The material world: Artifacts from the early South and the culture behind them

By Victoria Hecht

A piece of America’s cultural patchwork is sewed up in a new exhibit at The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

“A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South” features more than 400 objects crafted in or imported to the Backcountry, Carolina Low Country and Chesapeake regions of the United States between the late 1600s and 1840s, before manufacturing and mass-produced goods gained a foothold. Though many of the representations are beautiful in form and function, curators looked beyond aesthetics when making selections for “Material World,” focusing instead on the cultures that produced these objects, said Ron Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s chief curator and vice president for collections, conservation and museums.

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From furniture to artwork, architectural elements to scientific instruments, clothing to ceramics, the objects reveal a young South that was as richly diverse as the people who created them: English, Scotch-Irish, German, Swiss, French, Welsh, Scottish, African and Native American, among others.

Together, their influences spanned western Maryland, West Virginia, the western Carolinas, western Virginia, the Georgia Piedmont, Tennessee and Kentucky (the Backcountry); southeastern North Carolina and the coastal South Carolina and Georgia areas (the Carolina Low Country); and northeastern North Carolina and the eastern portions of Virginia and Maryland (the Chesapeake).

The creation of ‘Material World’

Helping to create “Material World” and watching its installation offered co-curator Margaret Pritchard a unique opportunity to absorb multiple cultures’ contributions to Southern style, all side by side in one exhibition, she said.
Visitors, too, will learn from the many perspectives gathered in a single setting.

“It’s been heartwarming to see the extent to which people held onto their traditions in ways that characterize the arts of individual regions,” said Pritchard, the museums’ senior curator and curator of prints, maps and wallpaper. “Those individual ethnic decorative traditions are something that our society has lost.”

A chest of drawers made in Mason County, Ky., is among the pieces with exceptional cultural merit, Hurst said. While its case exhibits the detailing and shaping commonly seen in furniture of the Chesapeake region, its narrow, short cabriole are French in style – a design element that “arrived in northern Kentucky from French New Orleans via the trade routes along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.”

This melding, Hurst said, is a “remarkable instance of cultural transfer.” The piece is on loan from the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Spirit of cooperation

Culminating several years of planning, “Material World” is a collaboration defined by an uncommon spirit of cooperation, with 25 institutions and private collectors sharing objects for the exhibit’s five-year duration.

“Getting somebody to be willing to part with treasured possessions for this long tells us how invested they are in the entire project,” Hurst said.

One piece with roots close to home is among the curator’s show favorites: a portrait of teenage Frances Parke Custis, the daughter of Williamsburg’s John Custis IV, painted about 1722 by an artist commonly called the “Broadnax Limner” but whose name is unknown. (The “limner” painted myriad likenesses of the Williamsburg/Jamestown area’s Broadnax family.)

The painting, on loan from Washington & Lee University, is “by far, the best-preserved example of his work,” Hurst said.

 Victoria Hecht is a Norfolk-based freelance writer.


Event information:

What: “A Rich and Varied Culture: The Material World of the Early South”

Made possible through: Support by Carolyn and Michael McNamara.

When: Opens Feb. 14 for a five-year showing

Where: The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg (DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum), 326 W. Francis St., Williamsburg

Admission: Single-day tickets are $12.95 for adults, $6.50 for ages 6 to 12 and free to those under 6.

More information: 888-965-7254 or



  1. John says

    I so wish more were online about objects in “A Rich and Varied Culture.” Will you add more info. soon? I’m trying to decide about coming from Charlottesville to see this exhibition.

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