Sunday, September 23, 2012

Several exhibits at American History

Where: American History Museum

When: through October 21, 2012

The west side of the American History Museum is undergoing renovations - and the exhibits on the 3rd floor are about to close to make way for construction.  Currently on display are two exhibits featuring items from the museum's collection of musical instruments, an exhibit on the year 1939 and an elaborate doll house.  I saw all of these displays in one visit - they're all small, so it's easy to do.

The exhibit on musical instruments are divided into two spaces: one is the Musical Instruments Gallery and one is a room of decorated musical instruments.  The Gallery features four Stradivarius, which are quite beautiful as objects, let alone as instruments.  Also on display was a small violin of the sort that dancing instructors used to carry with them in their pockets to provide music for their students.  I'd never heard of such a thing before, let alone seen one.  The decorated musical instruments are just that - instruments that have been decorated.  Two items that caught my eye were an Art Deco harmonica, among many designed for the 1933 and 1939 World's Fairs.  I have a personal connection to the 1933 World's Fair, as my paternal grandparents went there on their honeymoon, so anything from that event is of interest.  Another lovely item was an grand piano designed for the 1939 World's Fair with an Art Deco case.  Both the items in the Gallery and the decorated musical instruments are sometimes off display, as they are used by musicians in museum concerts.  Even though it means you might not see something when you go to visit, I like the idea that these items are being used.  They're not just relics of an earlier age; they're "living, breathing" instruments.

When I went to see the small show on the year 1939, I had the feeling I'd been there before.  I looked through the list of shows I've been to see, and didn't spot it, so perhaps I'm thinking of something else.  The perils of middle age!!  Entertainment provided a way for people to escape the unpleasantness of life in this year, and the show, which is far too small to provide a complete picture of America at that time, focuses on  this escapism. The big draw for this show is the hat and boots worn by the actor playing the scarecrow in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," that year's great hit movie.  I found out that the ruby slippers were originally silver, but the color was changed to highlight the fact that the movie was in Technicolor.  Charlie McCarthy is located here - one wonders if he'll be displayed somewhere else, or put in storage when the show closes?  I'd think he'd fit in nicely with Archie Bunker's chair and Fonzie's jacket - things that older people will be thrilled to see and younger people will shrug their shoulders and pass by.

Finally, I went to see Faith Bradford's Dollhouse, pictured above.  Note that this will remain on display until October 31, 2012, so you've got a few extra days to see this.  It's not your ordinary dollhouse, with a few rooms and plastic furniture, oh no.  It's enormous; you have to stand on a riser to see all of it.  The idea is that the house belongs to Mr. and Mrs. Doll, their ten children, servants and visiting grandparents.  The attention to detail is both impressive and slightly unnerving.  Faith Bradford was a librarian who worked for the Library of Congress.  Side note: why is it when I see any evidence of a librarian at these exhibits, it's always in connection with something slightly odd? You'd think we were all lunatics.  Many of us are completely normal, I assure you.  Ms. Bradford gave this dollhouse, which she had designed, decorated and furnished herself, to what was then the National Museum in 1951.  She would stop by periodically to clean it, and she put out Christmas decorations when the season approached.  I could not help but be reminded of the tinfoil sculpture at the American Art Museum, which is also impressive, but evidence of a mind that does not work like the average mind.

Verdict: There's nothing here so earth-shattering that you should drop everything to run over, but if you're there anyway, this is a pleasant way to spend a bit of time.

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