Period Rooms

The “period rooms” installed in many museums are always the first place I go, but as I often find myself wandering about alone, I’m not surprised that there are efforts afoot to instill a bit more life into them. Our major museum here in Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum, doesn’t even have period rooms even though I believe that its predecessor, the Essex Institute, pioneered such installations with its George Francis Dow-designed rooms from a century ago. The PEM owns entire historic houses, however, so one can certainly understand the reluctance to consign precious exhibition space to static rooms. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston retains its period rooms, and has just added a seventeenth-century English drawing room to their assemblage of suites.

I know of a several projects aimed at revitalizing period rooms from the past few years, but there must be many more. Just recently, the “All America House” exhibit at Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria, Virginia opened, the result of a collaboration between the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Woodlawn’s owner, and MADE: In America, a nonprofit organization, in which teams of students from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, George Washington University and the Corcoran College of Art + Design were charged with creating a home for a modern family in the historic rooms at Woodlawn, working with the Woodlawn staff and mingling antiques from the collection with new furniture designed and manufactured in the United States. The goal was the creation of rooms which “referenced the many layers of history embodied at Woodlawn over the last 210 years”. Below are before and after pictures from the National Trust’s blog, with the pristine period parlor above and the “All-American” parlor below.


Period Rooms Woodlawn I NTHP

Period Rooms Woodlawn 2 David Wilson

Woodlawn Plantation and its front parlor, before (National Trust for Historic Preservation photograph) and after (David Wilson).

I love the All America parlor designed by the students (and how great that students were recruited for this project rather than Big Famous Designers): it’s a similar aesthetic to my own house (or at least a style I’m striving for) but clearly it represents a historic era–say the heyday of Woodlawn as a working plantation–less than it does our own time. Nevertheless, people love the contrast of past and present, and such approaches can encourage engagement–the goal of every history educator or interpreter.

Another interesting attempt to revitalize period rooms was the Brooklyn Museum’s Playing Houseactivation” from a year ago, in which modern artists working in various genres (Ann Agee, Anne Chu, Mary Lucier and Betty Woodman) were invited to place site-specific artworks in eight of the Museum’s 23 period rooms. Again, the goal was the merging and juxtaposition of past and present, creating new perspectives on both.



The Brooklyn Museum’s Cane Acres Plantation period room (late 18th century) with abstract pottery “placemats” and sculptures by Betty Woodman and textile “flowers” and cloths by Anne Chu; video installation by Mary Lucier in the dining room of the seventeenth-century Jan Martense Schenk house.

I wish I had gone to the exhibition in person because the pictures seem to present the period rooms as mere backdrop for the modern art and I’m sure the real experience was much more interactive. One last attempt to inject life into a dusty period room was the recent Supper with Shakespeare collaboration between the Minneapolis Institute of  Arts and British food historian Ivan Day. Mr. Day created a desert display for the Institute’s c. 1600 Tudor Room which featured a sugar castle centerpiece and tarts made from period recipes, placed on a table set with period cutlery and serving ware from the Institute’s collection, so people could see how these still things–table, chairs, plates, knives–were used in their own time.

MIA Tudor Event

Supper with Shakespeare display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; photograph by Ariana Lindquist for the New York Times.

9 responses to “Period Rooms

  • J T Weaver

    I have always liked “period communities” such as Sturbridge Village (when we lived up there) and now Colonial Williamsburg near us now. It is so much more real to see (and sometimes participate) the facilities, rooms, offices, etc. being used as they were originally intended with original furnishings (supplemented with recreations of course). A meal at Chowning’s Tavern followed by ‘period’ games is a delight.

  • Vickie Lester

    Love the sense of continuity you get from period rooms, and the design elements that seem so timeless – that eighteenth century table with the apron (?) it’s a squeeze to get modern knees underneath 😉

  • markd60

    I like period rooms too, but I always miss personal items, like a coffee cup or a hat laying around or something. Something to make it look lived in.

  • Pamela Baker

    So interesting – I wish more places would preserve the beauty of a past life.
    Thanks for shariing.

  • Michelle Moon

    There’s a really interesting history to period rooms, and it’s Salem-specific in many ways. The first “period room” as a museum-genre display seems to have appeared at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, where a “New England cottage” was created, and a staff of women demonstrated cooking and needlepoint in a nostalgic, romanticized way. But the second big innovation was George Francis Dow’s development of the period room installation for the Ward House installed (1911), now part of the Peabody Essex Museum. It was the first historic house developed as a permanent site attraction, and the basic display technology was the period room installation. But Dow also developed period rooms for the Essex Institute which are still present in the Phillips Library, now antiques in their own right, as entire compositions. The Library is closed for reconstruction, but the rooms – a kitchen, bedroom, and parlor – are untouched and awaiting their reopening a few years from now. It’s true that with four, soon to be five, historic houses with complete period installations available on tours every week, the museum uses the “period room” idea – which of course is every bit as much a designed, contemporary installation as an art display – only in the context of the houses themselves.

    • daseger

      Thanks Michelle: good to know that Dow’s work has been preserved. I think you should have a culinary exhibition in one of the houses!

  • michellenmoon

    I do too! Would love to do something of the kind Ivan Day does. Once we get a chance to focus on the houses, we aim to do all sorts of similar things! In the meantime, we do have a Cooking & Dining tour that focuses on kitchens, which is fun.

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