The “no touch” signs have been taken down at the Beall-Dawson Museum in Rockville for a limited time, as visitors are invited to discover 18th and 19th century living in a whole new way — through chairs, dressers, tables and desks dating to those time periods.
“Inside Out/Upside Down: Furniture from a Different Perspective,” on view through June 25, displays pristine early American furniture pieces in turned over, opened up and upside down positions so viewers can fully appreciate the careful craftsmanship, design and construction put into each piece. The exhibit illustrates how furniture-making techniques have changed over time.
Secret drawers, clever locking mechanisms and hidden signatures steal the show. “This is the first time that we have done anything like this,” said curator Elizabeth Lay. “Since the beginning, the Beall-Dawson House (its former name) has been a typical house museum. Our goal with this exhibit was to take the same furniture pieces that have filled the house and tell new stories with them.”
“As a decorative arts curator,” Lay added, “so much of what we learn about the authenticity of an object is by looking at the interior of the piece. It is also where we find the many of the human stories such as the maker, or how a piece was used.”
To that end, the Beall-Dawson team has pulled the furniture away from the walls so visitors can look behind each piece, study it from all angles. “We have also removed drawers and lifted the pieces up on pedestals to make it easier to look inside,” Lay said.
“One of the exciting things about this exhibit is, thanks to a partnership with the Society of Period Furniture Makers and furniture conservator Bruce Schuettinger, we have a very large ‘Please Touch’ area,” Lay said. “It is filled with samples of joinery, pieces of period furniture and wood samples. The exhibit itself allows people to walk all around the furniture, so there are no ropes.”
In its entirety, the Beall-Dawson collection has roughly 10,000 objects. The oldest in the collection is circa 1740, and the oldest object in this exhibit is a Windsor chair, determined to be made in approximately 1760.
With so much furniture in the museum’s collection, Lay still chose to borrow a few pieces to help chronicle a more complete account. One such piece is a game table that showcases fine examples of inlay, marquetry and stringing on a single piece. Also borrowed are two chairs to better tell the story of American Windsor forms—one of the most widely collected categories in the decorative arts fields.
Then & Now: Not So Far Apart
Asked what museum-goers seem to find most surprising during their visit, Lay said, “I think people are largely surprised by the veneers. So often we think of veneer as being something inexpensive. However, during the Neoclassical period (Federal and Empire), veneers were a way to demonstrate the most beautiful aspects of mahogany. It was considered very high-style. We also demonstrate how one can date a piece of furniture from the thickness of the veneer; the thicker it is, the older the object.”
What Would Mr. Beall Think?
The Beall-Dawson home was originally built in about 1815 for Upton Beall, a prominent Georgetown Clerk of Court, and his wife and daughters. He wanted the home to reflect his success and prominence in society. As such, he would likely find “Inside Out/Upside Down” somewhat de rigueur. On the other hand, he may have enjoyed showing off his collection.
The large brick Federal-style residence remained in the Beall family until the 1960s when the City of Rockville purchased it as the Montgomery County Historical Society’s headquarters.
The furnishings are early 19th century and while many of the outbuildings that were part of the original property are now gone, the main house remains mostly intact. This includes the indoor slave quarters above the kitchen. The museum is unique in that it serves as an authentic snapshot of how upper-class white families and enslaved African Americans lived during that period.
Get Antiques Roadshow Ready
For those who want to delve deeper into the details of period furniture, the Beall-Dawson Museum, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, will offer a day-long workshop with curator Elizabeth Lay and period furniture maker Bert Bleckwenn on June 16. Lay covers furniture styles and history, while Bleckwenn demonstrates tool marks and construction. By the end of the day, you’ll know the hallmark indicators of whether an antique is an original, revival, or a later reproduction. Note: Tickets sell out quickly.
“Inside Out/Upside Down: Furniture from a Different Perspective” is on view through June 25 at the Beall-Dawson Museum, 103 West Montgomery Ave., Rockville. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Admission is $7. Call 301-762-1492 or visit http://montgomeryhistory.org. View this exhibit on CultureSpotMC here.