "We even had animated shadow puppets and audio of seagulls."

One period room has inspired a dance. Mia's Frankfurt Kitchen, on permanent display, depicts an efficiency kitchen so popular in the late 1920s that some 10,000 of them were installed in Germany. Zoé Henrot, the artistic director of Ballet Co. Laboratory in St. Paul, choreographed a dance in a replica of the room that was filmed by cinematographer Maribeth Romslo. Scheduled for a premiere in March 2020, the event was cancelled due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Themes Coming to Historic House

The pandemic also is to blame for a pause in the Living Rooms Project, but changes may be evident soon at Mia's historic Purcell-Cutts House at 2328 Lake Place in Minneapolis. Olivarez, also its interim curator, said she and others have been thinking about expanded stories to bring to the house, which was built in 1913 in the Prairie School style. The house is scheduled 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 Institute of Art

"We're looking at the house with the lens of the city's racial covenant that led to housing discrimination in the twentieth century as revealed in the Mapping Prejudice Project," Olivarez said. "We're also looking at the public health campaigns in the turn of the nineteenth century. The anti-tuberculosis movement, which became the National Lung Association, handed out materials urging people to cover their coughs, wash their hands and get fresh air. We're considering how this advice played into architectural design, and we'd like to tell that story."

Olivarez acknowledged that even with the Living Rooms Project and changes in perspective about the Purcell-Cutts house, visitors still only get part of the historical picture.

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

Photograph of Patricia Corrigan
Patricia Corrigan is a professional journalist, with decades of experience as a reporter and columnist at a metropolitan daily newspaper, and a book author. She now enjoys a lively freelance career, writing for numerous print and on-line publications. Read more from Patricia at latetothehaight.blogspot.com. Read More
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