Preserving the Past Requires Patience – Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | Candle Made Easy

Museum curators obtain objects through purchase, contract, donation, bequest, exchange, on-site collecting, and other means. Sounds like a routine, by-law process, doesn’t it? think again

Take, for example, the Historic Arkansas Museum’s effort to acquire a rare 1828 Cherokee sampler made by Nancy Graves (whose Cherokee name was Ku-To-Yi) when she was 11 years old and a student at a Presbyterian school named Dwight Mission on the War Arkansas River near present-day Russellville. It is the earliest definitively dated Native American-made sampler known in the United States and was part of a private collection in California.

“I sat in a duck blind and bid on this quilt against the National Museum of the American Indian,” said Swannee Bennett, retired director of the Historic Arkansas Museum.

Bennett was successful, although the outcome of his duck hunt at the time is not clear.

Acquisition histories contained in Historic Arkansas’ two-volume “Arkansas Made” books (which document art and material culture created in Arkansas between 1819 and 1870) provided lively discussion at a recent meeting of the Quapaw Quarter Preservation Conversations .

In a perfect world, museum curators would find interesting items owned by collectors, antique dealers, or auction houses. They examine the artifact to determine its authenticity and determine if the asking price is reasonable. If a coveted object is sold at auction, curators have to decide beforehand what the highest bid will be. Diplomatic skills are paramount to success in the field.

Building a museum collection takes patience; sometimes months of negotiations are necessary. Not every artifact will be available when the curator requests it. If a museum has a well thought out acquisition plan and sticks to it, that museum’s collection will grow stronger every year.

A fascinating chronicle of such acquisitions, Arkansas Made was researched and written by Bill Worthen and Bennett and originally published by the University of Arkansas Press in the early 1990s, with a second edition appearing in 2021.

Worthen retired as director of the Arkansas Territorial Restoration (now Historic Arkansas Museum) in late 2016; Bennett became a director shortly thereafter, retiring in 2020.

There’s never a dull moment as these characters share stories, aided by color commentary from Jennifer Carman, an independent art consultant, historian, and accredited senior reviewer in American and European fine arts and decorative arts.

Another engaging voice in the QQA conversation is that of Victoria Chandler, curator of the Historic Arkansas Museum’s collections and principal investigator of the Arkansas Made effort.

“We needed help in the 20th century, so we added Jennifer,” Bennett said. “We didn’t have the acumen for it. Then Victoria put it all together.”

This led to an extended version of Arkansas Made being released in 2021. It extends the study period from prehistory to 1950 and includes around 1,100 professional and home artists.

State archaeologist Ann Early (who retired in 2020) contributed a chapter on Arkansas’ Native Americans, and another chapter by architect Tommy Jameson and preservationist Joan Gould explores the state’s native architectural traditions.

“These are incredible books, the first of their kind to be published by the University of Arkansas Press,” Chandler said. “Includes results from a few years of photoshoots alone, including in historic Washington – 1,300 images.”

A valuable addition to the 2021 expanded publication covers Louis and Elsie Freund, who founded an art school in Eureka Springs and have been instrumental in preserving this quirky mountain town and making it a haven for writers and artists.

Muralist Louis Freund, Bennett said, “did all the talking, got most of the attention. It was hard to get anything out of Elsie. She was a “great artist,” a studio fine art jeweler, watercolourist, weaver and textile designer.

“There’s a 1950 Elsie Freund bracelet made of silver, glass and clay, a remarkable work of art,” said Carman. “She used broken glass in a clay body to create what she called stones and then hung them in strands of copper, stones in the air inspired by pebbles in a stream.”

Another valuable part of Arkansas Made are 19th-century quilts, such as Crown of Thorns from Izard County.

“Quilting was one of the few ways women of another era could express themselves creatively in the 19th century,” Chandler said. “There are over 600 quilts in the museum’s collection, often made for gifts [as gifts].”

According to the Arkansas Heritage website, most early quilts were not frugal creations by hardened settlers, but elegant, complex compositions commemorating significant life events and reserved for the family’s finest bed.

Most surviving 19th-century quilts were made by wives and daughters of independent farmers in the last quarter of the century. Despite the demands of everyday life, many Arkansas women found time to make some of the most exquisitely crafted quilts in the country.

Eighty percent of women in the Ozarks in 1950 said their favorite pastime was quilting. “You can clearly see the artistry,” Chandler added.

Other highlights of Arkansas Made include Benton’s 1905 Niloak pottery, made from kaolin, a very pure clay (Niloak is kaolin spelled backwards); silver spoons made from silver dollars before 1865 by Joe Neal, an enslaved artisan owned by the Whitaker family of Clark County; a series of 1880s hunting horns by Plum Bayou; an 1850 knife – Bowie No knife collector, said Bennett); 1,500 stunning Black Arkansans portraits and an oak armchair from 1949-1952 by Edward Durell Stone of Fayetteville.

This chair is one of Carman’s favorite pieces. She says, “The chair embodies the essence of ‘Arkansas Made’ of the level of craftsmanship found in our state.”

As Bennett puts it: “We’re not hillbilly.”

Karen Martin is the editor-in-chief of Perspective.

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Nineteenth-century quilts, such as Crown of Thorns from Izard County, feature in Arkansas Made. (Photo courtesy of Historic Arkansas Museum)

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