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Trust Intern at Old Sturbridge Village

by Kate Swisher

For the past three months and over the next nine, I have the privilege of working as the 2013–14 Old Sturbridge Village-Decorative Arts Trust Curatorial Fellow. This is in large part due to the generous support of the Decorative Arts Trust, without whom the position would not exist. The fellowship is mutually beneficial, providing me with invaluable professional experience and allowing Old Sturbridge Village to augment its curatorial staff for a full year.

My case exhibit in Bullard Tavern, a companion to the Nathan Lombard show, traces the history of the sewing clamp. This handy gadget, which typically included a vise and a pincushion, could be fastened to the edge of a table. The seamstress could then pin her fabric to the cushion and pull it taut, speeding up her work. By the mid-19th century, manufacturers were producing the devices in a variety of whimsical shapes; metal "sewing birds," which held fabric in their spring-loaded beaks, became especially popular in the U.S. and are highly collectible today.

I started at OSV after receiving my M.A. from the Winterthur Program in Material Culture and completing a summer internship at the Art Institute of Chicago. Moving from 20th-century studio craft to the material culture of early rural New England proved a stimulating transition, though not quite as extreme as one might think: treenware bowls remind me of the wood-turning masterpieces of Mark Lindquist, and rustic redware jars foreshadow the free spirit of modern studio pottery. Still, a living history village complete with livestock and costumed interpreters is not an urban art museum, and comparing the priorities and approaches of these two institutions has helped me to better understand the field in which I work.

With OSV’s exhibit on cabinetmaker Nathan Lombard opening just two months after my arrival in August, it was a busy and exciting time for the curatorial department. The project’s “all hands on deck” nature meant that I almost immediately became part of the team effort to prepare everything on schedule. I quickly got to know my wonderful coworkers by helping them move furniture, proofread label text, and paint stripes and diamonds in the Folk Art Gallery, among other things. In addition, I prepared a small case exhibit in OSV’s Bullard Tavern as a companion to the Lombard show. My exhibit, “Get A Grip,” traces the history of sewing birds and other clamping devices used for needlework. This relates to a table in the Lombard exhibit, owned by OSV, which bears round indents on its underside suggesting the frequent use of a sewing clamp. I enjoyed the opportunity to both learn about a new topic and share my research with a public audience through the exhibit.

Now that the Lombard opening is behind us, I will spend more time assisting with OSV’s collections inventory. This effort to locate, record, and consolidate information about the Village’s extensive historical collections, numbering about 50,000 objects, will enable the curatorial staff to better assess the collections’ strengths and weaknesses and think strategically about the future. It also allows me to gain hands-on experience and learn more about OSV’s holdings by examining them on an object-by-object basis.

Helping to prepare OSV’s Folk Art Gallery for the Nathan Lombard exhibit by placing quotes on the walls.

Beyond the inventory, I’ll be working on a variety of other projects, such as giving curatorial tours, putting together more case exhibits, and assisting with object rotations in the Village. In 2014, I’ll be leading two “Take A Closer Look” events, in which staff share selected collections objects with OSV members; my first session will highlight bandboxes, while the second will focus on hygiene accessories. I will also be on hand to assist with planning and installation for OSV’s next major exhibit, Bucket Town, which opens in June 2014. Finally, I will complete at least one independent research project during my time here, while also conducting targeted research for upcoming exhibits in 2015 and 2016.

OSV’s wealth of collections and programming makes it an exciting place to work, and I am grateful to the Decorative Arts Trust for its support of this opportunity. I hope the experience will prove as rewarding for OSV as it has already been for me.

Old Sturbridge Village, an outdoor living history museum in central Massachusetts, introduces visitors to life in a rural New England town of the 1830s. Its substantial collections provide a record of material culture in early-19th-century America.

Old Sturbridge Village