The Architects Room: Cultural Hybridity on Display and “In-between” at the Winterthur Museum


Presented by: William Riehm

This paper examines the history and evolution of the Architects Room, one of 175 rooms at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. Henry Francis DuPont opened Winterthur to the public in 1951, and it is now seen as “the premier museum of American decorative arts, with an unparalleled collection of nearly 90,000 objects made or used in America between about 1640 and 1860” (Winterthur Museum 2014). The Architects Room is one of the smaller rooms in the museum, approximately 120 square feet containing 172 museum objects.  The room, originally a representation of primarily Massachusetts made objects, has evolved to include objects diverse in heritage and less Anglo-centric.  The Architects Room provides an opportunity to study representations of American decorative arts and material culture, shifting away from an Eastern seaboard focus and embracing more diverse, culturally hybridized perspectives. 

The theoretical framework used here rests in material culture as a function of cultural hybridization and creolization. Recently, cultural theories of creolization have expanded to embrace transition and ambiguity in material culture. Baron and Cara make this point poetically, “we are freed to focus on cultures in transition, allowing us to grasp the ‘in-betweens,’ the ambiguous spaces where cultural boundaries blur and disappear as hierarchical categories collapse into each other” (2011).  Bellion and Torres discuss this emerging understanding saying we should not only “consider objects as final tangible products of processes of hybridization,” but also “expose how objects reflect and shape human experience” (2011).

The primary source methods of research include direct investigation of the room and contents, Winterthur’s object registration files, and archival research, specifically Henry Francis DuPont’s personal papers. Interviews with current, previous, and emeritus museum staff offer additional, important insight.

The original and current focus of the room, an early nineteenth century operable Sheraton drafting table, was purchased by DuPont in 1941. In an unusual flourish of opinion, DuPont wrote to the table’s seller on January 2nd, 1941, “your drawing table is so swell that, although I haven’t the faintest idea where I could use it, I must ask the price” (DuPont Manuscripts). DuPont assembled objects related to draftsmen and included surveying tools. He furnished the room with Massachusetts’ Sheridan pieces including a fine 1790s gentleman’s secretary. But overtime, the room evolved to showcase objects that are of non-Anglo origin, including a Jeffersonian slave-made bookshelf, Louisiana Creole and Federal Campeche chairs, and a bulky, unusual Baltimore wardrobe/desk replacing the Sheridan secretary.

It was in the 1980s and 1990s that there was a curatorial shift towards concepts of diversity. In 1991 the room was included on Winterthur’s “diverse nation” tour. Emeritus curator, Charlie Hummel, explains that the room was seen as an accidental “potpourri” room, difficult to reconcile with the DuPont’s vision of Winterthur as a repository for fine American (Eastern seaboard) decorative arts. In fact, the “diversity” highlighted in the tour was that of an enlightened gentleman, an architect. Former curator Robert Trent was less kind in his analysis, stating that curatorial and academic “borderline racism” kept the diversity theme from developing a more robust interpretation. It becomes clear that much of the acquisition of non-Anglo objects occurred in an undercurrent. 

Certainly the final analysis of this space does not conclude that the institution or traditions of American material culture and decorative arts studies are racist. But this analysis, which catalogs the slow divestment of Sheraton artifacts and investment in non-Anglo objects, shows how a simple room can be a more expressive representation of an American material culture “in-between” - accidentally, subversively, or otherwise.

References:

  • Baron, Robert A. and Ana C. Cara, eds. 2011. Creolization as Cultural Creativity. Oxford, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
  • Bellion, Wendy and Monica Dominguez Torres. 2011. “Editors’ Introduction.” Winterthur Portfolio 45, no.2/3: 101-105.
  • DuPont, H.F. Manuscripts. Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera. Winterthur Library.
  • Winterthur Museum. 2014. “About Winterthur.” Winterthur Museum. Accessed September 3. http://www.winterthur.org/?p=515&src=headerfooter.

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