There are many reasons to love the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The period rooms, scattered about the second and third floors, occupy the number-one spot on my list. Maybe it’s a deep historical voyeuristic streak, but the strange lumpy canopy bed in the dour early American Connecticut Room and the dark panels and molded ceiling of the late-Renaissance English Tudor Room evoke visceral responses. During the holidays, the museum adds period holiday decorations to the mix for a glimpse of Christmases (and Hanukkahs and Thanksgivings) past.
Walking through the rooms all made up for the holidays, I was struck by the continuity between past and present—the impulse to celebrate, to indulge, and to elevate. But sometimes it’s the differences that engage the imagination most. I’m thinking of the Thanksgiving spread in the Connecticut Room in particular. The room, which dates to the 1700s, features a table serving a typical holiday meal with mostly familiar offerings. Oh, except for the pigeon pie. It’s as if a pigeon took a nosedive into the dish, its feet still protruding from the top of the crust. Those pilgrims and their dark humor!
Things get decidedly brighter and livelier in the Bell Family Decorative Arts gallery just down the hall. The gallery, bordered on both sides by period rooms, brims with nativity scenes and Christmas trees, including the Kimmel Christmas Tree—a small holly tree decorated with sugar cookies with a nativity scene below. The tree recreates one of the earliest visual records of a Christmas tree in America. There’s a Swedish tree with candles, blue and yellow flags, straw ornaments, and Julbock, or Christmas goat. Nativity sets from Mexico, Germany, France, and Italy add dimension.
The Macfarlane Memorial room—the one with the dizzying Chinese landscape wallpaper—delivers a Victorian theme with holiday trappings from the late 1800s. Think porcelain dolls and elaborately illustrated Christmas cards. The Charleston Dining Room, just across the Bell gallery, offers a display of all manner of period sweets, even one resembling a hedgehog!
Down the hall in the Tudor room, a meal of a very different sort is laid out. A huge ceramic boar’s head, a brimming pile of crabs, and—the pièce de résistance—a fully feathered peacock, await the “lucky” celebrants. Period instruments reflect the popular holiday entertainment of the time.
Closer to home, literally, the Duluth Living Room, dating to the turn of the twentieth century, blends Asian, Art Nouveau, and Arts and Crafts influences with a distinct Northwoods aesthetic. The room features a Christmas tree with both candles and electric lights, reflecting the transition from Victorian to modern at the beginning of the last century, bringing everything full circle. It’s an idealized version of our own world . . . the idyllic Minnesota Christmas.
Holiday decorations and period room tours continue through January 13 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.