Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Further Thoughts on the White House




As I am sure many of you are, I have Inauguration on the brain. I've been thinking a lot about the new first family and what they represent. I have also, of course, been slightly obsessed with the history of the White House. I read a great article in the American Museum Association's January issue explaining the history of the White House and how it was only fairly recently (thanks to Jackie) that the White House and it's contents were treated as a Museum. Since the Kennedy administration, the White House has been  a living museum with unique curatorial challenges. These challenges are mainly the fact that the house keeps changing as it's occupants change and most first ladies take it upon themselves to make the house reflect their personal tastes, the image they wish to project and the physical requirements of their families (Teddy Roosevelt had six kids living in the house!). Another challenge is that the furnishings and rooms are in constant use with continual wear and tear. 

The interiors of the White House have passed through three distinct phases and made a full circle, from neoclassicism to Victorian and then back to a consciously revived neoclassicism after 1902. Before 1961, the furnishings of the previous administrations had simply been removed, sold or thrown away, without any attempt at preservation of the house's history. Most of the original furnishings were sold at auction by Chester A. Arthur to finance the Victorian redecoration of the mansion. When Mrs. Kennedy moved into the house it was decorated in mostly governmental department store furniture circa 1948 (eek!) and she sought to revive the old house and place it back on the map of noteworthy design. She also realized the importance of trying to regain the original furnishings of the house and created the post of White House Curator to assist her in the task. For the first time in it's history, any furnishings or objects that entered the doors of the White House became part of the permanent collection. No longer could President's and their wives dispose of furniture and objects in the house, they are now removed to a secure off-site storage facility for preservation and cataloguing.  

Thanks to Jackie, the White House now has one of the most impressive decorative arts collections in the world. The focus is on American furnishings and decorative arts from 1800 to 1825, the Federal Period. The aim is not to create "period" rooms, as Jackie once said, but rather elegant, usable rooms that enhance the sense of American history. First Ladies have the entire collection at their disposal when redecorating the White House. What a dream! to have all ofthat historical furniture to mix in with contemporary pieces! In short, I LOVE JACKIE, well I mean, what she did was ensure that even though the White House is in constant flux, reflecting the politics, interests, tastes and composition of the president's families, she ensured that all of the objects would receive museum-like care, scholarly seriousness and would be preserved in a permanent collection. 

My previous post sounded very disdainful towards the rumored interior designer that Mrs. O might be using but now that I have read more about how the interiors of the White House work, I like the idea that the Obamas will be leaving their imprint on the history of our nation's house

1 comment:

Stefan said...

Nice. Glad you found something positive about the white house. Lets just hope that in the spirit of Jakie Obama and the first Lady will manage to do something new and positive for the White House. And then i am not talking about iterior decoration.
Greetings from Norway.