Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Book Review: A Schoolgirl's Work and Girlhood Pursuits

A Schoolgirl's Work: Samplers from the Spencer Museum of Art Barb Adams and Alma Allen (2011)

Girlhood Pursuits: A Sampling of Embroideries from the New Bedford Whaling Museum New Bedford Whaling Museum (2008)


These two small books are similar in many ways. Both provide photos, catalog data, and historical information on 24 samplers from their respective museum collections. But the collections themselves forced the writers down different narrative paths, both valid and both interesting.


A Schoolgirl's Work is a widely distributed book that presents 24 samplers from the Spencer Museum of Art. Each sampler is shown is full color, and plates include close ups and, most interestingly, the back of each piece. Since the samplers are presented in chronological order, the reader can see how styles changed through time. However, the samplers in this collection were acquired without a particular acquisition strategy. They were donated to the museum by people who collected what they liked or who donated family pieces. Few come from Kansas, and little is known about most of the stitchers. That said, the samplers, are all delightful, colorful and full of whimsey. As a result, the authors took up the slack in the narrative by developing patterns based on the samplers. These are are sweet, generally small projects, that provide mini lessons on deconstructing and reconstructing motifs for your own use.


Girlhood Pursuits also catalogs 24 samplers. This was an exhibition catalog and it is sadly not widely distributed. It presents much of the same information for each sampler as A Schoolgirl's Work (sampler height, width, materials, maker) but instead of the clear photography of the former, the plates in "Girlhood Pursuits" are darker and there is only one image of each piece. Since the poems and inscriptions are not always transcribed, this left me wishing for more detailed close ups. What this work has in its favor though, is the fact that all of the samplers depicted were either made in New Bedford or Dartmouth, Massachusetts or by someone with close connections to the New Bedford area. As a result, the authors were able to identify some of the embroideries as works of specific schools or derived from specific teachers and the histories of the girls who worked them are also known and presented. It provides a tantalizing start to understanding the social, economic and religious history of New Bedford through a female perspective.


The two approaches to cataloging these sampler collections are rooted in the organizations' acquisition strategies, and each organization made the best of what they had. New Bedford was able to piece together the story of these embroideries with much more clarity, which I appreciated, but as lovely as their samplers are, they don't compare with the delightful imagery and beautiful condition of the Spencer Museum of Art collection. I plan to use some of the motifs from the Spencer collection to develop my own sampler. Both works, however, remind us of how important it is for small local and regional museums to share their collections. Samplers, like their makers, often take journeys of their own, and sharing this information is the only way to reconstruct their meaning and the meaning of the lives that produced and cherished them.


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