A few months ago I shared some of the projects Brandon has been working on at Colonial Williamsburg, from helping to install architectural fragments in the atrium, to moving tall case clocks for a new exhibition. His work hasn’t slowed down over the summer, so today, we’ll take a look at what’s been up to since we last checked in on him.
Over at the historical site, Brandon has been helping with some preparatory work at Colonial Williamsburg’s powder magazine. The building itself was donated to CW several decades ago, and is largely a later reproduction. Over the next few years, it will be closed to the public while archaeologists and historians investigate the building and its site, both to learn more about it and to present a more accurate interpretation in the future. To prepare for this in-depth study, Brandon worked with curators, conservators, and registrars to remove all of the artifacts from the building, including its numerous firearms. He also constructed the racks and shelves that will be used to store these items for the next few years.
Work at the historical site starts early for Brandon. Because CW endeavors to provide an authentic visual experience of 18th-century life (olfactory not so much because most 21st-century visitors would find the smells off-putting), all cars, vans, and other collections equipment and vehicles have to be out of the site by 9:00 am, when CW opens to the public. As such, whenever Brandon needs to go into the historic area, it’s not unusual for his day to begin before 7 am. These days don’t happen too often, but it does make for an early start when they do.
He’s also been keeping busy inside CW’s art museums. He’s been periodically going into the galleries to install new pieces, such as an eighteenth-century portrait of Williamsburg resident Mary Blaikley Stich, located on the right in the image below. The portrait is attributed to William Dering, a Williamsburg area painter. The daughter of watchmaker William Blaikley and notable midwife Catharine Kaidyee Blaikley (who is estimated to have delivered around 3,000 babies over the course of her career), Mary Blaikley Stitch grew up right in Williamsburg, and maintained ties with the city after relocating to the Eastern Shore following her marriage.
Another recent project entailed moving an enormous dollhouse into a gallery as part of a new display. While curators transported the doll furniture and decorations, he had to move the actual house itself, which is one of the largest dollhouses I’ve ever seen. Coincidentally, many of the tiny paintings decorating the walls in the house are based on actual folk art pieces in the museum’s collection, giving the dollhouse a distinctly meta character in terms of its contents.
In addition to refreshing or updating existing exhibitions, Brandon has also been helping out with brand-new shows. This past week, for instance, he helped install a selection of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Navajo weavings. On loan from the collection of Pat and Rex Lucke, the show is scheduled to open September 10 and will be on view through December. What I appreciate about these selections is that they demonstrate how indigenous makers have long engaged popular culture in their works. Collectors have often been biased in favor of works that are seemingly “timeless” or “authentic,” acquiring pieces made from local materials and utilizing seemingly traditional iconography rather than more overtly commercial imagery or imported materials. This contributes to the trope that indigenous peoples are not modern, an idea that’s more indicative of anxieties about modernism and the desire to discover premodern utopian fantasies in indigenous cultures than actual indigenous people.
As these weavings show though, indigenous makers have long been incorporating modern pop imagery, materials, and transit routes into their works, whether through using wool shipped in on trains from Germantown, Pennsylvania at the turn of the century, or incorporating popular products like Dr. Pepper into their designs. While art historians have amply demonstrated how white artists and designers at the turn of the century incorporated indigenous designs into their work, these pieces remind viewers that indigenous creatives also actively engaged in cultural exchange for commercial as well as personal or aesthetic reasons. By exhibiting these pieces, Colonial Williamsburg reminds viewers that these pieces are no less genuine or authentic than works incorporating so-called traditional imagery exclusively.
Brandon’s most substantial work by far though, has taken place inside this house:
This is the Hennage house, located down the street from Colonial Williamsburg. It belonged to Joseph and June Hennage, major collectors of American decorative arts and two of CW’s prominent donors outside of the Rockefellers. They bequeathed their home and its contents to Colonial Williamsburg, and following June Hennage’s passing in 2020 (Joe passed away a few years earlier), Brandon has been periodically going to the house with other CW staff to inventory and remove objects from the home.
You can see the highlights of these collections in the exhibition A Gift to the Nation, currently on view at the DeWitt Wallace Museum.
As you can see, the Hennage’s amassed an impressive number of objects, from furniture to silver to porcelain. There’s even an impressive collection of miniature furniture. We’re not sure what their function was, as they’re too large for dollhouses and too small for everyday use (advertising models is an ongoing theory), but they underscore the variety of the Hennage collection in both scale and material. As a collection, it embodies both quality and the unexpected.
Yet this exhibition only barely scratches the surface of the home’s contents. As Brandon points out, the Hennages lived in their home for decades, so they amassed a lot of things over the years that they spent there. As such, whenever CW staff go to work on the house, they’re not just taking out the highlights for their own collection: they’re sifting through a lifetime of all-around accumulation. For every exquisite chest or clock, there’s been a plethora of other things that don’t fall under the museum’s purview: matchbooks, unused party favors, 20th-century clothing, and more. In essence, they’re sorting through all the stuff that comprises two lifetimes, from the exceptional to the mundane, and the work is demanding for everyone involved.
But that’s why Brandon is there, because he treats all the objects he encounters with care and respect. I don’t know what the fall will be like for him, but if it’s anything like the summer, it’ll also be busy, and full of interesting things.