Period Rooms in the 21st Century

Period Rooms in the 21st Century

The Parlor and Library of the Colonel Robert J. Milligan House of Saratoga Springs, New York
Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York

The 17th-centuty mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal nailed the history of civilization with his aphoristic chestnut, “All human evil comes from a single cause: Man’s inability to sit still in a room.”

Setting aside the prospect that his perceived wisdom might well be subverted in a generation or two, when—lo and behold—evil continues even in a world of fixed virtual existence and social engagement defined exactly by the isolation of sitting still, the adage nonetheless lends insight into the design and use of today’s interior spaces and the resurgence of cities (or new simulacrums) with their innate spatial density and collective experiences.

Architects, planners, and their builders, whether as partners or mass-producing copycats, have given permeable form to Pascal’s acknowledgment of inevitable motion. Except maybe on Thanksgiving and Christmas, the contemporary American living room serves no purpose as a salon for daily conversation or individual repose. That role has yielded to the open kitchen melded with multi-tasking, use-shifting family space accommodating the endless movement of contemporary life, at least in those places where budgets and available space permit it.

These dynamic design requirements are one reason perhaps that the “Period Room” once so popular in museums across late 1900s Europe and in the early 20th century throughout the U.S. prove more often than not to be the deadest zones among competing visitor gallery options. Recent visits to those rooms at both the Metropolitan and Brooklyn Museums told the story best with their almost total lack of onlookers; those that did venture in hurried past with glazed remove, except for sometimes in 20th century rooms with their hints of how we inhabit space today. Pity the assigned guards.

The museums coping with their period room legacy, which were so supremely popular in the 1920s and 30s, face daunting challenges in keeping them relevant. Today’s visitors are less able to engage with the diorama-like separation that denies the motion or three-dimensional embrace that best instill narrative significance or personal meaning. It is this seat-less stillness that shuns them. A prideful nationalistic urge to celebrate past culture through design, art, and decoration demanded a shift from individual objects displayed distinctly for direct inspection to a focus on overall style fixed as an amber-like whole from its respective historic period.

This displacement has three causes. First, the rise of the historic house museum (although often now suffering a similar decline of public interest, especially when not wedded to a person or artistic achievement of enduring historic interest; for every Monticello, Olana, O’Keefe’s Abiquiu adobe, Falling Water, or Glass House, there are dozens barely holding on especially from the ample record of the late 19th century and early Gilded Age architecture). Secondly, the rise of exact contemporary replication or emulation of such past period rooms by tradition-minded or classical designers working with those well-heeled clients inclined by taste and ambition to commission them. Unlike their informative museum predecessors, these new old rooms are inhabited and often widely disseminated as such through print and electronic outlets. Few could have reasonably anticipated this design trend; what seemed lost can in fact be built anew. And thirdly, the curators and their audiences now overwhelmingly prefer to arrange and view works of art or design distinction in neutral spaces, where the individual works best retain their formal integrity and according narrative access. Malleability guides the programmatic course.

In this way, the curatorial pendulum has decidedly swung back to the museum’s display origins and away from emphasis on contextual style.

Bearing these trends in mind, the Brooklyn Museum has proven itself intrepid and loyal enough to traditional display assets and past driving pedagogy to have just redone with unprecedented exactitude two of the 19th century crown jewels among its 28 period rooms, spanning from the 17th century Dutch colonial to the 20th century art deco sleekness of a relocated Manhattan library.

In this instance, it is the 1856 Louis XV Revival style parlor and Gothic Revival library removed from the still-standing Colonel Robert J. Milligan House of Saratoga Springs. Untouched until now since their 1953 advent, this new and corrected interior interpretation benefits from advancements in art historical research and a revival of many craft traditions spawned by a dynamic marketplace for traditional design solutions, whether through preservation or new construction. Skills or methods lost thrive anew and allow scholarly discovery to take physical form.

In terms of formal exactitude and historical insight, the achievement is a solid and worthy one. Yet in the context of 21st-century museum going, it feels like the most enthusiastic future audience might well consist of design practitioners alongside connoisseur clients of ready means looking for expert hints of how they can properly recreate it. This is a search for authenticity, or at least the perception of it.

Once built, these rooms will at least afford the chance to sit still (Wi-Fi will enhance the likelihood…) or, as Pascal anticipates, pass through with attendant acquisitive pleasure en route to the next activity or fresh source of trouble.

However such future use unfolds, the Brooklyn Museum merits praise for tending to its past display legacy with such exacting if anachronistic alacrity.