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EXHIBIT REVIEW – Something of Splendor

Something of Splendor – Decorative Arts from the White House, an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the White House Historical Association, recently opened at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.

The exhibition features china, glassware, furniture, and other decorative arts that are part of the White House collection. Since these pieces have always been displayed as part of the room setting décor in the White House itself, it is a treat to see these important historical treasures highlighted in museum cases under gallery lighting.

The artifacts on view represent several administrations where major White House renovations took place. Preservation of White House treasures was not considered a priority until First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy proposed the idea of a White House Curator to maintain the historical integrity of the collections as an official “historic house.”

In the past, presidents were allowed to sell anything they wanted in the White House to raise funds to purchase new furnishings according to their own tastes. Today, each piece is cataloged as part of the White House collection. While Presidents and their families are given a range of choices to decorate the public White House spaces, every decision is made under the guidance of the White House Curator’s Office.

A short video in a side gallery includes interviews with some of the First Families who have lived among these treasured artifacts. Everyone who has the privilege of calling the White House home knows they are walking among history in each and every room.

The day after the official opening, White House Curator William G. Allman gave a lecture about the exhibition. He pointed out that his job is a bit different from the traditional curator, because the collection he oversees is actually used. In other historic house museums, the furniture is roped off and visitors are not permitted to sit on the settees or place their drink on a sideboard. But in the White House, the collection is not “retired” – it is very much active!

Something of Splendor is on view at the Renwick Gallery through May 6, 2012. Admission is free.

The author was not compensated in any way for writing this review. She was invited to the exhibition opening through her position as curator of a presidential library. Her employer paid for her trip to Washington, DC.

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