A new exhibit called “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” opens today at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Jointly organized by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the exhibit explores the contradiction inherent in Jefferson’s advocacy of universal rights and his ownership of slaves. The exhibit is unique in that the temporary exhibit at NMAH is accompanied by a permanent exhibit at Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation in Charlottesville, VA, that uses outdoor signage to explain the evidence of African-American life and labor found at the plantation through archaeological digs. As well as providing specific information on Jefferson’s views, the exhibit provides more general information on the context of slavery in the 18th century. One image included in the exhibit and on its website (www.slaveryatmonticello.org) is this 1796 watercolor by Benjamin Henry Latrobe:
Image from the collection of the Maryland Historical Society
The watercolor, which is from the collection of the Maryland Historical Society, is entitled An Overseer Doing His Duty, Near Fredericksburg. It provides a stark view of the reality of 18th century life and work, and a useful reminder that as interpreters of history we need to teach our visitors about the people whose lives may not be as immediately visible but whose labor made the lavish lifestyles and grand homes of the upper-class possible.
I almost forgot it’s Friday! I blame the work I’ve been doing this week, which is cleaning. Cleaning window frames, doors, floors, furniture…Hammond-Harwood House is getting a thorough going-over. Since I did manage to remember that I needed to post a picture, I thought I’d post one I could relate to this week:
From the Lewis Walpole Library
To clarify, I do not feel like the cute kitchen maid with her frills and bows; no, I feel more like the grimy chimney sweeper. But as long as Hammond-Harwood House is sparkling, it’s worth it!
Kids who visit the Hammond-Harwood House always want to know why there’s no bathroom. Adults want to know too, but they’re a little more hesitant to ask. We tell them about chamber pots and outhouses, and they get appropriately grossed out, but there were actually flushing toilets in the 18th century. The first patent for one was issued to Alexander Cummings in 1775. Cummings’ innovation was the S-trap, which used water to seal the toilet bowl’s outlet and prevent foul smells from rising from the pipes. The drawing above is a design patented by Joseph Bramah in 1778. He replaced the slide valve of Cummings’ design with a hinged flap. Apparently Queen Victoria’s house on the Isle of Wight, Osbourne House, still has functioning Bramah toilets. Historic toilet tour, anyone?
For me, trying to pick a favorite museum is like trying to pick a favorite star in the sky. But if forced, I would probably say that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is my favorite museum (other than Hammond-Harwood House, obviously). And luckily for me, they frequently give me new reasons to love it. Next week, another section of the American Wing of the Met will reopen after renovation. It looks stunning, an appropriate home for such masterworks as John Singer Sargent’s painting Madame X. For lovers of decorative arts, the Great Hall from the Van Rensselaer Manor House in Albany, which dates to 1765-69, has been reinstalled. The wallpaper in it is positively droolworthy. If you get a chance to see it in person, send me a postcard. If, like me, you can’t seem to find time in your schedule for a jaunt to the City, the New York Times has posted a 360 degree view of the galleries on its website.
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art
From the British Museum
This has been a busy week, as we’ve returned from our holiday break and are making all sorts of plans for the year ahead. So I thought I would kick off the blogging year with another fun satirical print. This one features Miss Wicket and Miss Trigger, two well-to-do young ladies engaged in the very unladylike activities of hunting and cricket. If you look closely, you’ll see that Miss Trigger is treading upon a paper with the word “Effeminacy” on it. Apparently the artist feels that sports are not compatible with femininity. I, however, am just impressed that someone could score that many points in cricket while wearing petticoats and heels.