“Heaven Save the Ladies”: An Embedded Exhibit at ATHM

On March 31st we opened an exhibit called “Heaven Save the Ladies: Textiles in Dickens’s America” without moving a single object. We are calling it an “embedded exhibit,” meaning that it is made up entirely of objects already on display in the core exhibit. With the generous help of a UMass Lowell student, we chose objects that relate to Charles Dickens’s life, work, and his 1842 visit to America. We created a laminated guide that visitors pick up at the front desk, and that explains the connections between each object and Charles Dickens.

Exhibit guides explain the connection between artifacts in ATHM's main exhibit and Charles Dickens.

“Heaven Save the Ladies” is part of the “Dickens in Lowell” celebration. From March 31 to October 20, 2012, cultural organizations throughout Lowell are hosting a wide variety of programs exploring many different aspects of Charles Dickens’s life, work, and especially his visit to America. You can find out more about “Dickens in Lowell” at www.uml.edu/dickens/

The idea of creating an exhibit within an exhibit also reveals one of the most fascinating aspects of displaying objects in a museum. Artifacts have many meanings and can be part of many different stories. The same object in a new setting can reveal new connections. “Heaven Save the Ladies” is a chance for a fresh perspective on many objects in the core exhibit. For example, in the core exhibit these stays illustrate the fashionable silhouette of the late colonial and early republic period of American dress, as well as the importance of British imports in America. In “Heaven Save the Ladies” the same stays are an opportunity to quote Dickens’s description of the Mrs. Rouncewell, the old-fashioned and proper housekeeper in Bleak House: “She is a fine old lady, handsome, stately, wonderfully neat, and has such a back, and such a stomacher, that if her stays should turn out when she dies to have been a broad old-fashioned family fire-grate, nobody who knows her would have cause to be surprised.” This quote opens up so many other ways to think about the meaning of the stays. For example, one can think about the connections between clothing, posture, social standing, and character.

This stay is one of the many objects re-interpretted in "Heaven Save the Ladies."

“Heaven Save the Ladies” is one of many possible ways of re-interpreting our exhibit. How else could we look at the exhibit? Please share your ideas with us…

By Dave Unger, Director of Interpretation

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