Historic House Interpretation with Carlene Bermann and Erik Greenberg
Carlene Bermann, MA Candidate in the Cooperstown Graduate Program, began our August virtual dialogue by sharing her lecture, Adjusting the Lens: Telling (Different) Stories Through Objects. Throughout her lecture, Carlene shared her perspective on how historic houses can use their collections to share different narratives. Trained as a museum educator and curator, Carlene’s perspective is steeped in cultivating meaningful experiences for visitors that foster connections to history.
Carlene has worked at a range of historic sites and museums, but this presentation was anchored in her recent internship at Hyde Hall in Cooperstown, NY, a Neoclassical manor house with some Greek Revival architectural details. Constructed from 1818–1834, Hyde Hall was the year-round residence of the Clarke family for seven generations. This continuity in ownership enabled the preservation of interiors, of which 70% are original to the home.
Mining the collection, Carlene shared a silver sugar bowl made in 1829 by silversmiths Robert Shepherd and William Boyd of Albany, NY. Historic inventories of Hyde Hall’s furnishings allowed Carlene to establish the precise cost of the bowl in 1829: $80, or approximately $2,300 by today’s standards. At that price, the bowl was a status symbol. Carlene stated, “To me, it was clear that the one thing George Clarke wanted to impress upon the world was that he was the owner of many things: fine goods, grand houses, and above all, land that was rich in commercial production potential.”
Following the fastidious records kept by the Clarke family, Carlene unearthed a document that tracked people as property. The Clarke family owned two sugar cane plantations in Jamaica, and on those plantations the family also owned, at any given time, from 100–200 enslaved laborers. Tracking ownership through historical records, Carlene asserts that “The contents of the sugar bowl were in many ways more valuable than the piece itself.” The cost of the sugar embodied personal cost of those who were enslaved on Clarke’s sugar cane plantations.
Carlene discussed other fascinating discoveries and interpretations from Hyde Hall before she was joined in conversation with Erik Greenberg, PhD, from the Newport Restoration Foundation. The two discussed the essential resources necessary to conduct innovative interpretative work in historic houses, including the need for dedicated funding for such projects and the challenges inherent in balancing the myriad of stories that objects can tell.
Watch the full conversation below:
The Decorative Arts Trust hosts monthly virtual dialogues that feature scholars sharing and discussing their exciting new research with colleagues in the field. The hour-long Zoom program includes a lecture, scholar-to-scholar conversation, and Q&A with the program participants.
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Formerly known as the "blog,” the Bulletin features new research and scholarship, travelogues, book reviews, and museum and gallery exhibitions. The Bulletin complements The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, our biannual members publication.