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 Selena Erdman, April Bina, Kelsey Rozema and Natachia Attewell. It will focus on four objects that show society’s interest in collecting and how different cultures greatly influenced American arts and culture in the nineteenth century.
The Puzzle Jug and its Evolving Narrative
This puzzle jug was made ca. 1880-1890 by Edward Bingham (English, 1829-1914) of Castle Hedingham Pottery Works in Essex, England. It is a nineteenth century interpretation of sixteenth century puzzle jugs that were used in taverns and bars for drinking games. Most original puzzle jugs are fairly small (about a third to half of the size of this one), can be easily handled, and are far less ornate.
This jug has elaborate hand-created designs made from applied slip work as well as a molded relief on each side. Original puzzle jugs typically had some painted and glazed designs accompanying a witty or taunting rhyme to tempt potential drinkers. Mrs. M.–––––’s jug is less about taunting and challenging those who examine it and more about representing the idea and question of its purpose and function.
It would be difficult to imagine nineteenth century pottery collectors and buyers attempting to use this jug in the way the originals were. To understand its purpose, we much look to the English Arts & Crafts Movement.
There was a huge push in the late nineteenth century for handmade objects that reflected back on a ‘simpler’ time in reaction against the growing mass-production practices of the era. The puzzle jug is a handcrafted object in conversation with the past, even though it might be a bold exaggeration of the original, and was appealing to collectors of the time.
The studio of Edward Bingham was well known for its unique handcrafted works. These included some original designs that were extremely popular as well as many revival pieces made based upon objects from antiquity and the Middle Ages.
The puzzle jug is a culmination and representation of the ideas of the late nineteenth century. Works like this were not meant to be used in the usual way originals were but were to be appreciated for what they represent.
The Orator Stove Tile and the Nineteenth Century Woman
The Orator Stove Tile is a lead-glazed earthenware ceramic stove tile made in sixteenth century Germany. Lead-glazed enameled tiles have been used for decorating central heating stoves and fireplaces in Germany and surrounding Northern countries for centuries. This popularity makes the tile, and others like it, easily identifiable.
The tile depicts a Greco-Roman relief figure in what appears to be an orator pose, a stance of authority and power. The orator is shown in a niche formed by columns and a scalloped lunette, suggestive of Neoclassical style. In comparison to other tiles from this time period and location, it is particularly austere in its detail.
Stove tiles like this were highly collectible in the nineteenth century. The act of collecting items from countries outside of North America was probably the most popular pastime for women around the turn of the twentieth century. Since the home was the traditional responsibility of women, women were responsible for decorating the home. Interior decorating and the details of homemaking were taking off. In fact, there were quite a few journals and magazines dedicated this topic. The Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Arts and Decoration, The House Beautiful, and The Decorator and Furnisher are just a few of these publications. It could be that, as a collector of worldly curiosities, Mrs. M.––––– simply wished to have an item from Germany from that specific time period. Or, as heritage was something to be proud of, perhaps Mrs. M.––––– wished to acquire an item which represents part of her ancestry.
Mrs. M.–––––‘s collection, however, is far more complex than this. This tile would have been more than a decoration in her public space. She would want to revive it, so to speak, from a sixteenth century heating appliance to one appropriate to the nineteenth. In this exhibit, she will use it as a model for her own custom-made cast iron stove. After she completes her sketches to send to The Michigan Stove Company, she will most likely place it in her public space so all of her visitors will be able to appreciate it.
The Memory Jug and Spirituality
One of the objects on display is a Memory Jug, which is a late nineteenth- or early twentieth century African-American folk ceramic vase. Memory jugs are made by plastering found objects (such as buttons, shells, and coins) on top of a vessel, and then often covering them with metallic paint.
These ceramics are just now being studied by scholars, and leading theories suggest that the jugs are a continuation of traditional grave decorations by the Bokongo culture. Mrs. M.–––––’s Memory Jug is particularly interesting because it combines both Bokongo and African-American traditions. The broken glass found on the jug relates to Bokongo burial rites, where the pieces are supposed to help the dead’s soul find its way to the afterlife. The jug also features a mummified chicken foot, which connects it to southern voodoo traditions, which is supposed to bring good luck and fortune to the owner.
The scholars at the Chipstone Foundation are excited to research the Memory Jug. They have worked with the Medical College of Wisconsin in order to get the vase x-rayed and CT-scanned. This imaging was able to show us objects and patterns in the memory jug that have been obscured by the layers of paint.
The Memory Jug, and accompanying x-rays, will first be displayed within Mrs. M.–––––’s office, allowing visitors to view the jug as she researches it. This first display will hopefully invite visitors to view the jug as researchers themselves, and try to spot the objects seen on the x-ray within the jug. The Memory Jug and x-rays will eventually be moved outside of the office and displayed under glass in the main room of Mrs. M.–––––’s Cabinet. This second display will allow visitors to view the jug up close and connect to the ceremonial aspect of the Bokongo tradition.
The Tyg and the Truth
The Tyg was made sometime between 1870 and 1890 by the potter Edward Bingham in Castle Hedingham, Essex, England. There is clay and dot-pattern slip trailing on the handles, which are meant to give the impression that the tyg came from Wrotham Pottery, in Kent, England in the seventeenth century. Wrotham was highly collectable during the nineteenth century. Bingham, seeing the demand for Wrotham Pottery, also covered the Tyg with a black substance to give it the appearance that it was made in the sixteenth century.
The small figure at the front of this object is a reference to King Henry. A story often titled “King Henry and the Loving Cup” began circulating in the late nineteenth century. The story goes that King Henry was out hunting when he became thirsty. He stopped at an inn to get a drink.The servant girl was so nervous about serving the king she began to shake. As she approached the king with his cup she attempted to pass it to him, but her shaking caused her to spill on him. This ruined the king’s gloves. When the king returned from his hunting he ordered the royal potters to make a cup with multiple handles and sent to the inn.
The King Henry in the story could either be King Henry IV of Navarre (1553–1610) or King Henry V of England (1386–1422). These stories were not taken as historical fact during the nineteenth century; an advertisement found in Glass and Pottery World from 1896 recognizes that this style of cup was around longer than either king.
This story can be described as an etiology—an explanation to why something is the way it is, even if it is not true. The king sits on top of the tyg’s handle, saying, “My presence here creates truth.” The Tyg teaches us that etiologies are just as powerful as histories.
We encourage you to look closely at these objects in Mrs. M—’s Cabinet. Hopefully, it will start a conversation on how the history of ceramic collecting can open new windows onto multifaceted American narratives.
— Selena Erdman, April Bina, Kelsey Rozema, and Natachia Attewell, MA candidates at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee