Art Behind the Scenes Curatorial Exhibitions

Curating Mrs. M.––––– ’s World, a New Installation: Part 1

View of Mrs. M.––––– ’s Cabinet.
View of Mrs. M.––––– ’s Cabinet.

Mrs. M.––––– ’s Cabinet is currently featuring an installation that was developed by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students enrolled in the course “Curating Mrs. M.––––– ’s World.” The project resulted in the display of seven acquisitions by the Chipstone Foundation. The exhibition opened to the public on Sunday, December 18th and will run throughout the spring.

Mrs. M.––––– ’s Cabinet is one of five galleries, located in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Constance and Dudley Godfrey American Wing, that are curated by the Chipstone Foundation. In the fall of 2016, Chipstone Curator and Director of Research Dr. Sarah Anne Carter taught a graduate seminar in museum studies in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Art History Department. The seven creative and up-and-coming student curators in this course researched and developed the innovative installations found in this exhibition in order to expand and enhance Mrs. M.––––– ’s mysterious story.

Each student was assigned an object to research and install in the cabinet as part of the museum studies course. Their challenge was to create an installation that fit in with the theme of Mrs. M.––––– ’s Cabinet: her desire to create a nuanced and complete history of America and its material cultures.

In the installation, there are no traditional labels or museum signage. Instead, the objects must convey their stories through design cues and period technologies and tools, in addition to speaking through Mrs. M.––––– ’s voice. Mrs. M.––––– ’s personal Log is one place where visitors can experience these stories.

To explain how each object fits into the greater narrative of the exhibition, we will take a closer look at each one in depth. This is the first of two blog posts in which we will discuss the research behind each object and its installation within Mrs. M.––––– ’s Cabinet.

Today’s post is written by MA candidates in Art History Savannah Hill, Cameron Fontaine, and Abby Armstrong. It will focus on three objects that relate to the Centennial Exposition of 1876, the first World’s Fair held in the United States, and the Columbian Exposition of 1893.

The Chicago Pitcher and Cataclysmic Ceramics

The Chicago Pitcher was designed by Frank E. Burley for Copeland and Spode (England, founded 1776) in conjunction with the 1893 Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. The pitcher is typical of World’s Fair souvenirs. Many types of memorabilia were available for purchase and ceramic makers like Wedgwood (England, founded 1759) and Spode catered to the demand for luxury items.

Frank E. Burley for Copeland and Spode, Chicago Pitcher, 1893. Jasperware. Chipstone Foundation.
Frank E. Burley for Copeland and Spode, Chicago Pitcher, 1893. Jasperware. Chipstone Foundation.

The pitcher is part of a longstanding tradition of “cataclysmic ceramics,” or ceramics that are used to document catastrophic events in human history. A modern example of this genre of ceramics is a blue and white jasperware group created by Michelle Erickson (American, 1982–present). In a set of three vases she illustrates the World Trade Towers during the Terrorist Attacks of September 11th (the vases are visible on the link above half-way down the page on the right). This piece serves as a brutal reminder of the impact 9/11 had on American art, culture, and life.

The Chicago Pitcher is a similar memorial piece. The top panel of the pitcher depicts the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The infamous fire, which started on October 8, resulted in the deaths of over 300 people and the destruction of another 100,000 people’s homes. It destroyed a major part of the city that measured four miles long and two-thirds of a mile wide.

A particularly interesting vignette on the pitcher showcases the myth of Mrs. O’Leary, whose cow supposedly knocked over a lantern in a shed and started the Great Chicago fire. This legend was immortalized in the satirical song “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” modeled on the tune of 1896’s“There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” The legend was popular at the time, even though the reporter for the Chicago Republican who wrote it, Michael Ahern, admitted in 1893 that he had fabricated the story.

This idea of the “folly of women” appears within the history of cataclysmic events. Mrs. M.––––– would have a strong opinion on the veracity of these claims and the scapegoated women who were blamed for such happenings. Women being blamed for a catastrophe can be compared with the story of Eve picking an apple from the tree, the sin which caused the downfall of man and caused humankind to be ousted from the Garden of Eden. Both myths play off of the actions of women affecting the people around them. Mrs. M.––––– would have taken offense at this portrayal of the foolish woman, especially when the story proved to be false. Mrs. M.––––– understands that the incorrect portrayal of women as careless and weak has done cultural damage throughout Western history.

