Interview: Sarah Carter
Sarah Carter is the Curator and Director of Research at The Chipstone Foundation, an organization dedicated to enhancing the appreciation of material American culture by scholars, students and the general public.
Open View: Who develops the Chipstone exhibitions? How are they pieced together?
Sarah Carter: With any Chipstone project I think it’s important to realize that they’re very collaborative. We work together in a large team, not just of curators. I’m the Chipstone Curator, Jon Prown is the Director and the Chief Curator, we have a new curatorial fellow, we have amazing designers like Brent Budsberg and Shana McCaw, we have an amazing team of people building things like Alec Regan and others, so it’s very, very collaborative and we are all very involved in all parts of the process.
OV: How does your personal background effect the development of these exhibitions?
SC: My PHD is in American Studies, so I didn’t get a traditional Art History PHD. I’m very interested in interdisciplinary research and approaching things from multiple perspectives while thinking about art objects from an aesthetic, historical, and literary poetic perspective. I’m interested in thinking about objects in as broad of a way as possible. When we started thinking about Mrs. M—’s Cabinet, we wanted to create a space that would help us engage with a number of issues and questions. For a number of years, we’ve been thinking hard about the history of period rooms, and what museum spaces can, should, and might be able to do. We wanted to create a space that would transport visitors out of the museum setting and help them feel like they were actually in another sort of wondrous room. Mrs. M—’s gallery of 17th-century things is set in a room from the 1880s and inspired by my favorite historic house in Newport, Rhode Island, the Isaac Bell House, which has this amazing cosmopolitan 1880s interior with inspiration from all over the world.
OV: History often seems to develop holes where the stories of women and minorities go undocumented and underrepresented. Do you consider Mrs. M—’s Cabinet a way to bring some of these historical narratives to light despite the lack documentation of some of these figures?
SC: There are always multiple histories. Just the concept of history can be very seductive. The stories are often told in cause and effect and come out nice and neat when in reality there have always been people whose stories don’t quite fit in those narratives or a stereotype that we have of a certain moment. These people were often doing things differently and challenging what was happening.
We wanted to think about historic narrative. Mrs. M—’s Cabinet is the story of a late 19th-century lady collector who goes to the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 and gets ticked off because everything represents a version of New England that she recognizes as an inaccurate way to depict early America. She then starts collecting a whole range of early American things from all over the world.
We created this perfect 19th-century interior to house 17th-century collections of diverse objects. But because we’re telling this story of Mrs. M— through the perspective of 21st-century curators, we’re also very interested in Mrs. M—’s status as this lady collector and in some ways, a proto-feminist figure. Thinking about how she was able to time travel with these objects captivates us. We are interested in telling a truer story about the past through a person who did not necessarily exist. She’s not a historical person, but in some ways she's more real to the stories that we’re trying to tell on early America than if we had picked a random historical person and decided they would be our vehicle for telling the story.
We are also playing with expectations of history and fiction in museums and what's true or what's not true. Throughout the museum, you have a whole range of fictions being presented as truths. Historical categories that were often invented decades and centuries after the artwork they’re describing were created, and we are playing with that idea as well. There’s a lot going on in this space and many different layers of things.
How do you see the public interacting with the exhibition?
SC: People have seemed to really enjoy it. One thing that’s exciting is that we often have a lot of kids and families in here. We see security guards and staff hanging out in here. The audience can relax and sit on benches which is nice and was done purposely. There are a lot of things they can touch. They can ring the bell if they want Mrs. M— to come down, pull the cord to watch the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, or pull out these books on the shelf and read them. The goal of this space is to get people to stop and look. We want people to talk about what’s happening in the space.
More and more objects are coming into the space. Next week we are going to have a scrapbook that will go along with that chest of drawers on the side and each vial in the chest of drawers contains an unusual substance collected by someone in the 1870s or 80s. The scrapbook we're creating tries to tell the stories of those substances.
OV: Do you feel Milwaukee lends itself to this kind of experimentation compared to other cities?
SC: Yes, I think Milwaukee has a fantastic arts community. It’s full of many curious people, not only artists and makers themselves but also people who are really passionate about the arts. I think the collaboration between Chipstone and the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) in particular is pretty unusual. We have the opportunity here to collaborate with the MAM to create a space that is rather experimental within a public museum. The MAM gets thousands and thousands of visitors, lots of school groups, and has a huge docent core sharing this material with the world. I think those are things we are extremely fortunate to have here in Milwaukee and that combination of people allowed this to happen.
It’s also worth mentioning, there is an amazing depth of talent here in terms of people being able to make stuff. It’s hard to imagine the thousand of hours that went into crafting this room. The panels are all hand-carved walnut cabinetry. It is not easy to create this. Almost every portion of this room, the sound, the Pepper’s Ghost Illusion, the decorative wall painting, was created in Milwaukee. The fact that there are crews of people in this city that are able to do this, we are extremely fortunate to be able to do something like this in our city.