Americana: Rhode Island

Souvenirs
March 29, 2011 to April 23, 2011

As the smallest of the 50 states, Rhode Island's pioneering history is particularly outstanding. Not only was it the first of the 13 original North American colonies to declare independence from Great Britain in 1775 and an important player in the American Revolution, it was also the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. The British Empire was starting to loose control as their American colonies declared independence and skilled workers fled to start their own industries in new countries. Although this powerful empire had passed legislation to prohibit the export of their resources, industrialization started to filter to France, Germany, Belgium and the United States.

In 1789, eight years after the American War of Independence and only six after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, Samuel Slater arrived in New York with a scheme to start his own cotton-spinning factory. He soon moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where the energetic Blackstone River flows, making it the ideal environment for powering his mill. The Slater Mill (constructed in 1793) was the first successful cotton spinner and textile manufacturer in Rhode Island, with many following soon after and duplicating its mechanisms.

The small edifice that housed this important operation still stands today and is known as the Slater Mill Historic Site. Its long life has witnessed such paramount social developments as the abolition of child labor, the creation of labor unions, the urbanization of towns, and of course the mechanization that led to the mass production of objects. The metamorphic fate of a preserved building, such as this, has been one of production site to museological inertia, or its conversion to a temple of history. This evolution has been as follows—cotton spinning and textile production to dividing the space into smaller industries (shared production of coffin trimmings, bicycle parts, jewelry tools, cardboard, tea and coffee imports). Then, production stopped as preservation initiatives started, leading to its restoration. It then turned into a community center, exhibition hall, and now a self-referent history museum. However, it remains an active building, housing new exhibitions of related themes, an educational program and Ghost Tours, as it is only natural that a building with such a long history must register paranormal activity.

The exhibition Souvenirs explores, by ways of existing and invented memorabilia, the many stages of Slater Mill's internal and external transmutations. Souvenir comes from the French word souvien, which means to remember. But when applied to these small collectible objects, produced to be displayed in homes as personal collections, they become remembrances not so much of history but of the personal experience of being there. They become signifiers that mean "I was there", "Family vacation", "I am cultured and conscious of history", "This impressed me." They essentialize history through simple static illustration. Rhode Island's tourist website reads in its headline "Some things are just too big to fit into a collectible snow globe", and it is indeed right to say that no snow-globe can hold its history, nor can it illustrate its change. Still, as dispersed as it has become, the mass production of these objects is a consequence of the industrial revolution. They are part of collectible Americana.

Curated by Michele Fiedler

Special thanks to Joyce Neves of The Slater Mill Historic Museum.

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