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Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

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April 7, 2015 by Susan Prillaman

In 1951, collector and horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont permanently opened his childhood home to the public, a long-planned action contemplated in 1930 when du Pont established the Winterthur Corporation as a nonprofit, educational organization. Today, Winterthur is the premier museum of American decorative arts with a collection of nearly 90,000 objects made or used in America between about 1640 and 1860. The collection is displayed in exhibition galleries and in the 175-room house, appearing much as it did when occupied by the du Pont family.

Writing later in life, du Pont’s love of Winterthur is clear:

I sincerely hope that the Museum will be a continuing source of inspiration and education for all time, and that the gardens and grounds will of themselves be a country place museum where visitors may enjoy as I have, not only the flowers, trees and shrubs, but also the sunlit meadows, shady wood paths, and the peace and great calm of a country place which has been loved and taken care of for three generations.

Geared to attract casual visitors and scholars alike, Winterthur’s website is more marketing method than digital history per se. It is however, a well-designed site that provides a deep menu of visitor information, educational programs and activities, and collections along with the requisite membership, support and shopping opportunities for Winterthur (pronounced “winter-tour”) Museum, Garden & Library.

Although background information about the website is not provided, one can infer that the mission of the site supports the mission of the organization. As described in its 2013 IRS Form 990, “Winterthur’s mission is to preserve and enhance the legacy of its founder, Henry Francis du Pont, for the benefit and enjoyment of the public.” The statement goes on to identify graduate programs in American material culture and art conservation, operation and development of a research library, and the preservation of historically important buildings and grounds as the means by which its mission is realized.

With a 2012 budget of $28.5 million, Winterthur’s revenue derives from contributions and grants (33%), program services (12%), investment income (50%) and other revenue (5%). In addition to institutional support, many programs are performed in collaboration with other organizations under cost sharing arrangements. With the resources to have its website designed and maintained by either an outside consultant or to keep it in-house, Winterthur apparently chose the latter but the only evidence found to support this assumption is a webmaster@winterthur.org email address and the knowledge that a Publications Office is part of the marketing group.

Even so, Winterthur seems to be a fairly recent participant in digitizing its collections and making them available via the internet. Preparation of the database in 2005 and, as of May 2012, Winterthur had re-cataloged 56,698 objects and added 128,051 digital images to the database.

Winterthur presents an interesting blend of museum and library, exhibition and programming. In Creating a Winning Online Exhibit, Martin Kalfatovic writes that the museum “exists to serve the exhibition,” whereas an exhibition in a library “is an adjunct to a host of other missions and services.” With a 175-room house museum and a library, Winterthur does both, while embracing the ability of digital exhibits to expand its audience and embracing Kalfatovic’s view that, “online exhibitions have also become an almost necessary adjunct to traditional physical exhibitions, offering a continuing life to the ideas presents in the brick-and-mortar galleries long after the exhibitions have closed.”

Winterthur’s online exhibitions offer several examples. In Common Destinations: Maps in the American Experience, a traditional exhibition was displayed from April 2013 to January 2014, its programming included a lecture series, special curatorial presentations and a multi-day conference. An a permanent online exhibition, “Common Destinations” lives on at http://commondestinations.winterthur.org/. This model is repeated in several of Winterthur’s other offerings. Among them is found The Winterthur Library Revealed: Five Centuries of Design and Inspiration, a virtual exhibit based on a 2004 gallery show, The Flowering of American Tinware, part of a May 2013-January 2014 exhibition, and two exhibits shown beginning in 2012: Selections from a Promised Gift: The Daniel and Serga Nadler Collection of Chinese Export Porcelain and Uncorked! Wine, Objects & Tradition. In a nice departure of the format, Who’s Your Daddy: Families in Early American Needlework, Linda Eaton, a curator with Winterthur, presents items from a collection of early American needlework that displayed from October 2008 to August 2009. All are straight-forward with few “bells and whistle” yet well-designed and easily navigated.

Winterthur’s virtual-only exhibits also serve as collection databases. In Patriotic America, Winterthur collaborated with the Transferware Collectors Club and Historic New England in the online exhibition which also serves as a database of early English printed pottery celebrating the new United States. Winterthur’s exhibit page provides a hyperlink to an external website sponsored jointly by the three organizations. This collaborative model is employed again in Spode Exhibition Online, a resource for the study of the printed designs of Spode ceramics. In this endeavor, Winterthur teamed up with Transferware Collectors Club for a second time, and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England. In addition to these online exhibit collection databases, Winterthur offers access to its Museum Collection, Plant Database, and Library Collection which includes WinterCat, an online catalogue.

