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History in motion

'Becoming a Nation' takes early Americana on the road

Cynics can relax.

The Portland Art Museum's latest exhibit, 'Becoming a Nation,' isn't a jingoistic display cashing in on the wave of patriotism that often accompanies a conflict overseas.

The exhibit, with its look at the roots of American culture, was planned three years ago, says Gail Serfaty, curator of the diplomatic reception rooms in the U.S. State Department's main building.

'This is nothing you decide one month ahead,' she says from her office in Washington, D.C.

'We did it for two reasons,' she says. 'One was that our collection has reached the stage where we could travel without leaving blank spaces behind. The second is that it's a way of sharing the collection with people in the U.S. who aren't able to come to Washington.'

The eight diplomatic reception rooms are considered some of the most beautiful in the world for official entertaining. They are used for events for the secretary of state and vice president and are fitted out in the style of various periods between 1750 and 1825. Many of the items in the rooms were gifts from private collections.

More than 140 items of early Americana from the rooms will be on display through June 8 in Portland, the first stop in an eight-city tour. The artifacts include furniture, paintings and silver, and they won't be missed back in D.C. Ñ the collection has 5,000 items to choose from.

The show also has some interesting parallel commentary on what is going on in the world today, says Margaret Bullock, who is coordinating the show for the Portland Art Museum.

'A lot of the exhibition comments on how closely we were allied with the French, how we loved French taste and culture,' she says. 'And, even though we were revolting against the British, we were still importing everything from them and making our objects look like theirs.'

Explanations point out nuggets of interesting information, such as John Quincy Adams' scribbles on his writing desk, or a Chinese bowl showing warehouses in Canton in the mid-1800s that can be dated precisely by the flags on the buildings.

A picture of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart ought to look familiar. Producing that popular painting was Stuart's day job from 1793 to about 1805.

'He must have painted about 75 of them,' Bullock says.

There's an early map of Virginia drawn by John Smith (yup, the Pocahontas guy). Smith includes the obligatory unseaworthy galleon and imaginary sea monster. Inland, he runs out of information past a certain point, 'so he used Maltese crosses to indicate that beyond here, he's relying on information from the Native Americans, which may be correct, or may be not,' Bullock says.

Another map from about 1715 was based on what the cartographer thought the British ought to own, so it's hugely inclusive and the claims are surrounded by drawings of busy factories with happy workers.

An oil painting of William Penn signing a treaty with the Indians somehow passed into (inaccurate) history, Bullock notes.

'Penn is supposed to have been one of the few founders with a conscience,' she says. 'The crown granted him all these lands, and he compensated the Native Americans. Well, it's a myth, but people picked up the story as if it's true.'

Another piece in the show is a rabble-rousing print of the Bloody Massacre of 1770, when a crowd stoned British soldiers in Boston, and the Brits shot seven of them.

'It's interesting that the British soldiers were defended by John Adams, who got them off because they were provoked,' Bullock says.

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