The Centennial Vase and American Patriotism

The Centennial Vase was designed by the pottery company WT Copeland and Sons (England, active 1847-1970) and presents an interesting reflection of a British opinion of American patriotism and its commercial viability. It is safe to assume that the Centennial Vase was first made for the Centennial Exposition of 1876.

W.T. Copeland & Sons, Centennial Polychrome Pitcher, 1876. Chipstone Foundation.
W.T. Copeland & Sons, Centennial Polychrome Pitcher, 1876. Chipstone Foundation.

How would Mrs. M.––––– display this piece? Her reception of this piece probably would not have been completely favorable as centennial celebrations and other public memorials often hide history as much as they celebrate it.

We have displayed the Centennial Vase with flowers, symbolizing the view Mrs. M.––––– would have of the ceramic in her collection. The beautiful bouquet of flowers is a subtle, veiled critique of the vase’s aggressive show of patriotism, a white and upper-class experience in America. Based on the 1852 book The Language of Flowers: the Floral Offering, a Token of Affection and Esteem, Comprising the Language and Poetry of Flowers by Henrietta Dumont, the sunflower stands for false riches, the thorn-apple for deceitful charms, and the scarlet geranium for stupidity. These elements combined in one bouquet of flowers form a nineteenth century way to critique the vase that may not be immediately apparent to twenty-first century visitors.

The implication is that Mrs. M.––––– would find this vase a deceitful façade. The celebration of the centennial hides more history than it celebrates—just as the bouquet it holds hides its own meaning. It does not represent all of America and it certainly does not represent the Native American history of the land which extends centuries before Europeans had “discovered” the continent. Mrs. M.––––– strives to represent a history more inclusive and complex than what this vase shows.

George Washington Ironstone Character Jug and the Smelting Pot

Almost nothing is known about the George Washington Ironstone Character Jug, except that it dates to 1892, and that is a product of a pottery company in East Liverpool, Ohio (a design patent by the jug’s potter, Sydney Starkey, was submitted in October of 1892). It is roughly nine inches tall and made of ironstone ceramics. The jug is George Washington’s face from the neck up, complete with revolutionary-era tricorn cap, flower detail, and the inscription “Washington.” It appears to include some form of a spout, and while it is most likely meant to be decorative, it is easily handled and relatively light in weight which means it could be used for drinking or pouring.

Sydney Starkey, George Washington Ironside Character Jug, 1892. Chipstone Foundation.
Sydney Starkey, George Washington Ironside Character Jug, 1892. Chipstone Foundation.

The patent date of October 4th, 1892 is marked on the bottom of the jug. Sydney Starkey was granted a fourteen year U.S. Patent for this specific design of what he deemed as a “vase”. The patent year is remarkably close to the World’s Columbian Exposition, which would take place in 1893 in Chicago. Based on Starkey’s document, he may have patented this design with the idea to mass produce this item in the hopes of selling them at the Columbian Exposition.

Sydney Starkey, an English-born potter, came to East Liverpool, Ohio and found himself amongst a sea of American potters. He may have already been familiar with the form of the character jug, as the toby jug had been a popular form of British earthenware pottery since the eighteenth century. Starkey possibly developed and patented a character jug since that type of vessel was familiar to him, capitalizing on an already saturated pottery market with a new type.

Pouring the glass waterfall in artist Beth Lipman’s studio.
Pouring the glass waterfall in artist Beth Lipman’s studio.

You can observe Starkey’s George Washington Ironstone Character Jug in Mrs. M—’s Cabinet in conjunction with a glass waterfall installation piece by internationally known glass artist, Beth Lipman (American, 1994–present).

The George Washington Ironstone Character Jug is inverted on its side with Lipman’s glass waterfall pouring into a pot below. Lipman’s glass waterfall acts as a symbol for all of the sometimes-slanted views of American freedom and patriotism George Washington represented in the late nineteenth century.

By pouring the glass waterfall into a “smelting pot”, an expression used by Ralph Waldo Emerson that highlights America’s cultural diversity, Mrs. M.––––– accentuates the act of throwing out the old, restrictive history that the Washington jug represents, in order to make room for an inclusive progression of ideas about history and freedom that she creates with her collection. Rather than celebrating the Nativism of her time often associated with Early American history in the late nineteenth century, Mrs. M.––––– makes space to include George Washington’s ideas and actions in her Cabinet.

Check in next week for another post discussing more new objects on display!

–Savannah Hill, Cameron Fontaine, and Abby Armstrong, MA candidates at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

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