by guest columnist Amanda Breen
Students in this year’s Exhibition Planning class were given a challenge: choose an image that inspires you from the photographs in Historic New England’s exhibition, “The Camera’s Coast,” and use it as a jumping-off point for a full-blown exhibition plan. Snapshots: 15 Takes on an Exhibition is to take place at the Tufts University Koppleman Gallery May 6-18, 2014. Opening reception Tuesday, May 6, 2014, 5:30-8pm. See the Facebook page here.
My experience sailing on the Piscataqua, a traditional reproduction of the flat-bottom gundalow barges that were once prevalent along the local waterways of the Piscataqua River Region, sparked my interest in the photograph Fanny M., which was the last gundalow to operate commercially in the area. The gundalow, not especially handsome, was a practical working vessel perfectly adapted to the environment. One or two farmers could construct the utilitarian design of the gundalow over the course of the winter season. Uncaulked and unpainted, the vessels were given little care, yet the communities were entirely dependent on these vessels to transport necessary goods throughout the Piscataqua River region up until the twentieth century.
While conducting research for my exhibition, Barge into History: The Adaptation and Evolution of the Gundalow, I came across a particularly interesting quote that illustrates that although the gundalow was not aesthetically pleasing, the design was unequalled:
“this crude apology for a vessel costs, when complete, about $1500, and we have no hesitation in stating that for river service such as is rendered by these vessels, the same amount of money cannot be invested in another type of vessel which can carry an equal amount of cargo in equal time on the same light draught of water, and pass the bridge obstructions which may be encountered without necessitating the opening of draws.”
I have seen the Piscataqua on a daily basis and my research revealed how little I had known about the significance of the vessel. As a result, over the course of the semester, the Exhibition Planning course, has drastically altered the way I view the world around me. The course made me realize that everyday objects are a valuable source of historical evidence. Material culture can provide a wealth of information about the people who created and used these objects. When interpreted, objects, such as the photograph of the Fanny M., can tell a number of stories and I hope that you will come to our exhibition and discover these stories for yourself.