The past is present in historical society show

March 05, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

In 1799, Aaron Anthony, manager of the great Wye plantation in Talbot County, ordered for his home a beautiful desk and bookcase, made in Easton. He chose to have the doors of the bookcase decorated with inlays portraying eagles, the American symbol of freedom.

When he died in 1827, Anthony's estate inventory listed his property, including the eagle desk, worth $15, and 30 slaves, including 9-year-old Frederick Bailey, worth $110. Eleven years later, Frederick Bailey escaped, changed his name to Frederick Douglass for fear of being caught and became one of the greatest spokesmen for his people's freedom in American history. What must he have thought, as a youngster, to see that desk proclaiming a liberty in which he could not share, because, like the desk, he was merely the property of Aaron Anthony, with a dollar value attached?

"There is a great irony here," says Gregory Weidman, assistant ++ director of the Maryland Historical Society. And that's one of many lessons to be learned from "Telltale Art," the society's new exhibit that tells stories of Maryland history through individual works of art.

This is a show that takes an old idea and makes something new of it. The old idea is to show off some of the greatest works of art that have entered the society's collection recently -- from a magnificent Kirk silver epergne to a pair of torches carried in fire parades, from a portrait of Revolutionary War general Mordecai Gist to a folk-art carving that once adorned the mast of an oyster boat.

The new part is the way it's done. "When we decided to do a show of our truly great acquisitions," says Weidman, "we thought to ourselves, do we want to do another 'greatest hits' type of show?"

Obviously the answer was no, because the objects in this show, although you can certainly look at them for their own sakes, are also used to tell us about our common past. "It is our aim to teach Maryland history," says Dennis Fiori, historical society director. "Our primary aim is to make connections among people who are living today with people who came before them, to help people connect with the past."

These great objects don't necessarily tell only the story of the wealthy and privileged. A beautiful desk tells part of the story of slavery. But it doesn't do that in a vacuum, and that's another way this exhibit breaks ground.

It's not confined to decorative arts, but brings together materials from several areas of the historical society -- the paintings collection, the library, the prints and photographs division, the manuscript division.

"This has been the most cooperative interdepartmental exhibit we have ever done," says Weidman. "The manuscript curator, the librarians, the education department have all been part of the planning and selection of objects."

"We have 6 million objects in the library," adds Fiori, "and showing how rich that resource is is one of the more important parts of this exhibit."

It's also organized in a way that makes it flexible for viewers. Each of the 13 major items on view is accompanied by an explanatory text that tells its story briefly -- the story of Aaron Anthony's desk and Frederick Douglass in one paragraph, for instance.

If you like, you can read it, glance at the desk and the picture of Douglass, and go on to the next section. But you can also examine the actual Anthony-estate inventory and his ledger of accounts; see pictures of Anthony's house, Wye House and Edward Lloyd V, the owner of the Wye plantation; and read more about Douglass, Wye, Anthony and the use of eagles on decorative arts in the early years of the republic.

"If you want more, you can get more," says Fiori.

The show's sections address several aspects of Maryland history. One of its most spectacular works tells a poignant tale. It is a fall-front desk covered with elaborate marquetry (decorative wood inlays) and bearing the monogram C. F. It was made by Charles Fink, a German immigrant who came to Baltimore during the great wave of immigration of the 1870s.

Fink and many other German immigrants brought with them sophisticated skills in cabinetmaking. But most of them found little use here for those skills. At best, they worked in the many factories turning out ordinary furniture for the growing middle pTC class. But immigrant cabinetmakers so flooded the market that many could not even find this kind of work and ended up as clerks or in similar positions. Fink did not make this desk for some wealthy customer, but for his own family. It took him 10 years.

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