As you walk through the galleries on the first floor of the Art of Americas Wing, you may find yourself in rooms full of furniture and paintings. If you explore a little further, you will enter a room that transports you to a different time. You are now in 1803 in Bath, Maine, in the parlor of the Shepard house. You will see many objects in this room: an instrument, a pair of glasses, a looking glass, a globe, and mahogany furniture: chairs, a secretary, and a desk—all from the same time period.
You may also notice something about the walls, something quite different than the other period rooms. Wallpaper encircles the entire room! If you look closely, you will see that there are actually two wallpapers. One is covered with pictures of gardens outside Paris, while the other is a fantasy landscape that looks like Rome. There are buildings, monuments, fountains, bridges, rocks, statues, animals, boats, people, trees, lakes, and rivers. Every time I look, I discover something I have never seen before, because the wallpaper is so amazingly detailed.
These rooms are calming to me, because for a few moments, you can travel back to a simpler time and just forget everything that is going on. I was able to study abroad last year in Madrid, Spain, and this wallpaper brings me back to the parks there and the way they felt endless, just as the gardens on the wall seem to go on forever. These rooms help me imagine what it might have been like to live then, the way a book creates a different world while you’re reading it.
Period rooms help us to see how far we have come and how far we have progressed or regressed. For example, this room has been preserved and displayed in the 21st century; it wouldn’t typically have had electricity or gas heating, and probably would have had different furniture. But due to innovations over time, the room now has all these things. If this were a real home from today, it might even have solar panels or smart cooking technology or robotic vacuums. Homes are always evolving just as we are evolving as a society.
I find this room and other period rooms relevant because they truly take you back to that time and show you a bit of what it could have been like to live then. The parlor was a place for people to gather and we still gather here today in order to preserve our past. With few examples of homes from this time preserved, I think it’s great that we have this one.
It is quite amazing to walk through the Art of the Americas Wing and see wonderful portraits and historical paintings. But the period rooms somehow show us more, because they tell us what it may have been like to live when the paintings were created. Keep in mind, though, that not everyone’s house would have a room like this. So even though a period room provides us context or insight how people lived, it only tells us how one group of people may have lived. It only tells us one story. It is important to remember that everyone has different life experiences, and not everyone defines home the same way.