Monday, 14 July 2014

Curious Curator: Early Twentieth Century "Orientalism" in Material Culture, example Seated Bedouin Guard Lamp

Some of the d├ęcor at Parkwood, along with the decorative art pieces (material culture) are a wonderful example of the early 20th century love affair the west had with the Middle East, Asia and North Africa in what we can term in the Edward Said "School of Orientalism". Everything from chinoiserie, to the persian carpets throughout the Estate, to the japanning technique on side boards, to the use of pagoda style buildings on the property is evocative of the influences that the "orient" conjured in the minds of the west for hundreds of years and came into vogue, once again ,while Sam and Adelaide McLaughlin were working with the leading designers and decorators in the presenting of their home.

The piece, that has many of our guests commenting, is a cold painted Vienna bronze lamp that sits, dependent on your visit, in a nook at the top of the back stairs, or perhaps in the small private library space. The cold painted bronze entitled, Seated Bedouin Guard c. 1910, Franz Bergman (or Bergmann).  Like every Bergman piece, the lamp evokes the exoticism that was part of the appeal the west found in "the orient".

Our Bedouin guard sits within his tent holding a rifle.
Close view of the rose
The draped tent "fabric" surfaces are hung on three poles with corded "ropes" forming a cut-away tent. The tent has a peaked and tasseled roof in greens and golds with raised flowers and red tasseled trim above a cascading floral back wall decorated with art-nouveau style leaves and large red roses.

The Bedouin man is seated on a dias draped with maroon, ridged fabric surrounded by his cache of weapons and a lute, a coffee pot, an elongated shield and before him, a decorative carpet.  More weapons and a round shield are suspended on the outside of the roof.

Bulb located behind
the shield
Often referenced as boudoir lamps, due to the glow the bulb emits, rather then a full light, the lamp in the Parkwood collection no longer operates as a lamp with the wires being tied off, but the bulb still sits in its original position, just behind the shield, pictured in the upper left corner of the photograph.

'Cold painted bronze' refers to pieces cast in Vienna and then decorated in several layers with so called dust paint; the recipe and technique for the mix of this kind of paint has been lost. The colour was not fired hence "cold painted". The painting was carried out mainly by women working at home, a typical cottage industry of the era, and one that the Franz Bergman, Vienna bronze industry used well during its height of popularity through the early part of the 20th century.  This PBS Antique Roadshow episode features a Franz Bergman cold painted bronze, much larger and elaborate than our Seated Bedouin Guard, but I like to think that RS McLaughlin would enjoy the reference to the pieces by Bergman, as the Cadillac of cold painted bronze.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Curious Curator: The Sirens Call of the Eleventh Edition Encyclopaedia Britannica

In the Parkwood Library, in a section specifically designed for the collection, one will find the 1910/1911, eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica set. Interpreters may or may not point this set out while on tour, but they lay horizontally in their custom made shelves, since the 29 volumes are printed on onion paper with exterior gilt edging and have flexible suede covers.
My attention was drawn to this set the other day, after the umpteenth call from a member of the general public asking me what they should do with their set of encyclopaedias, because no one wants them anymore. As one is well aware, encyclopaedias date, and not very well, as a reference item, and are finding themselves obsolete since the advent of the internet, and it is true that libraries, schools, etc. are not interested in them.  A quick Google search confirms their demise, with Britannica issuing their final set in 2012.

Although obsolete as a reference item on the latest scientific work, the eleventh edition has proven longevity in the encyclopaedia world and its lasting quality is attributed to what a 2012 Guardian newspaper article references as a mythic quality among collectors, a glimpse into a colonial world before the world changed with WWI.
The volumes were created by Britannica at a time when the company was moving from British to American hands[i], and when one glimpses at the articles will find that the leading scholars of the time, among them T.H. Huxley and William Michael Rossetti, contributed to the research.  The eleventh edition boasted the most female contributors of any edition, thus far, with thirty four women contributing articles to the set and was the first encyclopaedia to publish biographies of people still alive, a new and modern approach to reference materials.
Image used by The Guardian to evoke
bourgeois life captured by 11th edition

What has proven to be the lasting legacy of the set is its value as a cultural artefact. Ironically, Wikipedia has a great sentence that describes its value as an artefact,
the British Empire was at its maximum, imperialism was largely unchallenged, much of the world was still ruled by monarchs, and the tragedy of the modern world wars were still in the future.”  

Even the critiques of the eleventh edition from its contemporaries provide a glimpse into the value of the set from a social history perspective, Virginia Woolf wrote that the edition was bourgeois and had old fashioned opinions on art, literature and social sciences.  Within its very pages, the eleventh edition has no biography of Marie Curie, despite her winning of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911, although she is mentioned briefly under the biography of her husband Pierre Curie.

