In Jennifer Anderson’s Mahogany, readers discovered the varied history of a resource usually only represented in fancy furniture collections. The labels that accompany these pieces typically state the bare basics: approximate date, maker, and school of furniture design.
Though perfectly educational, these labels leave out a large part of the history that went into the creation of these pieces. What was the social cost of that dining table? What happened to the ecology of where that sideboard was sourced? Unfortunately, this will typically not is not the type of information visitors typically receive from the museums they visit.
Kristen Costa, curator at the Newport Restoration Foundation, readily admits that museums focus on specific features of the past. For example, the furniture on exhibit at the Whitehorne House is used to educate the public on furniture styles and the rich history of Newport’s “maker culture,” while property tours in the town very briefly touch on the varied sources and impact of Newport’s furniture trade; neither delves deeper into the topic. She states that the public isn’t interested in the furniture, so a more nuanced history most likely will not be explored.
This stance poses a serious question. If the stories are there to be told, and the material is available, why are museums not tackling them? Is it a lack of desire in the museum culture, or is a lack of interest from the public? Can public demand bring about a change in displays? I believe they can. After all, why not?