“What is the schoolmaster doing?” Gretchen Goodell-Pendleton, the curator at Stratford Hall, asked me as we shuffled items in his room.
“I don’t know.”
“Is he reading a book, writing . . .?”
My first three weeks at Stratford ended with the summer installation. I researched typical seasonal changes in houses such as Stratford from the 1760s to the 1820s — the time of the Lee family occupation. I poured through books about dining traditions, summer changes, seasonal foods, and life during the warm months. I knew how to set a table according to the most posh eighteenth century style and could walk into a period room and tell you immediately if it was ready for the heat, but I had neglected to make these changes human. I could take the andirons out of these rooms and dress the tables with figs and peaches; however, all of those subtle differences were two dimensional.
“He’s reading a book,” I said after some deliberation.
“Good. Is he right handed or left?”
“Left.” As I began to take into account that Gretchen and I were dressing a person’s room, these decisions became easier. Once I learned how to take information from the book and make it connect to the visitors who come through Stratford’s doors, the art of curation was no longer as difficult to process.
This summer, my work with Stratford’s curatorial department has exposed me to a whole new side of interpretation. Giving tours and personally interacting with visitors is a more conventional side of education. Curation demands that I tell a similar story without being physically present. During the process of installation, it took me almost an entire day to realize that, with these objects — the andirons, bed curtains, fenders, fire buckets, and more — I can tell an equally compelling story as an interpreter on a guided tour. It is a different form of communication, though, and just learning that there is a difference is invaluable.
Stratford’s summer installation took effect on the first Friday of June, and since then I have been focusing my efforts on an antique loan show for January 2014. With the theme “Southern Celebrations: Traditions Handed Down” to guide my search, I am composing a list of exhibit items to take to D.C.’s Washington Winter Show to tell an entirely new story about Southern life during the time of the Lees. Each object that I decide to take has to have its own story and connection to Stratford’s illustrious inhabitants. These pieces provide anecdotes, except the curator is their voice and their specific placement tells the story.