Published: June 30, 2020
When the health crisis forced the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), part of Old Salem Museums and Gardens, to cancel the 2020 MESDA Summer Institute, a foremost training ground for scholars of the early American South since 1976, the Winston-Salem, N.C., institution launched Study South, a portfolio of imaginative programs, in response. Here, Daniel Ackermann, Old Salem’s new interim chief curator and director of collections, shares gleanings from his doctoral research on early Kentucky, thoughts on navigating the challenges facing museums today and the latest news from Old Salem.
Congratulations on your new position and on your recently minted PhD.
I’m doing my best to fill the very large few shoes of our former chief curator, Robert Leath, the newly named president of Classical American Homes Preservation Trust. It’s a lot to contemplate, but we’re completely focused on getting through the current period.
When did you wrap up your dissertation and what was your topic?
I finished in June 2019. My goal was to get it done before my son began kindergarten. I wrote about early Kentucky, using decorative arts and material culture as a way of understanding the expansion of American identity – how we go from being the coastal America to a more expansive America that begins to connect much more with the Gulf Coast through the river networks. What is so interesting to me is to watch what happens when craftsmen, second- and third-generation descendants of European immigrants, move to new places and interact and cross-pollinate with people of different places, religions and ethnicities.
What prompted your interest in Kentucky?
The inspiration really began with one of my first major acquisitions here at MESDA, a late Eighteenth Century chest of drawers from Mason County, Kentucky, that represents the fusion of the Gulf South and Anglo-American cabinetmaking traditions. When I got to MESDA 13 years ago, we were very weak in our collections from Kentucky. It was a major, strategic goal of Robert’s and mine to better represent Kentucky in our collections.
How did MESDA’s approach to objects influence your doctoral research?
MESDA has pioneered a very particular method for studying material culture. The best metaphor for this is our two online databases, the MESDA Craftsman Database and the MESDA Object Database. What we’ve found is that decorative arts scholarship is often its richest and most revealing when you read the documentary record with the object record simultaneously, then look for the places where those two things enhance one another, or where they differ from one another. All those things start to write the biography of an object and, by extension, help us understand the world for which it was made and, ideally, the world in which we live today. I’m the beneficiary of a great deal of prior work by Frank Horton, John Bivins, Brad Rauschenberg and Luke Beckerdite, who really pioneered this method and created the resources that make it all possible.
Would you like to see your dissertation be the basis for an exhibition?
I’ve been in some initial discussions about an exhibition titled something like “Kentucky Begins.” I definitely want the show to be a partnership – and this is very much the MESDA model – among a number of organizations eager to explore the early trans-Appalachian South. I’d like the exhibition to tell the story to a wide audience and be accompanied by a thoughtful catalog.
We are at a very fraught moment for understanding the American past, particularly the narrative of westward expansion. Your thoughts as a professional historian?
Every community has a particular story to tell and not just in the South. The entire American economy before the Civil War rested on slavery. As pertains to my work on early Kentucky, there is this vast migration of enslaved individuals from the East to lands opening in the West. It’s the creation of these new states in the West that begins to foment the crisis that becomes the Civil War. There’s a reason for the Missouri Compromise. People don’t always recognize what a huge role the Ohio River played in the inland slave trade or the importance of cities like Lexington, Ky. Not to mention the legacy of indigenous peoples. The story of Kentucky is distinct, but it echoes the story of America, and it is far more complicated than previously imagined.
Is teaching something you enjoy and hope to do more?
Yes. I probably teach five or six classes a semester. Earlier this week I did a Zoom class with students from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. And I always look forward to teaching the Winterthur Fellows in the galleries on their annual visits here. This year their visit was via Zoom. Our main teaching is of course the MESDA Summer Institute, but it’s fun to find new ways to connect our collections to what’s happening within the larger academic community. I worked very closely with a professor at Wake Forest University this past semester on a project built around Old Salem and our Hidden Town Project. We know quite a bit about the Moravians who lived here because they were such great record keepers. We haven’t always made the same concerted effort to be familiar with the free and enslaved African Americans who were also residents.
How are Old Salem and MESDA faring in the COVID era?
It’s been a constant series of adaptations. I like to say I’ve lost track of which new normal we’re in currently. Our goal as an organization is to use this time in a way that allows us to not only survive this moment but positions us in the post-COVID world as a stronger, better, more resilient organization. COVID will end. Our energy and attention must focus on what we want to be on the other side of that.
Has the health crisis accelerated trends that were already underway in the museum world?
Yes, the shift to digital is probably the most obvious example. But, in general, this is a moment for cultural institutions to rethink their fundamental business models; to think about how those models do or don’t serve their communities as effectively as they might. For example, Old Salem has a very significant heirloom seed collection and we cultivate the land. The pandemic hit at the beginning of planting time in North Carolina. We went ahead and planted but immediately partnered with a local food bank to address the significant food insecurity problem here. So, we’ve pivoted in a way that may end up being part of our DNA going forward. It’s a way we as a cultural site can address a social issue.
