April 17, 2009

After our last update, we were asked: what is “curatorial research” and how do Montpelier’s researchers go about figuring out whether an object belonged to the Madisons or not. Curatorial research can be very involved, but let’s start with “provenance” and continue from there over the next few posts.

So what exactly is provenance? You may have heard the term if you have visited a museum, watched “Antiques Roadshow” or “History Detectives”, or collect antiques. A good definition for “provenance” is, “a history of who owned an object”. As you can imagine, at Montpelier, we are very interested in objects that were previously owned by James and Dolley Madison; one way to describe these pieces is to say that they had “Madison provenance”.

Figuring out an object’s history often starts with finding out how the current owner acquired it. From there, many times we can work backwards from one owner to the next – and, if we are lucky, we may be able to trace the piece all the way back to James and Dolley Madison. For some objects, we are able to easily determine provenance because others have already documented it or a clear chain of ownership exists. For other pieces there are gaps in the chain of ownership. Our goal then becomes filling in the gaps. Read the rest of this entry »