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February 10, 2014

“A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South” Opens Feb. 14

A groundbreaking exhibition examining the material culture of the early South from the 17th century through 1840—the first of its kind to include a wide variety of media—will open at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, on Feb. 14. “A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South” will feature a dozen categories of media and represent three geographic regions of the South.

Some 350 objects will be drawn from the Colonial Williamsburg collections, those of 10 other institutions and 14 private collections. Many of the items in the exhibition will be on public view for the first time in a museum setting. Like the culture they represent, the objects are diverse, chronologically telling the story of the region’s population as it expanded westward and southward toward the frontier.

“The early American South has long been depicted as a society that produced almost none of the objects used by its substantial populace,” said Ronald L. Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg vice president for collections, conservation, and museums and its Carlisle H. Humelsine Chief Curator. “However, the opposite is true. Southern artists and artisans generated a vast body of material in virtually every medium. The abundance and diverse cultural resonance of these goods will be powerfully conveyed by the objects assembled for this exhibition.”

Featured in "A Rich and Varied Culture" will be furniture, paintings, prints, metals (silver and pewter), ceramics, mechanical arts and arms, architectural elements, archaeological objects, rare books, maps, costumes and accessories and musical instruments. These objects are each receiving detailed, exhaustive research that sometimes challenges previous research. In one example, a remarkable painting of Frances Parke Custis, on loan from Washington and Lee University, has recently been identified as the work of the Broadnax Limner, a little-known artist who worked in Virginia during the 1720s. Similarly, an elaborately decorated 1770s “dresser” or hutch was long thought to be a Pennsylvania product, but has proven instead to be the work of a Quaker cabinetmaker working in Alamance County, N.C.

While the majority of the objects and paintings in the exhibition come from the various collections of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, several sister institutions are also lending to this important undertaking in an example of unprecedented partnership. Chief among them is The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) at Old Salem Museums and Gardens in Winston-Salem, N.C., with which the Art Museums recently announced a five-year partnership. It is the largest lender with 39 objects. Other lenders include Drayton Hall, a Historic Site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Charleston, S.C..; The Charleston Museum; Washington and Lee University in Lexington; The Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library in Winterthur, Del.; Historic Charleston Foundation; Tennessee State Museum; the University of Tennessee’s Department of Anthropology and McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture; Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, Tenn.; and The President’s House Collection at The College of Williams & Mary in Williamsburg. Fourteen private collectors are also generously lending to the exhibition.

As guests walk through the exhibition galleries, they will be transported to the Chesapeake region of coastal Maryland, Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. Next they will encounter the Carolina Low Country, reaching from southeastern North Carolina through coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Viewers then will confront works from the Backcountry South, including the western reaches of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, as well as West Virginia, the Georgia Piedmont and Kentucky and Tennessee. In addition to objects and paintings made in these regions, the exhibition will include a selection of materials imported to the South from New England, the Middle Atlantic colonies, Great Britain, Germany and China.

“While many of the objects produced in the Chesapeake and the Carolina Low Country display a heavy reliance on British taste, the adventurous and entrepreneurial character of the ethnically diverse populations that migrated into the Backcountry is immediately apparent as one enters that section of the exhibition,” said Margaret Beck Pritchard, Colonial Williamsburg’s senior curator and curator of prints, maps and wallpapers. “These artisans produced highly sophisticated objects that exploited the availability of local materials, often profusely decorating them with motifs that reflect a wide array of cultural backgrounds.”

“A Rich and Varied Culture” is curated by Hurst and Pritchard. Robert A. Leath, vice president of collections and research and chief curator at Old Salem Museums and Gardens, is consulting curator. The exhibition was entirely funded by Williamsburg residents, Carolyn and Michael McNamara.

The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg include the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, with more than 5,000 folk art objects made during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum exhibits the best in British and American decorative arts from 1670–1830.

The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are located at the intersection of Francis and South Henry Streets in Williamsburg, Va., and are entered through the Public Hospital of 1773. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. For museum program information, telephone (757) 220-7724.

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley