Conversations at the Washington Library
Conversations at the Washington Library is a weekly podcast about early American history and the people who teach it.
Adam Erby, an associate curator at Mount Vernon, explored what it means to be a curator.
Below is a transcript of only part of Adam Erby's interview with librarian Samantha Snyder. You can hear the full interview in an episode of Conversations at the Washington Library.
I was born and raised in south central Virginia in a sort of a rural community about an hour south of Richmond, a place called Lunenburg County. I grew up around many historic buildings and people very interested in the antiques trade. From an early age, I liked to tromp around old buildings. There were a lot of late 18th- and early 19th- century buildings that were just sort of hanging out in the middle of agricultural fields. I loved to walk through them and check them out.
I also had an uncle who liked to deal in antique crockery and stoneware on the weekends. He got me interested in studying objects as lenses into the past. I also worked at a couple of local auction houses schlepping furniture around when I was in high school, and I learned very quickly I didn't want to do too much more of that. I wanted to go into the more academic side.
Then I went to the University of Virginia where I fully anticipated I would go into politics, law, or something like that. I took some classes taught by two wonderful professors, Maurie McGinnis and Louis Nelson, in material culture and architectural history. That is when I learned I could take my passion for objects and buildings and transform it into a career. At the University of Virginia, I majored in American Studies. I got a broad exposure to all sorts of fields, including history, architectural history, and some material culture. From there I decided I really wanted to concentrate on objects, not the buildings themselves.
I went on to the Winterthur program in American Material Culture, which is run through the University of Delaware and housed at the Winterthur Museum. Winterthur is a fantastic museum dedicated to studying the arts and cultures of early America. I got my master's degree there and came straight to Mount Vernon.
Let’s start with what does the word curator means. It is someone who is responsible for taking care of a collection. Here at George Washington's Mount Vernon, we have a collection that has been amassed over more than 160 years by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. The collection consists largely of objects that were owned by George and Martha Washington, but it also includes objects that tell the story of George Washington's life and legacy. And the story of other people who lived here at Mount Vernon.
As a curator at Mount Vernon, we have a broad range of responsibilities. We all have our personal specialties, mine is furniture and historic interiors, but we are all generalists. We work on projects that are assigned to us, or we choose over the course of our time here at Mount Vernon. I have been working on the front parlor and the restoration and conservation of that room, whereas others work on putting on exhibits and doing the research and writing behind all that.
Really being a curator at Mount Vernon involves a lot of research and writing: researching the pieces that are owned by Mount Vernon; making sure that they are what they say they are, and making sure that we know their complete histories. Most importantly, we work to make sure that the pieces are conserved and taken care of to our best ability.
My first project was an exhibit called Gardens and Groves, George Washington's Landscape at Mount Vernon. It turned a critical eye back to the landscape at Mount Vernon. It examined Washington's design of that landscape and the decorative features that Washington put in in the years after the American Revolution when he became a central figure in the American eye. He put in an ornamental landscape in an English style, anticipating many guests coming to see the father of the new nation at Mount Vernon. That was my early project, and the book The General and the Garden came out of that.
On a separate track, my personal interest and specialty is furniture and historic interiors, so I started working on the New Room project early in my time here. When we restored the large dining room, or “New Room,” in the Mansion, we also reinterpreted it. This was the largest restoration project that had taken place in the Mansion in 30 years.Learn More
Absolutely, all of these projects in the Mansion are very collaborative. We have lots of different players. The architecture team consists of the director of architecture, the architectural conservator, and on the curatorial side, one of the curators is usually the lead on the project.
We do not do all of the work ourselves. We do the background research and guide the restoration and the conservation, but we have many contractors who help us. We have conservators that work on individual objects, conservators who work on the architecture, fabricators of paint, fabricators of wallpaper, fabricators of period-style frames, and so on.Learn More
A group of my favorite objects is the series of paintings that Mount Vernon bought last year by the Alexandria-born artist John Gadsby Chapman. They are scenes from the 1830s of Virginia landscapes related to important events in Washington's life. Chapman really got the bug for George Washington and decided right after 1832, the hundred-year anniversary of Washington's birth, to capitalize on that and begin to publicize sites related to George Washington. He did that in collaboration with a man named James Kirke Paulding who was a popular author. Paulding ended up writing a biography of Washington.
Paulding sent Chapman out into the Virginia countryside to interview some of the last people who knew George Washington, but also to paint these magnificent scenes that showed the landscapes as they were. They are some of our finest pieces of art. The most important of them is a scene of the Washington bedchamber. That scene is a reconstructed view. Chapman went around to the Washington grandchildren and asked them what they owned that was in the room when Washington died. Then he painted the room and painted each of the individual pieces as Eleanor, or Nelly, Parke Custis Lewis told him where they went in the room. It is our best document showing us what the mansion looked like. We were very fortunate to bring these paintings into the collection.Learn More