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Cherished Possessions


ABOVE Cradle. Barnstable or Yarmouthport, Massachusetts, 1665-85. Red oak, white pine. Gift of Dorothy Armour, Elizabeth T. Acampora, L. Hope Carter, Guido R. Perera, Henry C. Thacher, Louis B Thacher, Jr., and Thomas C. Thacher

BELOW Dress. Massachusetts, 1780-90. Copperplate printed linen. Gift of Ann Gilbert, Carol Bostock Kramer, Susan Bostock Goldstone, and Louise Bostock Lehman Sonneborn

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ABOVE Library Table. Attributed to Felix Gendrot (working 1853-c.1875). Boston, Massachusetts, 1865-75. Walnut, marble. Gift of Felix A. Gendrot

BELOW Susan Norton in Rome. 1906. Unidentified photographer. Gelatin silver print

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ABOVE Long chair. Marcel Breuer (1902-81). Manufactured by Isokon Furniture Co., London, 1936-37. Birch, plywood, canvas. Bequest of Ise Gropius

BELOW A pewter teapot, Silver sewing kit, and Chinese lacquer table from the exhibition Cherished Possesions. Photograph: Peter Harholdt.

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ABOVE Three detail pictures of the "Rio de Janeiro; the Raritan; Boston; Paris, Maine." Pedro Tovookan Parris (1833-1860) Paris, Maine, c.1850. Watercolor on glazed cotton or linen.

Special Pre-Publication Offer
Order now and save 20%
The four-hundred-page, hard-cover catalogue is being offered at the special pre-publication price of $40, plus tax and handling costs of $5.50 per copy. Orders must be placed by June 30. Please send name, mailing address, phone number, credit card number or check made payable to SPNEA to SPNEA Museum Shop, 141 Cambridge St., Boston, MA 02114, or call (617) 227-3957, ext. 237. Designed by Marquand Books, one of the country's leading producers of museum catalogues, the book will contain about three hundred full-color photographs and fifty black-and-whites. The text by SPNEA Curator Nancy Carlisle, explaining the human stories that link the objects to New England history, makes fascinating reading. This book will be a great gift item for anyone interested in the region's history and culture.

A Conversation with the Curator

More than three years in the making, SPNEA's exhibition Cherished Possessions, featuring about two hundred highlights from the collection, will have its New England showing this summer at the Colby College Museum of Art, in Waterville, Maine, from July 18 through October 26. The show will also travel to museums in Fort Worth, Texas; Honolulu, Hawaii; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and New York City. The national tour has been made possible by Fidelity Investments through the Fidelity Foundation. In this article, SPNEA Curator Nancy Carlisle talks about the exhibition and comments on a few of her favorite pieces.

The Cradle
"Various legends-including shipwreck-surround this cradle, which is not surprising considering its astonishingly elaborate design. While we may never know the name of the joiner who made it, he went to extraordinary lengths, using twenty-two joined panels, thirty-three turned spindles, nineteen buttons, and eight finials. Most cradles of this period are plain and functional; this one is truly a tour de force."

The Dress
"This dress supposedly belonged to Deborah Sampson (1760-1827), who posed as a man and enlisted in the Continental Army. She served eighteen months, surviving a wound in the thigh by a musket ball, which she removed herself to avoid discovery. She was finally found out after falling ill with a fever. In 1797 she published her story and subsequently toured New England and New York in uniform, describing her exploits to paying audiences. I like to think that beyond the perils she faced, she enjoyed her adventure and experienced a freedom not open to many women of her time."

Q. What do you mean by "cherished possessions?"
The exhibition is about the way objects have meaning outside of their function. Families saved them because of the values and memories they represent, and later, museums prize them for their historical and cultural significance. Another title for the show could have been Bearing Witness, because each item offers a point of entry into the sweep of history, not only of the region but often of the wider world as well.

On the cover of the magazine we see two gleaming metal objects, both with links to the American Revolution. The pewter teapot, much dented and repaired, very likely would not have been saved at all had it not belonged to Crispus Attucks, a slave who was the first victim of the so-called Boston Massacre of 1770. Its survival is testimony to the early recognition of its value as a martyr's relic. By contrast, the elegant articulated silver fish, which descended in the family of the Revolutionary patriot Josiah Quincy, is a luxury item imported from England. It is actually a sewing kit and thus speaks not only to privilege and class of some of the Revolutionary leaders but also to the daily chores expected of most women at that time.

Q. How did you go about choosing the objects and what were your criteria?
Richard Nylander [chief curator and director of collections], Melinda Talbot [assistant curator], and I went through every [SPNEA] property from attic to basement looking for things that were visually exciting and also had good stories. We studied the enormous holdings of historic images in the Library and Archives. In six months, we must have looked at 65,000 items. We winnowed down to 1,200 fairly easily, but cutting to two hundred was painful, and we still regret leaving some things out. We also sought advice from colleagues in other museums. As we worked, we realized that the objects were falling naturally into thematic groupings. We tried to present a range of periods and materials and to include the truly spectacular, but ultimately, the stories are the main focus, and the objects are the signposts that lead us to them.

