A while back, Graeme Marsden alerted me to an article in Artdaily.com about an interesting exhibit called "'A Public Patriotic Museum': Artworks and Artifacts from the General Artemas Ward House," opening on 14 October at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum. That article is gone, so I'm reduced to quoting a press release:
The exhibition is drawn from the holdings of the General Artemas Ward House, a Harvard-owned museum in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. Artemas Ward commanded the Patriot militia beseiging British-held Boston from April 1775 until the appointment of George Washington in July. Subsequently he served in the Provincial and Continental Congresses, the second and third U.S. Congresses, and as chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas of Worcester County.Gen. Ward's reputation also benefited from namesakes in the media. Descendant Artemas Ward (1848-1925) was a pioneer in advertising (particularly on street cars and subways) who published Charles Martyn's biography of the general and a genealogy of the Ward family. Non-relative Charles Farrar Browne, said to be Abraham Lincoln's favorite writer, used the similar pseudonym "Artemus Ward," which helped keep the general's name nationally familiar in nineteenth-century America. Otherwise, I think he'd be a footnote: the Massachusetts general who stepped aside as commander of the provincial forces when the Continental Congress and George Washington took over.
On display will be a variety of extraordinary late 18th- to early 20th-century artworks and artifacts from the Ward homestead, including paintings, furniture, textiles, ceramics, glassware, and domestic and agricultural tools. . . .
The exhibition is organized by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 300th Anniversary University Professor and James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard, and Ivan Gaskell, Margaret S. Winthrop Curator in the Department of European Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts and senior lecturer on history at Harvard.
The organizers seek to establish that art museums can and should encompass a range of disciplinary viewpoints, including philosophy and history, which border the aesthetic. In turn, they propose that historians can address aspects of artifacts other than the purely instrumental.
"We acknowledge that aesthetics played a role not only in the uses to which the Wards put their possessions, but also in our choice of objects for this exhibition," said Ulrich. "Although the objects we have chosen for the exhibition have served many purposes over time, they function as artworks on this occasion."
Gaskell adds, "The objects we have chosen are varied. They include paintings that none would refute as artworks, as well as furniture, ceramics, and quilts that could enjoy a place within any art museum's decorative arts collection. In contrast, some of the objects in the exhibition would once have been relegated to the realm of craft or that of amateur work. Intrinsic value as well as cultural equity now prompts art museums to accept as artworks objects such as these that might previously have been overlooked or left to anthropologists."
"A Public Patriotic Museum" focuses on a small selection of objects associated with General Ward himself, kept and displayed as signifiers of his public eminence. These are presented in counterpoint with objects owned or made by his female descendants. Unlike the general's, their lives remained entirely private, yet it was through their efforts that his memory was in large part preserved. Successive generations of women had preserved the general's personal items—including his cloak, tricorn hat, snowshoes, razor and strop, an inkwell, and books—and had accorded them the status of relics.
The maintenance of the house and the general's possessions assured that his posthumous reputation remained intact, and also served to preserve the standing of the family. Following his death, the women fostered a domestic culture in which no artifact could be dispensed with, passing down their own possessions along with the general's to future generations. The exhibition reveals an aspect of women's roles in the creation of family, local, and national mythology.
The Harvard Gazette offers an early look at the college course that led to this exhibit. Scroll down on this page for a video of students at the Artemas Ward House in 2003. For many years, it appears, Harvard didn't know what to do with this awkward bequest of a historic house in Shrewsbury. Now the college is using it to explore the nature of museums themselves.