Radio Chipstone: 'Mrs. M----'s Cabinet' Showcases the Diversity of Early American Art
Walking into Mrs. M-----'s Cabinet at the Milwaukee Art Museum is more like walking into a home than an traditional museum space. Located in the Constance and Dudley Godfrey American Wing, Mrs. M----'s Cabinet is an interactive exhibit which invites viewers to create a narrative through objects collected by Mrs. M----, a character who "exists somewhere between fact and fiction."
Sarah Carter is the Curator and Director of Research for the Chipstone Foundation, and she says that the exhibit's driving force is the curiosity it inspires through Mrs. M----'s collection of historic finds.
"[She] goes to the centennial exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876," describes Carter, "and she's very upset...because early America is presented as this version of 'New England,' English values, English things, and, frankly, she's a little ticked off."
Carter explains that Mrs. M---- is an American character, who had been traveling the world with her father who was a ship captain and had also been mudlarking in the James River in Virginia. She was finding ceramics from Turkey, China and all over Europe.
According to Carter, Mrs. M---- asked herself why is America was portrayed as a 'New England', if she was finding objects from all over the world? Carter notes that that the story of Early America is actually, a "story of diversity, of world travel, of internationalism...and Mrs. M---- is a great way to tell that story about the Seventeenth Century, and we created a room to tell the story about the Nineteenth Century as well."
In putting together the international artifacts found in the British-Atlantic colonies, Carter looked for a welcoming vibe so viewers would "feel at home in [the] space."
Carter explains that visitors can engage in numerous interactive activities, such as pulling a chord to hear the Pepper's Ghost illusion, sitting down on a bench and pulling out a book, taking one of Mrs. M----'s calling cards or paging through a scrapbook.
"What Mrs. M---- allows us to do is to tell some really complicated and important stories not only about late 19th century American life, not only about collections, but also about what a museum can be," she says.
Gianofer Fields studies material culture at UW-Madison and is the curator of "Radio Chipstone" - a project funded by the Chipstone Foundation, a decorative arts foundation whose mission is preserving and interpreting their collection, as well as stimulating research and education in the decorative arts.