Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Of Treasure Troves & Ephemera

By Dan Yaeger

Just yesterday the NEMA staff took a field trip to the Dedham Historical Society. Our goal was to see the sights and gain insights from its redoubtable director Vicky Kruckeberg.

I was particularly enthused about going because the Dedham Historical Society is one of the older of its breed, founded in 1859 during a time when communities were only just becoming self-aware and realizing that the past is worth preserving.

Sure enough, the DHS has the feel of being an established, valued member of the Dedham community. Its building is a handsome brick Romanesque edifice from 1888 or thereabouts, sited squarely in the center of Dedham’s bustling downtown. I could imagine Dedhamites tackling errands at the Post Office, the bank, maybe grabbing a snack at a Main Street eatery, then popping into the Historical Society for a quick look at the displays before they head home. Part of their everyday life, so to speak.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is what I love about New England. Virtually any town you visit, you’re likely to encounter a hidden gem of a museum containing some pretty interesting stuff, and sometimes the stuff is more than interesting. It’s world class.

So here’s a sample of what Vicky presented us during our tour. First there’s the Dedham Pottery, produced locally during the Arts & Crafts era and collected worldwide (just look it up on eBay). The DHS exhibits a plethora of examples and, since it holds the trademark on the Dedham Pottery name, continues to produce limited quantities for sale in its gift shop.

An Example of Dedham Pottery, produced 1892 - 1943

Then Vicky walked us over to the oldest American-made chair, an intricately-carved oak “great chair” dated 1652. It’s not every day that you see one of those. Oh, and by the way, take a look above the display case over there and you’ll see a portrait of a local woman done by Gilbert Stuart. Oh, and over there’s a Paul Revere bell, adjacent to a Simon Willard “astronomical shelf clock,” one of only two in existence. It’s a trove of incredible artifacts, right in downtown Dedham.

The Metcalf Chair, c. 1652

But despite its wealth of really significant historical objects, Vicky told us that her focus today is on collecting objects of Dedham’s more recent history. She took us to a case featuring images and ephemera of places like the shoe repair shop, the corner grocery (known as the local “spa”), the downtown hardware store. These are all places that have disappeared from Dedham and, soon enough, from the planet itself.

Here, Vicky is prescient. Collecting the odds and ends of everyday life from not-so-long-ago, exhibiting them to generations that remember the bygone days and to those that should, is gaining in importance. As unique downtowns erode away under the deluge of the CVSs and Walgreens and Subways, it’s up to institutions like historical societies to retain the keys to a community’s identity. For the locals, every visit is like opening a time capsule, and it’s an experience they should enjoy regularly.