What's Old is New Again

It’s been a while since I’ve contributed a post here and I’m sorry for being MIA for so long. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been making the transition to a new job and to a new commuting scheme. Now that I’ve established something of a routine, I can return to other projects, like this blog. I’m no longer the Executive Director of a smallish county historical society, but have taken on the job of Director and Chief Curator of the http://www.dar.org/museum/ D.C. a mid-sized decorative arts museum which is an arm of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.

This isn’t the first time I’ve worked at 1776 D St. (yes, at the time the women of the DAR bought their block-sized lot in the District they were fully aware of the significance of their address) I was there for a period in the mid-to-late 1990s as a historian in what is called the Historian General’s office.  The DAR, like many organizations formed in the 19th century, uses titles that have fallen out of common nomenclature. The “general” part refers to the fact the office (or officer) oversees the larger operations of the organization; just as a general in the army doesn’t command individual regiments or platoons but generally plans and directs the activities of the group with others taking care of the details. When I was at the DAR in the 90s I worked with chapter members to mark graves of Revolutionary War soldiers and patriots, making sure markers were placed on graves of people whose service could be reliably documented in historical records. I also assisted with the approval of historical markers placed by DAR members, which by the time I worked there, required very rigorous research and documentation. A change from the years when just about every DAR chapter managed to mark a place where Washington slept. [insert “Washington slept here” jokes here]

Now, I’m returning to the institution as head of their museum. The prospect of guiding this well-established and respected arm of the DAR is both exciting and daunting. The collections, whether or not you’re a decorative arts geek, are impressive. Objects collected by the ladies who first started the DAR in 1890 were meant to preserve and celebrate American history and life as they saw it, primarily from a white, female’s point of view with the heavy influence of the Colonial Revival. There are the “relics” of the Revolution; things like wood from the tree under which Washington stood, but also items from daily life like spinning wheels (the DAR’s symbol is the wheel part of the spinning wheel), quilts, and samplers that speak of women’s work and accomplishments. Not to sound too much like an advertisement, the DAR Museum’s collection of 31 period rooms, were established in the 1910s and are some of the earliest of their kind. Initially meant to offer windows into the past and to memorialize the genteel society and lovely parlor furniture of days gone by, they now include investigations into the development of the Colonial Revival design aesthetic that still impacts us today.

I have a lot to learn about the museum’s 30,000 objects and all its inner workings and I’m looking forward to it. And speaking of decorative arts, I’m also teaching a new class this semester about material culture. So, I’ll continue to be sharing some of my observations from the front lines of museums and public history education with you and I want to know your thoughts as well.