The Guardian, in its review of the eleventh edition, 101 years later, reference the sirens call of the set to collectors, scholars, social historians,
 To open an 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is to open a worldview lost forever in the staggering slaughter of the First World War. The 11th edition of the Britannica represents the high tide of optimism and belief in human progress that had dominated the Anglo-Saxon vision since the Enlightenment.  Unabashed optimism – and unabashed racism – pervades many entries in the 11th, and provide its defining characteristics. “

The eleventh edition Encyclopaedia Britannica set sits at Parkwood in the corner of the Library and who knew that is was social history magic? Purchased by the McLaughlin’s, likely before Parkwood was built and eventually displayed within its own custom made shelves in their custom built home, the set represents the emergence of North America onto the world stage, the emergence of the auto baron in the 20th century, Sam McLaughlin marking each volume with his own bookplate. It’s a nod to his roots, the British Empire, as well as the new emerging America which will dominate the 20th century as a super power. The encyclopaedia set, both physically and content based, as well as its mythic attributes convincingly illustrates the McLaughlin story and legacy, the one we interpret today at the Estate.
McLaughlin Bookplate

[i] 1920 Sears Roebuck purchased making the Encyclopaedia Britannica 100% American owned and produced.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Curious Curator: Oral History, The most exciting form of history?

I recently saw a statement that proclaims oral history as one of the most exciting forms of history and while I prepare for a workshop training youth on the process of oral history collection this weekend, I am reflecting on its importance in the field of heritage interpretation.  The significance of the documentary form, oral history, that the voice of all when interpreting the past is captured, not just the famous, the victors or the advocates who have their stories preserved, but all those involved, makes it a truly expressive and compelling resource.
Of course, acknowledging the skepticism and understanding the limits of oral history at the outset of a collection project, the human folly of memory, allows for the historian, professional or amateur, full appreciation of the myriad of possibilities the form holds.
The feeling behind memory is authentic. It is that authenticity, the human side of memory, even when influenced by outside factors, influences being just as historically informative as the memory itself, that one starts to develop the appreciation of this wonderful primary resource.

Contemplate your own life. Chances are if someone had to reconstruct your life history based on the written record alone, they would have very little to go on. If the information they were using was what they could locate in the newspaper, mortgage documents, your obituary, maybe a sporadically written diary from when you were twelve, the information gathered would reveal very little about the soul of your life, and the things that matter most to you.

Oral history provides for human interaction and the richness that is developed between two people chatting together. "Individuals coming together to chat about a common interest" and the depths that this conversation can reveal about the interviewer and interviewee. Oral history allows for questions to be asked and an answer provided. Imagine if one could travel back and ask questions of Abraham Lincoln or Henry VIII.  The ability to ask people about the most "recent" past allows for those burning questions to be answered, helping with the creation of source materials for the future.

I have a Parkwood version of this. Since we are a 20th century site, many of the random questions that I think of or have been asked of me by guests can often be answered by the resources at my finger tips, via the oral histories of the McLaughlin grandchildren and the former servants. For example, was Sam McLaughlin right or left handed? What soap brand was preferred in the house?  Not significantly life or history changing information, but the type of human (daily life) queries we receive or have about historic figures. I often comment on the fact that I have the marvellous good fortune to have the finite resource of tangible links with the past through contemporaries of Sam and Adelaide McLaughlin as opposed to many sites with mandates of earlier time periods. It is through our oral history collecting practises that I endeavour to create the resource material for future staff of Parkwood to access aiding with the illuminating of the McLaughlin Family for generations to come.

One of the unique benefits attributed to oral history that no other historical record can provide; census information, photographs, etc., is the one that attracts me as a social historian to the form, the perspective of the everyday person. We know that for centuries the historical record has been created by the key figures of the human experience, leaving out labourers, slaves, women, children, minorities. There are many reasons and scholastic discussions about the exclusion, but as the 20th century marched on this breach in the historic record began to be remedied and the preservation of oral history was one of those cures to the omissions. The process is endeavouring to ensure that the everyday person is no longer falling through the cracks of the historical record, having their contributions to our world experiences documented and preserved. It is through the existence of oral histories that the rest of us will have our legacy long after we are gone.

Finally, as we are experiencing the current technical age, the written word is beginning to be lost. For example, lets examine the loss of cursive writing skills and penmanship being removed from curriculum. The loss of cursive, and the ever growing reliance on telephones, computers, emails, technical devices, etc., should have us consider what will future historians have to study when they begin to reflect on the 21st century? The extensive correspondence and daily journal entries that enlighten researchers of the 18th and 19th centuries will not be available to provide commentary on our own time. The oral histories that have been and will be collected throughout the 20th and 21st centuries provide compensation for the lost written records of our own time, and in a self serving way makes me aware that the importance of this documentary practise evermore vital, as our generation will not be a blip in the historic record.

*curatorial note to reader- RS McLaughlin was right handed, noting that since he was born in 1871 he would not have likely had a choice in the matter, as right- handedness was often imposed.
Pears Soap was the soap of choice in the household. It was purchased in cases. We use Pears in the interpretation of the exhibit rooms today. This information was gathered in several oral histories of former household servants.