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Uncovering the History of Sleep at the Concord Museum

Guest blog post by the Concord Museum. Behind Closed Doors: Asleep in New England and Good Night, Sleep Tight: Art from Children’s Literature opens on Friday, October 10, 2014 and will be up through March 23, 2015 at the Concord Museum. 

Quilt. Charlestown, Massachusetts, 1837-38, cotton, muslin. Photograph by David Bohl

Quilt. Charlestown, Massachusetts, 1837-38, cotton, muslin.
Photograph by David Bohl

Sleep is universal. We need it to survive, and people spend approximately one third of their lives in bed. Yet nobody, generally, talks about sleep. The Concord Museum aims to begin this conversation with two upcoming exhibitions that showcase material culture related to sleep. What goes on behind the closed doors of the bedroom raises interesting questions of privacy, comfort, intimacy, and fashion that can be examined through objects as varied as bedsteads and coverlets, nightclothes and cradles, tin tubs and mahogany high chests.

Behind Closed Doors: Asleep in New England will uncover the complex role sleep has played in everyday life throughout American history.  Drawing upon the expertise of Consulting Curators Jane and Richard Nylander, the exhibit investigates the multiple purposes of the bedroom and uses objects such as dressing tables, necessary chairs, washstands, high chests, coffins, cradles, and adult cradles to illustrate the historical context of sleep. These objects come from the Concord Museum’s exceptional collection, as well as the collections of Historic New England and Old Sturbridge Village, among others, and help visitors visualize the rich material and cultural context of sleep. This theme will be carried beyond the gallery and throughout the Concord Museum’s period rooms where visitors can get a sense of how the objects were employed.

Cradle, Barnstable or Yarmouth, Massachusetts, 1665-85, red oak, white pine. Photograph by Peter Hardholdt, Courtesy of Historic New England

Cradle, Barnstable or Yarmouth, Massachusetts, 1665-85, red oak, white pine.
Photograph by Peter Hardholdt, Courtesy of Historic New England

While it may not be a prevalent discussion among adults, sleep is a common theme between parents and children. The second exhibition, Good Night, Sleep Tight: Art from Children’s Literature, features over twenty original illustrations from classic and contemporary children’s books woven around the themes of bedtime, dreams, and lullabies. The work of Tomie dePaola, Salley Mavor, Melissa Sweet, Ilse Plume, Pamela Zagarenski, Beth Krommes, and Peter Reynolds, among others, will be exhibited. Also included in the exhibition is a Frank Thayer Merrill illustration from the Roberts Brothers 1880 edition of Little Women.

While we may not often think about the cultural importance of sleep, these exhibitions give visitors the chance to reflect upon their own customs and learn about American history in a highly unique way.

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