A perfect gift for Historic Deerfield: Museum receives impressive collection of work by 19th century New England renaissance man Rufus Porter

One of the items included in the Lindberg's donation is this 1838 plaster mural that was mounted on a wall in the former Dr. Francis Howe House in Westwood, which was demolished in 1966.

One of the items included in the Lindberg's donation is this 1838 plaster mural that was mounted on a wall in the former Dr. Francis Howe House in Westwood, which was demolished in 1966. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/HISTORIC DEERFIELD—

One of the items included in the Lindberg's donation is this 1838 plaster mural that was mounted on a wall in the former Dr. Francis Howe House in Westwood, which was demolished in 1966.

One of the items included in the Lindberg's donation is this 1838 plaster mural that was mounted on a wall in the former Dr. Francis Howe House in Westwood, which was demolished in 1966. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/HISTORIC DEERFIELD—

Miniature portraits were another specialty of Rufus Porter's and the collection of items donated to Historic Deerfield contains nearly 30 of them.

Miniature portraits were another specialty of Rufus Porter's and the collection of items donated to Historic Deerfield contains nearly 30 of them. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/HISTORIC DEERFIELD—Historic Deerfield

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 02-02-2024 12:06 PM

With the “unusual” donation of a collection of a 19th century artwork, publications and inventions, Historic Deerfield is looking to highlight the life of 19th century New England renaissance man Rufus Porter.

Porter, an inventor, author and the original publisher of Scientific American, traveled around New England as a prolific muralist — examples of which are included in the donation — and artist spreading his work around the region.

The collection is being donated by Julie and Carl Lindberg, who have been collecting Porter’s artifacts for decade and intend for Historic Deerfield to be “a center for information on Porter’s life.”

“This is a very unusual donation in that the donor had spent many decades putting together her own collection of the work of Rufus Porter in a very exhaustive way,” said Historic Deerfield President and CEO John Davis. “It’s really a perfect kind of gift for a place like Historic Deerfield because we are both an art museum and a history museum.”

Among the items in the collection are nearly 30 miniature portraits from throughout his life, several editions of his published works, a desk adorned with a grain painting, versions of his patented plumb and level indicator and 15 lath and plaster murals signed by Porter from the Doctor Francis Howe House in Westwood, which was demolished in 1966.

In a press release Julie Lindberg thanked the museum and its administration for becoming the stewards of their collection.

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“We’ve owned this incredible set of murals for 20 years, and learned so much about the life of Rufus Porter from them. Originally purchased for resale, we soon realized they were too important to be separated and sold, and thus decided to find a permanent home in a museum setting to preserve them,” she said. “We are delighted that Historic Deerfield will become the final home to these murals and will make them available to the public in their original conformation as one of America’s greatest art treasures.”

While this donation would be welcomed at any time for the museum, Davis said some of the artwork arriving will be set up on display in the guest room in the Barnard Tavern, which opened in 2023 after several years of renovations.

The display, Davis said, will convey to folks what the life of a itinerant artist, such as Porter, was like and this donation came at an opportune time.

“It’s a lovely tie-in … it’s one of those times where the puzzle fit together,” he said, adding people can “get the sense” of a traveling artist’s life.

A look at how museums accept donations

With the items recently arriving at the museum, Davis said staff will be poring over the collection to determine what they should include in a “New Acquisitions” exhibit in the fall.

When it comes to such a wide range of items, Davis said it is each museum’s responsibility to determine if it properly highlights the collection, while ensuring it stays within the organization’s focus. In this case, the large murals in the collection posed a hurdle for Historic Deerfield, as staff had to think about where and how they would display them.

Historical accuracy is another major aspect facing museums accepting donations. Davis said the Lindberg’s donation, though, comes with “extensive provenance history,” which is always an added benefit.

The other challenge facing large donations is the sheer amount of physical space needed to display objects and artifacts. Davis said Historic Deerfield has approximately 32,000 items in its collection and about 40% of it is on exhibition at all times for visitors — he added the average percentage for American art museums is about 3% to 5%.

“When a donor approaches a museum with a gift like this, you have to ensure the institution is able to do it justice … this was not a gift we could say yes to the day the offer came to us, we really had to think about it,” Davis said. “That’s true of any museum, you don’t want to accept gifts from outside your collecting interest … Historic Deerfield would not likely accept a whole suite of furniture that was made in California.”

For more information about Historic Deerfield, visit its website at historic-deerfield.org

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.