Published: October 10, 2006
The Harvard University Art Museums will present “A Public Patriotic Museum: Artworks and Artifacts from the General Artemas Ward House” October 14–February 11, at the Fogg Art Museum. The exhibition is drawn from the holdings of the General Artemas Ward House, which is now a Harvard-owned museum in Shrewsbury, Mass.
Artemas Ward commanded the Patriot militia besieging 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 US Congresses, and as chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas of Worcester County. On display will be a variety of late Eighteenth to early Twentieth Century artworks and artifacts including paintings, furniture, textiles, ceramics, glassware and domestic and agricultural tools.
The exhibition is organized by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Ivan Gaskell, Harvard professors who seek to establish that art museums can and should encompass a range of disciplinary viewpoints, including philosophy and history, which border the aesthetic.
“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.
Derived from a conference course taught jointly by Gaskell and Ulrich, the exhibition involved considerable original research by students on artifacts from the house. It also embodies conceptual and philosophical work by the organizers on the place of aesthetics in the production of Harvard University’s art museums.
“This exhibition presents a unique collaboration between two leading historians that challenges assumptions about the relation of the aesthetic to history,” said Thomas W. Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot director of the Harvard University Art Museums. “It pushes the limits of what might be expected to be shown in an art museum, and is an example of our continued efforts to find new ways to integrate those students and faculty that are outside of the discipline of art history into the museums.”
The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated brochure with an essay by curators Gaskell and Ulrich and an exhibition checklist. The Fogg Art Museum is at 32 Quincy Street.
For information, www.artmuseums.harvard.edu, 617-495-2397 or fax 617-496-9762.
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