In addition to its exhibits, library and naturalistic gardens, Winterthur is a center for the study of American decorative art and culture, focusing on the material culture of objects made or used in America generally between 1640 and 1860. It provides school, community and college programs, sponsors two graduate programs with the University of Delaware, and has a research fellowship program. Known also for its Scientific Research and Analysis Lab, publications, and as a venue for dining, weddings and corporate entertaining, Winterthur takes a broad and inclusive view of its mission “to preserve and enhance the legacy of its founder, Henry Francis du Pont, for the benefit and enjoyment of the public.”

Given such an expansive arena, Winterthur’s website effectively provides content for all members of its audience, perhaps best defined in the mission of the Publishing Program: “to communicate Winterthur’s unique position as a place of beauty, history, and learning, motivating and educating collectors and academics as well as the general public.” Beyond online exhibits and digital collections, however, Winterthur’s website is designed to promote the facility and associated on-site programs. At this, it excels. Appearing at the top of any of multiple search engines tested, www.winterthur.org is unlikely to be, as Kalfatovic says “like a tree falling in the digital forest is no one visits it.” Nor does it seem likely that it will fall victim to becoming Winterthur’s sole preservation effort; a concern expressed by Kyvig and Marty in Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You, continuing along the track as Kalfatovic. “Furthermore, despite the care you exercise in creating a website, there is no assurance that browsers will find it; and if they do, it will be in the midst of much more information on related topics.”

Perhaps because an estate of Winterthur’s size and age demands a high level of financial resources to operate, it does not appear that much, if any, programming is offered without cost. For an institution dedicated to education, it is odd to find such a limited offering.

Winterthur’s educational leaders might want to take to heart Mark Sandle’s view. In his essay “Studying the past in the digital age,” in History in the Digital Age Sandler describes what he sees as the future of digital history:

More broadly and more speculatively, the future of historical scholarship and the study of the past may well be substantially impacted by the digital age. In particular, the web of connectedness and the increasingly deep penetration of social media into our everyday lives may produce some interesting transformations into historical scholarship in two ways. The first is the deepening of public historical consciousness. Popular enthusiasm for historical content—novels, films, genealogy sites, cable channels—has never been higher. . . .The second is the linkage between personal identity, history, globalization and this web of connectedness.

However as long as the website is seen primarily as a marketing tool, internet visitors will experience the site as a gateway to an in-person visit; where ”What to See,” “Visit” and “Educational Programs & Activities” appear as the first three headliner menu options. If Digital History as described by essays in Writing History in the Digital Age, History in the Digital Age and Clio Wired, is to be written, it will be authored by historians who frequent the library and access the collections; I found little provided in the exhibits nor in the background history provided about the du Pont family.

One line, the final sentence found on “About Winterthur,” sums up my impression of the site. After a paragraph about the benefactor Henry Francis Du Pont and the collection, a paragraph describing Winterthur’s “1,000-acre preserve of rolling meadows and woodlands,” and du Pont’s quote cited above reads the following: To learn more about Winterthur, purchase Guide to Winterthur Museum & Country Estate by Pauline Eversmann,” with a link to Winterthur Store.


2 comments »

  1. acoleman34 says:

    It’s unfortunate that much programming for the physical site is not without cost. I was just having the discussion with a friend of mine this weekend that museums should be free and open to the public. I always maintain that history and natural history museums, because they focus mainly on educating the public, should remain free or at as low a cost as possible. I understand that this is impossible for some of them due to budget constraints, and smaller institutions in particular, but at what point do objects within museums become so much a part of the public’s history that they begin to belong to the public? Should we rely on public domain as a benchmark for that? Even so, there are plenty of museums that have objects that would fall into that category. I digress. It is nice to know that there are museums such as the Winterthur that, although they charge for their programming, allow access through an online medium even if it is primarily a gateway to an in-person visit. I also enjoyed your line about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). It’s important for good sites like this not to get buried by all the junk on the internet. Being at the top of a google search certainly prevents that to an extent.

  2. Julie says:

    Susan, this library/museum/garden (yikes, that’s a lot–no wonder they don’t have much of a mission beyond the intentions of their founder) looks absolutely beautiful. I would love to visit sometime. I am not so sold on their online exhibits though. I agree that Patriotic America–with the help of several other organizations, as you noted–is there best example. Some of the other ones only utilize brief descriptions and a “gallery tour” that likes you see the interior of the exhibit without actually being able to look at anything. That being said, their library collections look great, and many of their items there are digitized fully. So perhaps better digital exhibits will follow with time?

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