Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Family Museums . . . some are grand, some are intimate

We boarded the tour bus at 6:30 am on a cool Wednesday morning, greeted by the tour guide, bus driver, and 40+ smiling neighbors; many members of KM’s Garden Club. By time my daughter Tiffeni and I got on the bus, most of the seats were taken, so back of the bus we squeezed. Settling in, we were ready for the 4-hour plus ride to Delaware from Williamsburg, VA via the Washington Beltway . . . yikes! Expected time of arrival; noon? Oh well, we were lodged in for now, but happily so to have this opportunity to get away for a couple of days and see two places we always wanted to visit: Winterthur Museum of American Decorative Arts in Delaware and the next day, Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania.

Now, there is a big difference in these two places, both with houses that displayed their family’s possessions. And as museums go, some are large, strictly controlled, and very impersonal. Others are cozy, relaxed, and informal. Though the first one was interesting and informative, we both preferred the second one. Here is the description from Winterthur’s webpage:  http://www.winterthur.org/
Almost 60 years ago, collector and horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont (1880–1969) opened his childhood home, Winterthur, to the public. Today, Winterthur is the premier museum of American decorative arts, with a collection of nearly 90,000 objects made or used in America between about 1640 and 1860. The collection is displayed in the magnificent 175-room house, much as it was when the du Pont family lived here, as well as in permanent and changing exhibition galleries.

Wow! Not only did we not have the time to see even a modicum of the 175 rooms (nor were they opened) or the 90,000 objects, at times it sure felt like it. We walked, and walked, and were told several times to stay with the group. The museum was impressive, but impersonal. The attempts are entertaining, such as the cocktails on the card table and stairway, the toiletries in the mock bathroom and the breakfast table. 
Winterthur has miles of lush gardens. To see them, you would have to trek up and down, around and through the many parks. We opted for the tram, which was convenient, but you couldn’t appreciate all of the scenery.

The next day we went to Longwood Gardens, where one can slowly meander about the lush gardens, which was more our style. Here is the description from Longwood’s webpage: https://longwoodgardens.org/

Our Gardens are a living expression of all that our founder, Pierre S. du Pont, found inspiring, meaningful, and beautiful. From the intricate fountain systems to the meticulous gardens to the architectural grandeur, awe-inspiring discoveries await at every turn. We started our tour of the gardens with a guide. Here are a few pictures of us in the gardens:
Eventually, we wandered off by ourselves, and that was when we discovered the Peirce-du Pont House dating from 1730 and is the oldest building at Longwood Gardens. It became the family homestead of the Peirce family in 1909. He modernized the house with a two-story addition and in 1914, the largest addition was built and converted into administrative offices. The home became his weekend residence until his death in 1954. It is now open to the public every day. Though the house is no longer residential, many of the rooms show the decor and architectural features during Mr. du Pont's occupancy, as are photos and many of Mr. du Pont's possessions, books and his personal effects. Now, this is what I call a real Family Museum.
The entry of the house is a conservatory filled with lush plants, small fountains and old-fashion wicker furniture. To the left is the library where you watch a short film about the family and the house. You can tell by the interior d├ęcor that this room was well-used and comfortable. Many exhibits surround the room and you can take your time perusing them. Exiting, you step over to what small room with a grand stairway to the second floor. Though the stairs were captivating, it was the display of luggage and hat boxes that look like they were ready to depart on a trip, either on a Pullman or the famous Mauretania. 
From there we walked back thru the conservatory to the main entrance and into a room that served as Mr. du Pont’s office. Everyday objects from his business dealings are displayed on a large desk. The room gives you a feeling like Peirce just left but will be back. As we sauntered through the connecting rooms, collections of family and business memorabilia are displayed behind Plexiglas, allowing you to read and view the many objects. There were chairs and benches you can sit on and nobody bothered you to move on. 
As we left the house, we had a clearer image of the man; Pierre S. du Pont, and his family. That is what having a Family Museum is all about; sharing, displaying, protecting and preserving family heritage and the all-important physical genealogy that is yours. I hope you start yours soon, because there is no time like the present.

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