“The Charitable Donor”
The Fleming has begun to concern itself with the donors of objects in its collection: who were they? When and where did they travel to acquire the artifacts that will be in House to Home? What does “acquire” mean here? How do we address the biases and attitudes that some of these donors had towards the places and communities in which they secured many of the objects that the Fleming has in its collection? How do we talk about these people?
One of the most famous contributors to the collection was Henry LeGrand Cannon, a Burlington native whose family owned Lake Champlain Transportation in the 19th century. As a young man, he spent much of his time traveling to East India and Southeast Asia where he amassed over 600 objects, which he referred to as ‘East India exotica and bric-a-brac’. He housed them in in a special room in the family’s Burlington mansion until his death in 1895, at which point they were donated to the University of Vermont and studied by George Henry Perkins. Using Cannon’s collection, Perkins instituted one of the first university courses in anthropology taught in the United States.
While Legrand Cannon’s collection habits ultimately resulted in the development of anthropology at UVM, it is one of the jobs of anthropologists to recognize biases and limitations and we must talk about different sides of the story on the terms of those who owned these objects. Therefore, anthropologists and museum staff must turn around and critique collectors like LeGrand Cannon himself to gain a more complete and informed perspective. By talking about issues involving antiquarianism, museums can engage more completely with the artifacts and promote inclusionary discussions around their exhibits.
So, when you come see House to Home and you walk around the exhibition looking at the different objects, try to think more critically about them and see what questions arise. And when you see a photograph of Henry LeGrand Cannon surrounded by his ‘bric-a-brac’, remember that there is another side of that story that needs to be told.