museum review - Presidential Splendour
Written by Gregg Henglein
Honouring the 50th anniversary of the White House Historical Association, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has opened an exhibit designed to showcase the style and history of the presidential mansion.
In the USA, much is made upon a change of leadership of what styles and décor the new residents – the First Lady, in particular – will make to the White House. Such has been the case for more than 200 years.
And yet, much of the contents within those walls has never been brought to the public. Until now.
The Renwick Gallery’s Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House is designed to showcase all aspects of the presidential mansion, from residence to office and museum. Each of the 95 objects contained within the exhibition – some of which have lasted for decades – tell a story.
Purchased by Theodore and Edith Roosevelt in 1902, a rosewood armchair is part of a set that has been used by each president since. Two of these currently flank the desk of President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, in which secretaries sit to take dictation.
“A chair in the White House is not just a chair,” says assistant White House curator Melissa Naulin. “Because the White House is imbued with such symbolism and importance, people pay attention to what’s there and like to debate things such as: ‘Is it too fancy? Where did it come from? What does it say about the family that picked it?’”
The vast majority of the collection comprises never before seen pieces, such as gilded soup tureens, silk draperies, and a pair of bronze urns that have been photographed but never been outside. The same holds true for a coverlet made by first lady Grace Coolidge for the Lincoln Bedroom over two years during her husband Calvin’s presidency. Embroidered with eagles, shields, and her name, Coolidge hoped to start a tradition among first ladies. She didn’t!
Artefacts include the eye-catching, such as a pure silver Hiawatha Boat given to first lady Julia Grant during a centennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence; as well as the gaudy, including a wild turkey-adorned serving plate from the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, with an awkward ‘folded’ corner design.
Arguably the most intriguing piece is an octagonal Chinese box lined with pink, French, hand-printed wallpaper chosen for the White House in 1809 by first lady Dolly Madison. In 1814, British troops set fire to much of Washington, including the president’s house. The wallpaper within this box is one of few remnants suggesting how the White House looked before its destruction.
Running through to May 6, 2012, the White House exhibit will be accompanied by free public forums including Challenges of Caring for the Collections and a book signing/lecture with presidential historian Doug Wead on First Children – Antics in the White House.
The first Friday of each month includes featured Gallery Talk sessions with collection experts.
“The White House is often called the ‘People’s House’ and it has been our pleasure to bring to the people of America and nations across the world a better understanding of its rich history,” said Neil W. Horstman, president of the White House Historical Association.