I've been at "furniture camp" for the last month. Otherwise known as the MESDA Summer Institute at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, NC. I was incredibly excited to come and learn more and see what this would have in store for me. I interned at MESDA as an undergraduate during my Salem College Jan Term, 2005. Going in, I didn't consider that I've never really a) studied colonial American and b) don't really like furniture as a subject of study. These were probably considerations to take before I signed up.
But I did all of my pre-course reading. And I found it interesting. Sure probate inventories and ads for runaway slaves aren't the most scintillating reading, but I managed to get through them and get excited about the course. And I got to look at nice pictures of furniture. And I was okay.
Then I got here. I learned a lot about material culture--lots more than I'd ever learned before. Pulling together inventories, court records, archaeological information, decorative arts, anthropology, and history to create a new course of study was exciting and interesting. So many things to see and look at. Then came my object for study. A blanket chest. From eastern North Carolina. (pictured above) From the turn of the eighteenth century. I was not thrilled.
I tried to examine this piece and why it would be interesting. I couldn't come up with anything. I just wanted a nice coffee mug, plate, punch bowl--anything made of clay!--to study. No such luck. I was going to learn all I could about this chest and it was going to kill me, I was pretty sure. Then I started to ponder how someone could get a degree in decorative arts and not care about furniture at all. My thesis has furniture aspects, and I'm not recoiling at the thought of that. Why don't I find furniture interesting? I can't tell you that, any more than I can tell you why I love ceramics. After 4 long weeks of wondering and fretting, I have one conclusion:
I don't like furniture until the 19th century. And even then it's touch-and-go. I like it to sit on, to lie upon, to eat at, but I don't know that I want to study it forever. Fortunately, there are lots of people who do. I'll look at all the plates and you can take the table and chairs. For now though, I'm just happy to return to the 20th century and studio craft.
Photo courtesy MESDA object photograph files. For amazing information, photographs, and research materials about Southern decorative arts and culture prior to the Civil War, MESDA is one of the best resources you could have. I am very grateful to the people of MESDA and Old Salem for this experience and highly recommend it to those interested in this time period, decorative arts, and material culture.