Museums have the power to transform how we see. Among once-function artifacts, the transition from use to display case is least destructive for the decorative arts, which remain decorative art even within the museum context. However, if explaining function is unnecessary, how do you interpret furnishings for the average museum visitor? Why should they care, especially about the weighty, drab Craftsman furniture produced by Gustav Stickley?
This fall an exhibition entitled Gustav Stickley and the American Arts and Crafts Movement, organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, is opening at the Newark Museum. I am currently creating a family gallery guide and crafting an outline for the docent tour. The success of these materials is hugely important, especially with an exhibition geared toward the connoisseur. Both the docents and gallery guide will provide a vital link between content and the public, and hopefully make the exhibition more approachable.
I return to my original question: how does one make the general public see value in Stickley’s furniture? The Arts and Crafts Movement was rooted in social and aesthetic reform, and based on the idea that environment influences character. It grew as a reaction to industrialization and Victorian excess. Stickley described the movement’s goals: “[To create] better art, better work and a better and more reasonable way of living.” Stickley’s designs emphasize the movement’s principle’s through simplicity of form and construction, quality, and the use of local materials. While the concept of “lifestyle” is still abstract, it is more tangible to most people than analyzing material culture. We make decisions daily regarding our lifestyle(s). By understanding the principles behind Stickley’s work and its relationship to lifestyle choices, his furniture can suddenly be seen in a fresh light.
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