History on Display: Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity


Édouard Manet. La Parisienne.

Last week, my writing pal Amy Sue Nathan and I headed off to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the hot new exhibit, Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity. *

It wasn't quite what I expected.

I was looking for what the museum describes as "a la mode as the harbinger of la modernité". I wanted to know more about birth of the modern fashion industry, the impact of sewing machines, the development of aniline dyes, and the rise of that astonishing new institution, the department store.** What I got was clothes. Beautiful clothes, brilliantly displayed, but only lightly connected to what I think of as modernity.

Don't get me wrong. It's a marvelous exhibit. It is fascinating to see real-life dresses displayed next to their painted doppelgangers. The curators do an excellent job of describing the social context of the clothes and the women who wear them in the paintings. I learned new things about paintings I love and discovered painters that I didn't know. (I'm talking about you, James Tissot.)

The exhibit is open through September 22. Chicago is the last stop on its tour. If you're interested in the Impressionists or nineteenth century fashion, it's worth the trip. To quote a fellow visitor: "It's the best stuff!"

*It was members' preview day and it was packed. I shudder to think what it will be like on a Saturday afternoon--or free day. Consider yourself warned.

**All of which are mentioned in passing in the exhibit. I just felt a bit like Oliver Twist: please, sir, I want some more.

Road Trip Through History: The Arabia Steamboat Museum

IMG_0591 The Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City is a private museum. Like all private museums, it's the result of personal passion. Unlike many private museums, it's big, professionally designed, and stunning.*

The museum weaves together three separate stories into an exciting whole: life in frontier America, the steamboats that served as the semi-trailers of the nineteenth century, and five friends who banded together to excavate one sunken steamboat.

In the nineteenth century, before the Army Corps of Engineers worked its magic, the Missouri River was as treacherous as a navigable river could be. Civil War journalist** Albert Deane Richardson described the river as "a stream of flowing mud studded with dead tree trunks and broken bars." Nonetheless, the Missouri was a major trade route for frontier America and a profitable one. A steamboat could pay for itself with a single successful voyage. Just as well, since the average steamboat only lasted five years on "old Misery". ***

On September 5, 1856, near what is now Kansas City, the steamship Arabia hit a walnut snag that stove in her hull. The ship was lost within minutes. The human passengers all escaped,**** but more than 200 tons of cargo intended for settlements along the river was lost.

Over time, the river shifted, leaving the ship buried forty-five feet deep in what became a farmer's field. The Arabia was buried but not forgotten. Rumors that the ship held treasure (described as everything from gold coins to good Kentucky bourbon) meant there were numerous attempts to excavate it. For 150 years treaasure seekeers failed because the ship was about 100 feet from the river. Everyone who tried to dig was flooded out. In 1988, five families funded a professional excavation, using pumps to keep the site from flooding and the techniques developed during the Mary Rose excavation to preserve the finds.

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IMG_0608 Today, the artifacts from their excavation are only one part of the exhibit at the Arabia Steamboat museum. The museum also includes explanations of how steamboats worked, part of the Arabia's hull, and a fascinating description of the excavation itself If you're interested in daily life on the frontier, steamboats, or just a good adventure story,***** the Arabia Steamboat Museum is worth a visit.

* Not that I have anything against little museums created with love and imagination on a tight budgett. I've spend many happy hours in quirky storefront museums.
** And Union spy.
*** The Corps of Engineers identified 289 steamboat wrecks in the Missouri when they mapped the river in 1897.
**** One poor mule did not.
***** In my case, that would be yes, yes, and yes.

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A traveler's tip for anyone inclined to come on board the Arabia:

We didn't know until we got there, but the museum is located in a re-built warehouse near the river. City Market is home to a year-round farmer's market on the weekends and year-round food-related tenants. If you have foodie inclinations, leave yourself time to shop and eat.

And we have a history-buff winner!

Several weeks ago I asked you to tell me what kind of history buff you are--and as an incentive I offered a chance to win one of my favorite history books from recent months.

I was pleased (surprised!, stunned!) by the number of people who not only answered, but wrote long thoughtful replies. Here are some of the things I learned:

  • Everyone "knows" that the vast majority of history buffs are men. Certainly the audiences for the History Channel and popular history magazines are largely male.   Based on my admittedly somewhat smaller sample, I can now say "not so".  At least not as far as History in the Margins is concerned.
  • Not everyone had a horrible experience with history in school.  Some of you had teachers who inspired a love of history.  What a relief!
  • Most of you have more than one historical period or theme that fascinates you.
  • You were pretty much unanimous in giving history-based travel a thumbs-up, even if only in vicarious form.

Thanks for playing.

And now, drum roll please while the cat crawls into the shopping bag to pull out a winner.   (A hushed silence falls over the crowd.  The suspense is horrible.)  And we have a winner!  Stephanie, who likes 400-900 CE and the late 16th through the early 17th centuries.

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress