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Unlike many historic house museums, the public display of Ashland’s collection got its start in the domestic realm of the founder’s—Henry Clay’s—home some 150 years before. The coexistence of home and museum actually has a long history at Ashland; exhibiting and interpreting artifacts for the public has been occurring for almost two centuries. Clay interpreted America’s history at home while his descendants at Ashland interpreted his life.
With the departure of the family and the entrance of museum professionals in the 20th century, the interpretation of Ashland shifted. As Clay and his family worked to assimilate a museum display function into the context of their private home, the institutional museum had to decide how best to create a historically accurate museum interpretation within a domestic environment.
Ashland, an official public museum since 1950, experienced some challenges regarding its artifact collection that Clay’s family had never known. Without family occupants naturally lending legitimacy, the onus of establishing authenticity belonged to the museum. The desire to make the museum appear to be a ‘real’ family home was paramount, but it was coupled with the drive to secure authentic Henry Clay artifacts.
As Clay’s reputation began to fade in the national memory, it was Ashland’s mission to make him known. But it would face the fundamental contradiction of the house museum: the more Clay artifacts to display, the more the house looked like a museum and the less it looked like a ‘real’ home. The more it was made to look like a ‘real’ home, the less of Henry Clay’s life could be shown.
Yet Henry Clay was Ashland’s star attraction. The museum’s compromise solution was to give a general impression that Ashland was indeed the real Henry Clay family home filled with Clay memorabilia. The presence of the great array of items belonging to his descendants and unrelated to him—especially the rebuilt house—had to be downplayed or simply ignored.
Donations of items with dubious or confused provenance were sometimes accepted by the museum, and any possible link to Clay was claimed. Lorraine Seay in published interviews increasingly exaggerated the provenance of Ashland’s artifacts, as she knew that possessing Clay items added to Ashland’s appeal: “Ashland’s charm,” she told Southern Living in April 1967, “is partly derived from the large number of furnishings which were actually used by Henry Clay and his family in the first half of the nineteenth century…”
By 1973, she asserted that “everything” on display at Ashland belonged to the Clay family, and much of it to Henry Clay. In 1974 she went so far as to claim that Ashland’s collection was fairly complete: “The house was so completely furnished with family items when we opened it to the public that there are not that many family possessions which are not already here.” (Lexington Herald, 15 May 1974.)
While it is true that the initial Ashland collection was relatively substantial and the house appeared adequately furnished from the start, Mrs. Seay had no inkling of the great number of significant Henry Clay artifacts that would come to Ashland in the decades ahead.
Mrs. Seay was the creator and shaper of the Ashland interpretation from the 1950s through the 1980s. Without the professional tools or training that would arrive after her time, she endeavored to craft a suitably Clay-centered and crowd-pleasing narrative from history books, family accounts, and local recollections. This approach resulted in some erroneous interpretations, such as her exaggeration of the authenticity of Ashland’s appearance in 1975: “The reason Ashland’s twenty rooms are today so little changed from Henry Clay’s Ashland is that all the Clay generations succeeding him fortunately had the habit of storing currently unused furnishings in the attic.” (Lexington Herald-Leader, 19 April 1975.) She clearly wanted to give the impression that the Henry Clay collection had always been located at Ashland, though, in fact, much of the collection had been long dispersed …and, in fact, had never been stored in Ashland’s attic.
But Mrs. Seay admittedly faced a difficult interpretive task. Not only were there five generations’ objects to manage, but the original house was gone. Ashland nonetheless had to single-mindedly promote Henry Clay and attract visitors in order to remain a viable institution. While Clay’s family had lived comfortably with many of these same objects that represented their own and prior generations, the need to teach visitors about Henry Clay had been nearly non-existent for them: nineteenth-century Americans did not need to be told who he was and what he had done; significant artifacts required no explanation. But the mid-twentieth-century interpretation needed to explain Henry Clay to ever greater numbers of visitors who were ignorant of him and his historic role. Seay and her colleagues had to explain Clay in a complex and potentially confusing environment.
Mrs. Seay and the Foundation worked to interpret Henry Clay at Ashland, yet the desire to communicate the charm of the domestic—‘real’ home—environment was strong. Mrs. Seay accomplished this by highlighting particularly attractive furnishings such as draperies, wall-coverings, china, and silver, insinuating that these very contents once comprised Henry Clay’s abode. Personal items like beds, washstands, chamber pots, and grooming items were now out in public view and delighted visitors, as did the Ashland kitchen, which was presented as a crowd-pleasing Colonial kitchen.
Considering the appeal and popularity of accurately-furnished period rooms, it is not surprising that interpretive tension ensued when the museum needed to incorporate non-domestic Henry Clay artifacts. Ashland possessed a growing collection of Clay objects, many important illustrative items that would not normally have been on display in a home. The need to provide accurate historic interpretation—of Henry Clay most of all—was weighed against the presentation of an idealized domestic vision. As much as Ashland wanted to be the charming, old-fashioned home, Henry Clay artifacts took precedence. Telling the Henry Clay story through these items, however unrealistic their display in a room, was one of Ashland’s early interpretive approaches.
The conflict between the appearance of a home and the educational obligation of the museum was seen in such things as the display of a large Henry Clay campaign banner in the drawing room—a very out-of-context display. Also, a glass display case in the Henry Clay bedroom featured Clay’s Ghent jacket and a ruby red dress, thought to have belonged to Lucretia Clay. These fragile items were adequately protected and on display to enlighten visitors, but consequently the rooms no longer looked like ‘real’ rooms in a family home.
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