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Extracting the Exhibited Interior: Historic Preservation and the American Period Room

Wilcke, Vincent

This thesis examines the history of preservation advocacy in relation to the collecting of American interiors conducted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the early twentieth century. The American interiors these institutions collected were installed as period room displays where furniture, paintings, and small decorative objects were exhibited as unified compositions. Underwritten by the progressive idea that aesthetics and morality were connected, museum reformers saw the American period room as a way to combat Victorian excess while attempting to assimilate the thousands of eastern and southern European immigrants who had come to the United States in the 1880s to a defined set of American values. Museum period rooms, however, were critiqued by preservation groups, which were determined to keep historic buildings preserved insitu.

Arguing that they were rescuing the nation’s great interiors from dilapidated obscurity, museums leaders insisted that the rooms they purchased were not valued locally. Museum period rooms did shift attention toward the architectural heritage of the United States but they did so by dismantling important buildings that were often in no impending danger of demolition. Fearing the loss of local landmarks, preservation advocacy groups formed in reaction to the consumption of architectural fragments. American period rooms generated a contentious discussion between museums and advocacy groups over the cultural management of architectural heritage. Separated from their original purpose, American period rooms are currently being reevaluated by curators and museum professionals who are working to make them relevant to modern audiences.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Historic Preservation
Thesis Advisors
Dolkart, Andrew S.
Degree
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
September 17, 2014