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The Olympic Spirit

HOW do you interest a diverse audience, community, and volunteer corps in an exhibition entitled Classical Taste in America, 1800-1840? The Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, N.C., successfully drew upon the theme and spirit of the Olympic Games. Following the archaeological excavation of the ancient Olympic stadium in 1878, Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin renewed the Olympic Games of the Greeks. Earlier in the nineteenth century, a similar classical obsession transformed tastes and styles in Europe and America. As the Olympic flame is the classical symbol of peace and friendship among all nations, classical tastes became an international symbol of beauty and, for America, a national expression of patriotism.

Early on, leaders in the United States of America recognized a need for new symbols to unite the many disparate parts of the country under its new republican government. Led by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, this new nation embraced the models of ancient Greece and Rome in laying the foundations of a new society and culture. The major exhibition. Classical Taste in America, 1800-1840, presents furniture, sculpture, silver, ceramics, and costumes — the arts and designs that came to symbolize our new nation.

The Mint Museum of Art faced a formidable challenge. How to interest the greater Charlotte community in an historic exhibition of decorative arts, including gilded furniture, ornate silver, and aristocratic portraits created to display the refinement, culture, and affluence of an elite society?

In spite of the fact that, in 1791, George Washington had called Charlotte “a trifling place,” and by 1 800 the city had a population of only 300 people, Charlotte was an appropriate host for this exhibition. The Mint Museum of Art was originally constructed as the Charlotte Mint, designed in 1837 by William Strickland in the classical style. After surveying objects created for people of privilege and affluence, the historic exhibition turned to the popular dissemination of classical taste throughout the South, and in particular North Carolina, as well as to the minting of coinage in Charlotte.

Beyond curators, historians, collectors, and specialists, what interest did Classical Taste in America, 1800- 1840 hold for the general public? Lots! And the exhibition proved to be an unmitigated Blockbuster for school groups. All Charlotte-Mecklenburg eighth graders came to view the exhibition. As a mandatory field trip for Social Studies, the eighth-grade tours represented the most democratic and diverse group of Mint visitors.

The exhibition opened with a timeline of American and European history from 1800 to 1840 and presented students with a grand tour, from Europe to the building in which they were standing — Charlotte’s Mint. The Education Department decided to tour focusing on the historic hits in the exhibition, such as Thomas Jefferson’s portrait, Napoleon’s chair, and the Speaker’s Chair at the North Carolina State Congress.

Preschool groups and young elementary students also caught the classical spirit, but were toured quite differently. The children’s tour, nicknamed “The Paw and Claw” by the docents, focused on classical motifs, such as paw feet, dolphins, swans, and griffins. The docents captivated children with stories from classical mythology, and they provided a basket of touchables — from marble to tassles — allowing children a multi-sensory experience. In the classroom, children designed their own Grecian vase, decorated a nineteenth-century interior and built a city with domes, columns, and pediments. This “hands-on” approach inspired creativity to compete with antiquity.

The exhibition was also extremely popular with Senior citizen groups. A tea set would evoke memories of long past visits to Granny’s house. Like enjoying an old quilt. Senior citizens appreciated this American sampler of the decorative arts.

To accommodate the crowds anticipated for this Blockbuster exhibition, the museum needed to double its docent corps from 100 to 200 volunteers (plus an additional 300 volunteers for greeters, coat check, and membership). A successful effort was made to recruit new docents that reflected the diversity of the Charlotte community.

Once recruited, however, the new docents needed a training program to bring them up to speed. New docents joined the existing docent corps for four weeks of training on the special exhibition.

Classical Taste, as the training program was called, focused on four questions: “What is classicism in the decorative arts?” “How did classical taste influence American lifestyles in the early nineteenth century?” “What is the story of our nation, the state of North Carolina, and the city of Charlotte from 1800 to 1840?” and “How will this exhibition educate and interest school children?” Consistent with the Olympic spirit, every volunteer took pride in the story of our new nation and state, and gained an enhanced appreciation for its symbols of beauty and patriotism.

Susan S. Perry is the Docent & Tour Coordinator at The Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. Ms. Perry received a M.F.A. degree in Drawing and Painting from California State University, Long Beach, and a M.A. in English from UNC Charlotte. Over the past ten years, she has taught courses in art history, drawing, and painting at various colleges. As a professional artist, she exhibits her handmade paper sculptures.

Perry, Susan S. “The Olympic Spirit,” Docent Educator 3.4 (Summer 1994): 17.

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