I give tours for an historic house in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park that is of the colonial style in both its architecture and collections. During these tours we talk about the period architecture, objects, and antiquities, and I’m commonly asked how a young man in his early 30’s knows so much about colonial history and material culture. I always graciously take this as a compliment(!), give a response, and then wonder about the underlying learning theory and how one best learns to identify period antiquities and particular styles of objects and architecture.
My most common response makes a reference to having a good foundation in the wider context of the subject matter, where in my case I have a genuine interest in the history of Philadelphia, and secondly i have work history researching and analyzing colonial structures and landscapes. I do admit however, that being able to talk about period objects takes time and patience and can be the most challenging aspect to learn. This connects to the concept of building a body of interconnected knowledge, and also raises some questions going back to learning theory:
- What’s the best way to learn about identifying the period and style of an object?
- Can this knowledge be easily extracted form a book?
- If we build our foundation from visiting historic homes and museums, does the arrangement of the collection matter?
- What is the role of tour guides in enhancing our learning processes?
These are all very loaded questions that i’d love to be able to have the answers to someday, but for now I have a good case study to share for question #3: does the arrangement of the collection matter? [Spoiler alert: its the Kirkland Museum in Denver].
And if one is to efficiently be able to identify and learn the design style and period of objects, furniture, and antiquities, I would argue that the arrangement is very important. The best way to learn about an object is to experience it in person and up close with either great interpretation resources or an expert providing a narrative. This experience is furthermore greatly enhanced when the object is arranged in a greater context. By this i mean [for example] a clock is displayed in a room dedicated to 50 clocks made over the last 300 years. Alternatively, there’s also great advantage to learning about clocks when they’re arranged with other clocks and objects of their style and period. I prefer the latter arrangement.
If you also prefer the latter arrangement, or are very interested in enhancing your understanding of design periods and styles in the fine & decorative art, then i highly suggest visiting the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art in Denver, Co. The museum features “a celebrated international decorative art collection from about 1875 to about 1990 with examples of every major design period from Arts & Crafts to Postmodern”, and is also arranged thematically by design period. For example, there’s a whole room dedicated to the Bauhaus style, with various objects from the period arranged in one space. This is ideal for those who want to truly experience a design period and understand the greater context of the style.
I spent several hours here last month, and was truly impressed by the arrangement, interpretation, and quality of the collection. See more of my Kirkland photos here
I think we can all think of a few museums that have certain rooms and halls arranged by style or time period. Here in Philly, the Philadelphia Museum of Art often arranges its paintings by period and region, and The Met also does this quite successfully. For those still interested in learning about unique strategies for institutions to display their collections and tell their stories, i highly recommend a book called Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums by Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan.
Also, for those looking for a more scholarly answer to spatial arrangement and learning theory, I found this article and passage by Lu (2017) in Frontiers of Architectural Research to be insightful:
In summary, the evolution of storytelling in museums undergoes four stages: oral, exhibition, spatial, and artifactual. When storytelling as a spatial technique is applied in public museums, it transforms from an authoritative linear narrative of spatial arrangements of collections to the increasing attention on displays of individual artifacts.
In short, to become a expert, its best to talk to and hear from other experts to share knowledge and expertise. One has to start somewhere on the road to material culture and build the foundation one layer at a time.