How are curators keeping connected to audiences?
Ultimately it all comes back to our mission, which is not only to preserve objects, but to do research and be storytellers. While being with the object is always best and certainly the most fun, we recognize that we have great digital tools at our disposal and we’ve been playing with them. At its core I think it’s all about presenting interesting, engaging stories. A successful in-person event is different from a successful digital event. As Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. Delivery dictates content. But in the end it all comes back to storytelling.
How important is it to represent different voices and perspectives in your programming?
We’re always working to do that better. Part of achieving diversity means being willing to give up curatorial control to other people. MESDA is launching a program of visiting historians and curators with the goal of bringing non-traditional voices here to collaborate on new interpretative methods for our self-guided galleries. The idea is that the two positions will overlap, with the experts working to create new, interactive, personal device-based programs. Instead of relying solely on wall text, guests will be able to explore the self-guided galleries at their own pace and along their own interests. As part of their work with us, our visiting scholars will also participate in Old Salem’s online public lecture programs. This is just one example of putting real resources behind the idea that even in a museum the curator’s voice shouldn’t be the only voice. Sometimes institutions want diversity to be a thing that they do and then check off the list. The reality is that diversity is a value you need to live, breathe and act every single day. We’ve done a lot of important work, not just at MESDA but throughout Old Salem. We need to do even more.
The 2020 MESDA Journal, portions of which have just been released online, begins to address our relatively meager knowledge of African American makers. How long has the publication been in the works?
Journal editor Gary Albert has been working on it for three years. The 2020 guest editor is Dr Torren Gatson, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an alumnus of the MESDA Summer Institute. The issue is dedicated to the stories of free and enslaved African American craftsmen.
Old Salem and MESDA have just launched an exciting series of programs under the banner Study South. It includes the new MESDA Summer Scholars Series and Salem Presents. What prompts the initiative?
We spend our year planning the MESDA Summer Institute, now in its 44th year and a cornerstone of our educational mission. When it became clear that our academic partner of the past decade, the University of Virginia, wanted us to postpone this year’s program, we asked ourselves what we could do in July that would be interesting and fun in its place. We came up with the Summer Scholars Series, which runs from July 5-30. We’re calling it a digital boot camp for decorative arts of the Chesapeake, Lowcountry and Backcountry South. In a traditional year MESDA’s Summer Institute accepts roughly a dozen students. We’re opening the Summer Scholars Series to around 50 participants. They may join in by the week or for the whole month.
What are your expectations for Salem Presents?
We hope to come out of the July/August period with a sense of what our online audience looks like. Salem Presents, planned for Tuesday evenings between July 7 and August 4, is for an audience looking for an hour-long experience that is educational and entertaining, but casual. It’s open to all comers. For the first five lectures we’re asking guests to pay what they wish. The weekly online lectures will be by a mix of staff and outside speakers who will share interesting research stories.
Will MESDA programs return to their traditional format in 2021?
We’re calling the first five Salem Presents programs as well as the Summer Scholars Series “pilots.” The idea is to learn from these programs and then, based on feedback, to continue creating this kind of material, including longer-form programs, through the end of the year. MESDA is looking at a fall that may not have traditional programming. The MESDA Summer Institute will resume in 2021. The last thing I did before leaving my office in March to work from home was mail the 2020 Summer Institute acceptances. They’ve been rolled over to 2021, as have the fellowship packages that accompanied them.
Your general thoughts on the future of Southern studies?
The future of Southern studies is in the study of diversity. The South has always been diverse and remains so. This may be most evident when you look at subfields like foodways, but it runs throughout Southern history and culture. It’s been said that the South is like the rest of the United States, only more so. Southern studies are more important now than ever.
What’s next for Old Salem and MESDA?
In the short term, we expect our library and research centers will be open to the public on a by-appointment basis from mid-July. We’re hoping to open our collections by appointment starting in early August. Longer term, and more philosophically, one of the basic concepts that Old Salem Museums and Gardens and MESDA president and chief executive officer Frank Vagnone puts forth is his book The Anarchists Guide to Historic House Museums is that any cultural institution needs to look at the community around it and ask if it represents that community. For us that means the historical community in which we collect, the community around us here in Winston-Salem and more broadly in the South.
What one piece of advice do you give aspiring curators?
I always advise young professionals thinking about prospective curatorial careers to consider an institution’s collection. You can fix a lot of things, but one thing an institution can’t easily fix is the quality of its collection. Thanks to our founder Frank Horton and many others, MESDA has a collection that would be virtually impossible to replicate. That and our research resources, much of them now digitally available, allow us to do the kind of innovative programming associated with the MESDA and Old Salem brands.
To learn more about the Study South initiative or to register for its programs, including Salem Presents and the MESDA Summer Scholars Series, go to www.oldsalem.org/studysouth.
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