When Alexandra Kirtley talks about tables, there’s something infectious about her passion—which is exactly how she likes it. “I’m trying really hard to elevate [decorative arts] in people’s eyes,” says Kirtley, the Montgomery-Garvan Curator of American Decorative Arts at Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Looking at a piece of furniture as a piece of sculpture is really important.”
Kirtley’s childhood trips to museums, antique stores and galleries fostered her interest in art history. She earned a master’s in early American culture from the University of Delaware and landed her current curatorial role. Kirtley noticed right away that the collection lacked a catalog.
“[Writing one] was something I wanted to do my entire career,” she explains.
She spent nearly two decades getting to know the museum’s extensive collection (1,000-plus decorative art pieces) before embarking on a massive cataloguing project. After six years of research, conservation and raising grant funding, Kirtley finally held in her hands a gorgeous, coffee table-friendly copy of American Furniture 1650–1840: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Thanks to the internet, she was free to focus on the collection’s high points. (Information about each piece lives in an online database.) The final catalog remains a breathtaking achievement, a 4-pound doorstopper featuring photos and descriptions of the museum’s 297 most compelling decorative art objects.
Choosing which clocks, chests and chairs would star in the book proved tough, Kirtley recalls. “So, you’re looking at a piece of furniture that’s sort of average, and then you start researching it,” she explains. “You start [seeing] how extraordinary or different it really is. Or maybe you find the exact design source for it. All of a sudden, B-plus furniture becomes an A-plus.”
Once she’d selected the final entries, Kirtley set about organizing the book. Departing from the typical practice of arranging by form, she instead sorted pieces by geographical area and artisan, drawing connections between sets commissioned by one family or crafted by a single maker.
Kirtley found that gaps in an object’s history could typically be filled by paying attention to decorative art’s hidden players: women and people of color. Daughters often inherited furniture from their parents, making them key figures in ownership chains. In other cases, women commissioned pieces from artisans. And while white craftsmen get the glory, “the role of Black people, whether they were either enslaved or free, is often invisible,” Kirtley says. “It’s the same thing for women. You often find women as upholsterers or paint decorators, a variety of different supporting roles in the making of furniture.”
Kirtley considers herself to be a steward, preserving American legacies and celebrating the beauty of the museum’s collection.
“I care for that collection,” she says. “You throw your whole self into it.”