The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Ave, New York, NY 10028
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, 5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur, DE 19735
Bluff Head Cemetery Guilford, New Haven County, Connecticut, USA
Joseph Downs (1895 – September 8, 1954) was curator of the Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum. He was a member of the Horace Walpole Society, elected in 1935. He was formerly curator of the Philadelphia Art Museum and of the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
"The China Trade and Its Influences" of 1941 was conceived by Joseph Downs, who was then curator of the American Wing at the MET; he had arrived at the Museum in 1932 as assistant curator. In his previous scholarly work, Downs was primarily concerned with eighteenth-century American furniture, so this exhibition might have seemed quite a leap for him. However, his years of study of Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture, both of which were influenced by Chinese precursors, undoubtedly gave rise to an interest in the transmission of Asian design to Europe and America.
The "House of the Miller at Millbach" featured the first folk-art period rooms installed in an American museum, Downs stated. Its purpose, Downs proclaimed, was to create "a perfect picture of these domestic arts which are an important contribution to American life." Instead of being belittled as the work of backwoods folk, preindustrial crafts of the Pennsylvania Germans were hailed as showing "versatility of artistic expression," which the museum presented as the proud inheritance of the whole country.
In America there was a growing body of men and women at work with a purpose. This was the determination to interest Americans in the early life of America. And it was a successful movement in many fields, particularly in the kind of intimate local or regional history that told how people worked and played, what they wore and ate, what tools they used, how they furnished their homes. This was not so much history as a recreation of life as it was lived in town and country, on the water or the Western plains. In this dedicated and devoted kind of work, museums and museum curators played a large and increasingly important part. In Delaware Joseph Downs was the curator of the great museum of early Americana, the Henry F. duPont Winterthur Museum. His death at 59 in the full course of his career was an American as well as a Delaware tragedy. For here was a man whose scholarship, added to his vast knowledge of America's early craftsmanship in the domestic arts, ranked him at the top of his profession. In his native Massachusetts Downs' talents flourished. New England, older-settled than many parts of the country, awakened earlier to what we was later recognized as the American heritage. Joseph Downs specialized in American antique furniture and the decorative arts of the period up to 1840 or thereabout. Curator in turn of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Winterthur Museum, he made a secure place for himself in the world of history and of art. But more important to more people was the lasting effect his work had on America in its maturing appreciation of the taste and craftsman ship of its earlier days.
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