NEW ORLEANS (press release) – For 10 years, summer fellows of the Classical Institute of the South (CIS) have traveled across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to examine, research and record decorative arts items held in private collections. To mark the first decade of this intrepid quest into everyday history, The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC)—which has managed the CIS initiatives since 2015—will showcase the furniture, home furnishings and tools of daily life catalogued by the program’s rising scholars in the free exhibition “Pieces of History: Ten Years of Decorative Arts Fieldwork,” on view April 16 through September 5, 2021, at 520 Royal Street.
The objects of material culture on display and explored through photos and text panels in the exhibition were made or used in the Gulf South before 1865. Details discovered during fieldwork provide a picture of the private, social and economic lives of our region’s people.
“For some of the objects on display, this is the first time they have left their homes in over 150 years,” said Lydia Blackmore, decorative arts curator, co-curator of the exhibition, and herself a former summer fellow. “These objects show the importance of provenance in our research, with documented histories reaching back to their original purchase.”
The voices of past summer fellows animate the exhibition in “Field Story” text panels, sharing favorite objects, research connections or unique experiences from their fieldwork. The stories are accompanied by photographs of objects and the fellows doing the hard work of history. “I hope that seeing these pictures and reading these stories will inspire other younger historians and students of history to jump into the field,” Blackmore said.
The exhibition also signals a new name for the summer program. Earlier this year, the Classical Institute of the South was rebranded as Decorative Arts of the Gulf South, or DAGS, in an effort to clarify its mission and to broaden its reach to both scholars and the general public. The program was founded in 2011 by New Orleans attorney and avid antiques collector Paul Haygood (1943–2015). THNOC became its permanent home in 2015, ensuring the continuation of Haygood’s initiative, a key element of which is an online database making the history of Gulf South decorative arts accessible to researchers across the globe.
“The DAGS database is part of the Louisiana Digital Library, a free online consortium of research resources,” said Sarah Duggan, DAGS coordinator, research curator and co-curator of “Pieces of History.” “Unlike a formal book publication, the database is a living document we can update as new information comes to light. The information and photographs fieldwork teams gather are like the raw material of history, full of potential for deeper dives into family and local history. Since the DAGS database is a purely virtual collection, it can be hard to grasp the breadth of information available. The exhibition will help visitors visualize the array of decorative and craftsmanship details DAGS has documented over the years. The loan objects bring that artistic texture to life, and their large scale in the gallery makes a dramatic impression.”
Emphasized throughout the exhibition is the role enslaved workers played in the creation of the objects on view.
“The exhibition has two goals,” Blackmore said. “First, to explain what DAGS is, how we do decorative arts fieldwork, and the importance of ongoing research into the material culture of the Gulf South. The second goal is to contextualize the findings of DAGS in the broader history of the Gulf South. These oftentimes beautiful objects are pieces of a darker history, based on the profits of enslaved labor. We have made sure that the role of enslaved labor is represented throughout the exhibition.”
The Historic New Orleans Collection gratefully acknowledges the sponsors of the exhibition, Nell H. and Fredric J. Figge and Mrs. Frank W. Masson.
Visitors may view “Pieces of History” Tuesday–Saturday, 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m., and Sunday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Admission is free, and THNOC’s COVID-19 safety protocols—facemasks, timed ticketing and limited gallery capacity to ensure social distancing—will be in place. Advance reservations at hnoc.org are recommended.