From bootleg beer to letter sweaters, show captures Somerville’s evolution
SOMERVILLE — Wedding gowns, a sign that says “Used Radiators — Tested and Guaranteed,” and a whiskey bottle from Virgie’s Rendezvous Restaurant on Highland Avenue, which closed years ago. This is the stuff of Somerville. Museum professionals would call it the city’s material culture.
“Our Stories, Our Stuff, Our Somerville,” on view at the Somerville Museum through March 31, is an intimate and idiosyncratic vision of a city on the cusp of change, mounted as construction gears up for the MBTA’s Green Line extension.
Bess Paupeck, an independent curator, wanted to freeze the moment, so she applied to the museum’s community curator program.
“What can I do to capture, preserve, hold some of the stuff I love about this city?” she asks.
Last spring, Paupeck put out a call for personal treasures through churches, community organizations, and neighborhood listservs. In February, Somervillians (or as locals say, “Villens”) showed up with about 600 items, and the curator cataloged and arrayed scores of them for exhibition. It’s less a time capsule, which would preserve a single moment, than a core sample, with tangible traces of Somerville’s evolution since the late 19th century.
In conjunction with the show, the museum will stage “The Unofficial Somerville Antiques Road Show” (www.somervillemuseum.org) on March 9, and more.
Looking around the installation, Paupeck, a material culture maven, decries what she calls “the decluttering industry” and points to Marie Kondo as its avatar. Kondo wrote “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and hosts a popular Netflix series.
“Is it a coincidence that we’re doing this while the Marie Kondo show is so big?” she asks. “If someone wants to give me everything they’ve Marie Kondo’d, I’ll take it.”
Paupeck, a “Villen” since 2002, is a multi-hyphenate: curator, arts producer, community engagement facilitator, and performance artist. She has developed programming at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.
“Making museum programs, I always hoped people who walked the halls of the MFA, like the ancient-world galleries, would think of how they’re rooted in the objects and stories there. I’m not always sure they’re putting themselves in that narrative,” she says.
The MFA, of course, has canonical guardrails for organizing objects and information. In this case, Paupeck faced something of a free-for-all.
“The act of putting people’s things next to other people’s things became an incredibly fun process,” she says.
She assigned each item a number, and asked contributors to write about their cherished items on large tags. Then she strung the tags on a big keychain, and put it on a pedestal at the exhibit’s entrance.
“This is us,” she says, picking up the bulky ring of tags. “The layers of voices, the uniqueness of handwriting.”
Several items come from Edmund Dente’s storehouse: his Somerville High School letter sweater from 1967, his daughter’s Somerville jacket from 1987, editions of the Somerville High School magazine “The Radiator,” and a bottling machine and bottle caps.
Dente’s grandmother, who immigrated to Somerville from southern Italy shortly after 1900, made beer in her basement for nearly 70 years.
“She could never read or write. She grew up on a farm. She had skills and abilities beyond my comprehension,” Dente says over the phone from a vacation in California. “She’d go to the supermarket and get cans of Blue Ribbon malt syrup, and cook it up with water and throw in a cake of Fleischmann’s Yeast.”
She made it throughout Prohibition. “It was technically illegal to brew it, but no one cared, and she would never sell it,” Dente says. “The beer was on the heavy side, but it served its purpose.”
Carolyn Grace, who spent her early childhood in Somerville in the 1930s and 1940s, offered two wedding dresses. Grace’s mother married in 1935 wearing an ivory silk dress with lace shoulders. Her grandmother, who married in 1893, wore a wasp-waisted brown frock. Only the top is here.
“My grandmother used the skirt to make clothes for the children,” Grace says over the phone from her home in Reading. She has a trove of family wedding memorabilia, including the original florist bill from her parents’ nuptials. “There were great big bouquets, and it cost $20 or $25,” she said.
Paupeck’s call tickled the fancy of several ardent collectors, including one who’s gathered elephant figurines. Ruth Faris keeps the figurines in the front yard of the home she bought in 1983. “Some people call it chaotic, but I don’t think it is,” Faris says. “To me, it’s like a big dollhouse. Kids just love it, and I have a little free library out front.”
She’s thrilled with the exhibition. “I’ve never had so much fun in a museum before,” Faris says. “Opening night, I was looking for things, and people and their things. I learned a lot about people. People I knew — ‘You sewed that in seventh grade?’ It was amazing.”
Everyone who loaned to the exhibition is a collector of memories or motifs, and Paupeck has a soft spot for collectors.
“The impulse to collect is very human. It’s meaningful stuff. It has the push and pull of nostalgia,” she says.
For Paupeck, bringing it together at the Somerville Museum is more than an exhibition. “It’s a love letter to my city,” she says.
OUR STORIES, OUR STUFF, OUR SOMERVILLE
At Somerville Museum, 1 Westwood Road, Somerville, through March 31. 617-666-9810, www.somervillemuseum.org