On a recent vacation to my old home of Upstate New York, I was delighted to stumble upon a small exhibit that felt so relevant to the work of museums. “Building a Collection: E. Martin Wunsch and His Passion for Collecting New York State Decorative Arts” is an exhibit briefly covering the work of one man, while reviewing the importance of the decorative arts, and the techniques used to study them. The combination of collections history, decorative arts display, and research techniques creates an exhibit that has a greater impact that its size suggests.
I’ve been to the New York State Museum many, many times. I know the exhibits well enough to catch the new display when it appears. The exhibit is nestled along the west corridor of the Museum, hugging the wall with white platforms and multi-colored signs. It appears to be about 50 feet from start to finish in length. Furniture rests on the platforms, paintings hang on the wall, and silver resides in plexiglass cases. My first thought was my mind catching something new to see in a very familiar space. My next was delight, for I’ve had an interest in the decorative arts for several years now. My next thought was on the connection between honoring a benefactor, and educating the public on the worth of decorative arts (plus the benefactor’s work) and the knowledge that streams from it.
E. Martin Wunsch was an avid collector of the decorative arts, especially New York related pieces. He originally collected art for his family business, as part of a corporate collection. He went on to found the Wunsch Americana Foundation, and started a productive relationship with the NYS Museum in 1969. The exhibit is made up of the most recent donations from his collection. Mr. Wunsch passed away in March 2013, his son Peter donated the last pieces from his father’s collection (which were on long-term loan) to the Museum.
The exhibit features two panels explaining Mr. Wunsch’s work and impact. The panels then shift to the meaning, and importance of that work. A panel entitled “Representative” illustrates how the collection covers both formal and country styles, and presents unique New York art features. Individual labels built into the overall panel explain specific details for the objects on display. Another panel labeled “Provenance” explains the value of knowing where an object came from, who owned it, and how it was passed down. Through clear, readable text, the core concepts of tracing family history through property wills and tracing the spread of art styles can be extrapolated. The exhibit seeks to honor Wunsch’s memory by articulating why the public should find worth with what is on display. Hopefully it will lay the groundwork for future interest and thought.
The exhibit is noteworthy to me as it simultaneously presents the art, discusses its collector, then attempts to give meaning to the work done as the objects were collected and interpreted. A concern of mine has been public perception of decorative arts collections. Outside those with a direct interest in the subject (art historians, curators, conservators, researchers, hobbyists), most folks never seem to linger long on furniture/silver/ceramics displays. Famous paintings, or at least ones easy on the eye, seem to do much better, but can still languish as visitors stroll past rows of portraits.
This is in no way a scientific study, simply a gut feeling from wandering around many a museum. Large cases filled with silver cream pitchers and plates catch the eye. Displays of folk stoneware can draw in those interested with the many designs painted on the containers. Various furniture styles being compared can draw in the style focused crowd. I can’t help but wonder, though, if most visitors are overwhelmed by the displays, or underwhelmed by the lack of connection to broader topics. Simple, straightforward exhibits like this one honoring E. Martin Wunsch have the potential to pull back the curtain on historic objects collection, giving purpose and meaning to collecting the art that helps define our world.
My takeaway from this exhibit is the importance and worth of explaining to the public what the objects mean to us, rather than just what they are.