Repairing injuries with gold: 1 West Mount Vernon Place

Posted on January 3, 2019 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

One of the great perks of being a museum professional is visiting museums with other professionals. On Friday, December 21, I had double good fortune when Eleanor Hughes, Deputy Director for Art & Program at the Walters Art Museum hosted the JMM management team at the Walters’ historic site, 1 West Mount Vernon Place.

The tour of the house begins at the top of a spiral staircase in the house’s conservatory. The first thing you see as a visitor is a wall of glass shelving featuring ceramics from the Walters’ collection, all in a similar hue.

Eleanor begins her tour of the house by pointing out a small, somewhat unassuming bowl in the shelves. This little bowl seems to have a thin gold line drawn on the side facing the conservatory. This gold line, Eleanor explained, is in fact evidence of a crack that was repaired in the Japanese style of kintsugi.

I had heard of Kintsugi before, though since my visit to 1 West Mount Vernon, I’ve learned a great deal more about it. “Golden Joinery” is a Japanese practice of repairing ceramic vessels with layers of lacquer mixed with precious medals. This repair technique is also a philosophy—one that highlights breakage and repair as moments to be honored and celebrated, rather than hidden from view. I find the notion and the Japanese practice deeply beautiful.

Eleanor begins her tours of 1 West Mount Vernon with this bowl to encourage visitors to think about the practice of kintsugi as a metaphor for what she and her team have done with the historic site that was once known as the Hackerman House. In their research and decision-making about the visitor experience, they’ve decided to foreground the stories not just of the owners of the home, but those of the people who served in the house. These latter stories include written evidence, including a letter written by her own hand, of a woman, Sybby Grant, enslaved by the original owners of the house. As Eleanor acknowledged, this choice was not universally embraced by those in the family and orbit of the Walters. Nevertheless, she and her team, felt it was a necessary move in order to be true to the full story of the house. It was a necessary move for the Walters to take their place in the broader culture’s effort to acknowledge and repair the injuries of the past. It is their version of repairing a crack with golden lacquer.

From the conservatory, Eleanor led us into a front drawing room decorated with an assemblage of historic and contemporary art and material culture. A collection of ceramics in the room by contemporary artist Roberto Lugo mix traditional ceramic forms with contemporary images, including a portrait of Colin Kaepernick, a bust of Frederick Douglas (featuring a golden hair pick protruding from his curly hair), and other images of historic and contemporary African Americans including the artist himself.

In the dining room, the Museum staff’s curatorial efforts were in full kintsugi mode, gilding the crack of the history of enslavement in the house. An exhibit case in the room featured the letter written by Sybby Grant, an enslaved cook, to her master, Dr. Thomas, imprisoned for his support of the Confederacy. The dining room table was set with dishes, created by Roberto Lugo for the space, and featuring images from Sybby’s letter as well as her initials.

As we moved through that level of the house that juxtaposition continued. The library, the dining room, the hallways all were filled with both the traditional trappings of an historic house museum and contemporary art addressing the injuries hidden behind those trappings—including enslavement, dehumanization, and erasure.

When we asked Eleanor about the choice to include the Kaepernick piece in the drawing room, for instance, she talked about the importance of making space for contemporary voices in the historic house—especially from communities that had traditionally been silenced there. In our conversations after leaving the house, JMM management talked about the ways in which the juxtaposition invited visitors to rethink who and what belong in an historic house or an art museum. We talked about the importance and power of people—children and adults alike—finding resonance with their own lives inside the walls of the museum.

Though Eleanor didn’t name it at the time, kintsugi remains an apt metaphor for the joining of disparate art forms. After my visit to 1 West Mount Vernon, I’ve spent more time than I’d care to admit on the internet looking at images of kintsugi repairs. One method, called joint-call, involves repairing ceramics with missing pieces using similarly shaped fragments from a different broken object. The resulting product is a single unified piece of pottery made up of 2 aesthetically different works.

From the kintsugi-inspired second floor, we moved upstairs, past the now iconic view of the dome, to a more traditional set of gallery spaces. I say the spaces were more traditional, though the exhibits hardly were. The first room we entered was all about ceramics, but rather than organizing the artifacts by chronologically or by method or maker, they were organized by color. Pull out drawers in the exhibit cases invited visitors to learn a bit more about both the museum enterprise (the light and humidity monitor is labeled!) and about the process of making red ceramics.

In the next room we encountered ceramics that had literally moved around the world and been embellished along the way. My favorited example was this cheerful Chinese Buddhist figure wearing a golden hat and sitting on a golden bower made for him in France. As we moved through this portion of the house, Eleanor used her executive privilege as deputy director to raise the blinds for us in one of the rooms. The music and the art that is the city of Baltimore are a part of the fabric of this house, she explained.

Meanwhile, inside the house, she and her team are working to find ways to incorporate the artwork of the people of the city of Baltimore, including this installation of ceramic coins, created by visitors reacting to the story of Sybby Grant, or this amazing art room, where adults and children are invited to sit and create in reaction to what they’ve seen.

One of the ways we measure success here at JMM is whether our visitors feel inspired by their time here. We want to know if they’re thinking, talking, and doing as a result of what they see and discover with us. By that measure of success, 1 West Mount Vernon Place was a big success with the JMM team. From our spirited conversations over lunch about the role art museums vis a vis history museums in the movement toward making museums a cause to my embarrassingly lengthy time spent reading, learning and looking at kintsugi, to the research and thinking I’ve done about Sybby Grant since I left the house, it was an inspiring visit. And I only scratched the surface of what’s there.

The Walters is free. I highly recommend you schedule a visit. You might even check out their free app (search 1 Mt Vernon Place in the app store) before your visit (it will definitely be helpful during). The entry to 1 West Mount Vernon is an unassuming door on Charles Street.

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