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July Column: History Contained – A less literal, more ‘out-of-the-box’ interpretation of the topic

For this month’s theme, “History Contained,” we selected feature subjects that reflect a less literal, more ‘out-of-the-box’ interpretation of the topic beyond the obvious examples of antique and vintage general store tins, antique packing crates, apothecary bottles, candy jars, crocks, and spice containers.

Secret compartments for containing private papers and concealing precious belongings were a common characteristic of furniture among the elite for centuries but was perhaps first revealed (at least publicly) in an 18th-century desk designed by the Roentgen brothers – German decorators in the 18th century – for King Friedrich William II. The desk was designed with hidden drawers in hidden drawers, all operated by a sophisticated mechanical system.  Today, this desk is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Hidden compartment furniture reached the height of popularity and novelty in the Victorian Era where design and technology married to produce elaborately carved furniture with ingeniously hidden surprises accessed in creative ways. Secret compartments behind sliding panels, hollow pilasters, false drawers, and hidden compartments revealed only with the removal of embellishments in a certain order…were incorporated into the design and construction of mostly English and American bureaus, traveling desks, chests, and full-sized desks during this era. Many owners may not even be aware that they have an antique piece with such a secret as they were designed to mislead.

Secret compartments in furniture have been the subject of literary plot twists for centuries, most famously in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Purloined Letter, and more recently in Nicholas Cage’s National Treasure, where historical documents were hidden inside the Resolute desk that sits in the Oval Office.

Managing Editor Judy Gonyeau looks at the ethical and legal issues surrounding containing antiquities in their place of origin. Items of cultural heritage have been looted, exported, smuggled, and commercially sold for centuries, many today residing far from home in museums and private collections. To repatriate or not to repatriate? That is a question under continuing regulatory and legal review by organizations such as UNESCO and U.S. Immigration & Customers Enforcement (CE) under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

For some experts, it is a matter of whether or not history can only be told in its place of origin if it still exists. For others, it is a matter of where are these items best preserved? And still, others consider the public benefit resulting from where collections are housed currently. Another side of the antiquities debate is, did the item come to reside in its current location legally?

Judy delves into this debate, and looks at the case of the U.S. Government vs Hobby Lobby and its President Steve Green, in her article addressing the compelling and timely question of who can and should own a country’s history?

Country of origin issues aside, most can agree that the answer to where objects of history should be contained is in a museum, where its story can be told in a contextual and educational way, and shared with the public. That was the founding mission behind The Charlston Museum, commonly regarded as “America’s First Museum.” Inspired in part by the creation of the British Museum, The Charlston Museum was established by the Charleston Library Society on the eve of the American Revolution to preserve and tell the story of Charlton’s deep-rooted regional history.

Charlston’s early history was characterized by association with distinguished South Carolinians and scientific figures including Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Reverend John Bachman, and John J. Audubon. The Museum continued to develop prominent collections of ethnological and zoological specimens, which Harvard scientist Louis Aggasiz declared in 1852 to be among the finest in America. Today, the Museum’s collections represent the most comprehensive assemblage of South Carolina materials in the nation, focused on the South Carolina Lowcountry, preserving its history and telling its ever-evolving story with new acquisitions for generations to come.

During the 19th century, museums in America followed one of two basic paths: institutions focused on science, history, and education in the items it collected, preserved, and displayed, and commercial enterprises that put novelty, oddities, items of a dubious nature, and freakish attractions on display. Keeping the doors of these later and increasingly popular types of public museums open meant selling tickets; selling tickets meant continually introducing new attractions and exhibits to capture the public’s attention and keep them coming back for more. That took showmanship. And who better than P.T. Barnum to take museums to the next level? You can read more about the commercialization of 19th-century cabinets of curiosity and the role P.T. Barnum played in taking these collections to the general public in this month’s issue.

Also in this issue, Jim Dawson of The Unicorn Bookshop in Trappe, MD, and a monthly contributor to the Journal with his Old & Rare Books column, takes a look at bookbinding – the history, art, craftsmanship, and utilitarian function of containing pages inside a book’s covers. And Travis Landry, director of pop culture at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers in Cranston, RI, looks at the escalating market values of pop culture collectibles still contained in their original packaging.

While you will be reading this month’s issue on your computer, tablet, or phone, I am excited to share that with your support, and the support of our advertisers, we will be returning to print on a bi-monthly rather than quarterly basis, starting with the August 2021 issue. Now, we will be publishing 12 digital and six printed issues a year. Look for us again in your mailbox, at your favorite antique shops (if we are not there, please ask them to carry us), and at the antiques & collectibles shows and flea markets you attend around the country. Speaking of shows…they’re back! And all early indicators suggest that both dealers and show-goers are excited for the opportunity to re-connect and get back to the business of buying, selling, and loving antiques. Follow us on Facebook and visit our website for the most updated show information.