Seeing Winterthur has become easier


November 01, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Election day makes people look back at American history, and there's no better place to see the past than Winterthur, the sprawling mansion on 1,000 rolling acres in Delaware, where Henry Francis du Pont arranged the largest and finest assemblage of Americana. Du Pont transformed his family seat into a public museum so others could share the ultimate collector's treasures, his passion for American history, and his respect for the traditions of American craftsmanship.

Beginning in 1952, visitors, four at a time, were led by guides with flashlights through nearly 200 period rooms faintly lit by electrified candles and filled with the sweet scents of home-grown fresh flowers. With abundant stamina, they could survey 200 years of domestic architecture, furniture, metalwork, textiles, ceramics, paintings, and prints "chosen with meticulous regard for their quality . . . and assembled with impeccable taste," wrote Joseph Downs, the museum's first curator, when the museum opened.

For over a generation, visitors have been overwhelmed by Winterthur's size, awed by its beauty, and transfixed by the luxury of the rich man's life during America's past. Most of all, visitors were exhausted physically and by the vast amounts of information the docents imparted. It was time for a change, even at Winterthur, and now, after 40 years, its style has relaxed and its mission has evolved: It's reaching out to a broader public and teaching a more accurate history lesson.

New education building

A trip to Winterthur, any season of the year, still provides a glorious time in the country. The surrounding gardens are more accessible than ever. Casual visitors now can arrive without reservations and enjoy a newly installed permanent exhibition in a just-opened (but still partially unfinished) education building, called the Galleries, which blends successfully with the existing structures. The Galleries' construction and endowment, and the museum's general renovation, were made possible by a recently completed four-year $19.5 million fund-raising campaign.

A team of curators selected 800 from the 89,000 objects in Winterthur's collection, and working with Quenroe Design Associates of Baltimore, installed them in three galleries extending out from a central rotunda to show how these artifacts fit into people's lives in the past. Appropriately called "Perspectives on the Decorative Arts in Early America," the core exhibit is organized along six themes: "Change Over Time," "Change Over Space," "Maker and Marketplace," "Technique and Technology," "Message and Symbol," and "Ritual and Custom."

"By asking visitors to look at materials, history, technology, and function, we will empower them to interpret objects on their own, any objects, any place," suggests Robert Trent, furniture curator at Winterthur, an institution legendary for its scholarly educational programs and now also popularly known for its reproduction furnishings and mail order catalogs.

Even connoisseurs familiar with Winterthur can learn from this new display and see some extraordinary things up close and, finally, in good light. While the spartan gallery labels require an extra effort to read, the emphasis is on new ways of seeing old things themselves. Indeed, "Seeing Things Differently" is the title of Philip D. Zimmerman's illustrated paperback book, which accompanies the exhibition.

Perspectives on a desk

In a dramatic departure from Winterthur's unequaled, carefully appointed period rooms (which remain open for tours and are a nirvana for Americana enthusiasts), in the new introductory rotunda there is only a grand and imposing 8-foot-high mahogany desk-bookcase with mirrored doors. We're asked to look at and evaluate this sole object from the six perspectives, in a Winterthur detective game. You can walk all around it, make up your own mind about its design, and see how it was put together, because the backboards have been removed and replaced with Plexiglas.

We're told the desk-bookcase has three inscriptions. One reads: "This desk was / purchased by / Josiah Quincy / o Braintree / 1778." Another states: "John Allen his desk / Made . . . " (the date is illegible). The final clue says: " . . . (illegible) / his desk August 1791."

This graffiti-laden icon is not displayed just to show the age-old nasty habit of writing on desks, a tradition school teachers accompanying classes may not be inclined to encourage, but also to demonstrate how these inscriptions have helped and confused scholars. For years the desk was thought to have been made in 1778 because of the Josiah Quincy inscription. However, the discovery of the other inscriptions, careful examination of its construction, materials and style, and comparisons to other documented pieces, suggest it was made circa 1740-'60, not in the midst of the Revolutionary War, when patriot-cabinetmakers more likely were producing camp stools and tent poles, or off fighting.

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