Q. Did you gain insight into the character of New England?
My understanding is now vastly richer, and I think that people who spend time with the exhibition or the catalogue will have a similar experience. Some things came as a surprise-like how difficult it was for thoughtful, patriotic people to choose sides during the Revolution. Some of the objects tell of families torn asunder, brothers fighting on opposite sides, never to meet again.

Q. What do the objects say about SPNEA?
What's remarkable about SPNEA is that from the very beginning there was always an interest in retaining stories as well as objects. I've always thought of William Sumner Appleton [SPNEA's founder] as an ethnographer as well as a preservationist. His goal was ambitious, and his successors at SPNEA continued the practice; as a result, our collections are recognized today for their unusually rich histories. New Englanders seem to place a high value on history and the built environment. SPNEA and the region have benefitted from this tradition.

Q. What do you think the visitor's experience will be like?
First and foremost, the objects and the way they're displayed are going to be spectacular. The design will encourage visitors to dip in and out, to wander, be drawn to an object and then learn its story. I hope people will come away with a sense of how objects are interlaced in our lives-beyond their practical function-and how they can carry memories.


ABOVE LEFT Captain Isaac Manchester (1769-1860). Cephas Thompson (1775-1856). Bristol, Rhode Island, 1806-1807. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Miss Evelyn A. Munroe

ABOVE RIGHT Great Storm at Providence. Possibly by James Kidder (1793-1837). Boston, Massachusetts, or Providence, Rhode Island, after 1815. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase


Captain Isaac Manchester Oil Painting
"There is something particularly intense about the expression of this portrait. The sitter made a fortune in the slave trade, bringing molasses from the West Indies to New England to be made into rum, shipping rum to Africa to be traded for slaves, and transporting slaves to the West Indies for sale. It seems to me that the artist has managed to capture the harsh character required of a slave ship captain. After a federal law prohibited American participation in the trade, a depression hit towns like Bristol [R.I.] that were heavily invested in it; ultimately, Isaac Manchester was ruined and died in poverty."

Great Storm at Providence Oil Painting
"This painting depicts a massive hurricane in September, 1815, that coincided with an unusually high tide and caught Providence by surprise. A violent wind drove the water onshore, tore ships from their moorings, dashed them against buildings and smashed a bridge. In 1938, a similar hurricane smashed into the Rhode Island coast, with even more catastrophic damage. Hurricanes and blizzards are two extremes of weather we New Englanders have to live through and that help define the region's character."

Library Table
"To me this piece personifies the ebullience of America after the Civil War-brash, loud, optimistic, proud, and rich. The style, called Renaissance Revival today, draws inspiration from Italian art and emphasizes costly craftsmanship and luxurious materials. This piece is made of carved and gilded walnut-an expensive wood-with an inlaid marble top imported from Italy. It was very likely made by the donor's father, a Paris-born craftsman who emigrated to Boston and was a partner in the firm of Gahery, Gendrot & Co."

Long Chair
"This was the favorite chair of Ise Gropius, wife of Walter Gropius. It was always covered by a fur throw and was kept beside the large window in the living room overlooking the orchard. The designer, Marcel Breuer, one of the foremost furniture designers of the early twentieth century, was a close family friend."


ABOVE LEFT Pedro Tovookan Parris, ambrotype, c.1855

ABOVE MIDDLE Sara Norton (1864-1922). Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). London, 1884. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Susan Norton

ABOVE RIGHT Teddy Bear. United States or Europe, c.1906. Angora plush, sawdust stuffing. Bequest of Susan Norton

Pedro Tovookan Parris
"We all have urges to record our stories. Pedro Parris told his not only in words but also in a picture; remarkably, both have survived. Parris was captured in eastern Africa around the age of ten, transported as a slave across the Atlantic, and then rescued by American sailors and brought to Boston. The boy was taken in by the family of Virgil D. Parris, United States Marshal for the State of Maine, with whom he lived for the rest of his life. A family member wrote down the tale of his capture and preserved both this portrait photograph and a drawing made by Parris. It shows troops marching in Rio de Janeiro, where he was first taken; the ship that brought him northwards; the city of Boston; and finally, life on the farm in Maine."

Sara Norton Oil Painting
"Sara Norton could have been a character in a Henry James novel, the kind of Bostonian equally at home in drawing rooms on either side of the Atlantic. Her father, Charles Eliot Norton, taught at Harvard and was one of the leading thinkers of his day, with friends like Longfellow, Henry James, Emerson, Dickens, the Brownings, Carlyle, Darwin, Burne-Jones and John Ruskin. Sara, a gifted violinist, served as companion and hostess for her widowed father. The painting was a gift from Burne-Jones to Norton.

Teddy Bear
"A beloved teddy bear is perhaps the most cherished possession of all. This one belonged to Susan Norton, who was photographed with it in Rome at the age of four. It is a very early specimen (teddy bears were first manufactured in 1902), and it is remarkable that the bear survives in such good condition, especially considering its world travels."

Cherished Possessions