Sotterley is often asked, “Are your collections original?” Visitors, knowing that the site dates back to just before the 18th century, usually are really asking, “Do your collections date back to the 18th century?” Also, when people talk about collections, they usually mean the furniture, paintings, dishes and the like.
Collections are part of what the museum preserves because it was the Material Culture of the inhabitants. Merriam-Webster’s definition of material culture is the totality of physical objects made by a people for the satisfaction of their needs; especially: those articles requisite for the sustenance and perpetuation of life.
Sotterley’s historical dates of significance or what we interpret is roughly about 1699-1960.
Types of materials to be collected or preserved are:
1. Household and personal artifact items, furniture, textiles and art.
2. Archaeological objects and sites to include gravesites.
3. Building fabric and structural items, whole buildings or sections of certain buildings, historically reconstructed buildings.
4. Archival/Library Items
5. Landscape Features such as the Colonial Revival Garden, Rolling
6.Historic Farm equipment and tools for use or to exhibit.
Ok, don’t start cleaning out your garage sale stuff and bringing it over.
Sotterley preserves the material culture that is connected to the people that lived here in some way. At the very least it needs to tell the story of the lives of people in that time and place. Each museum makes these decisions on what is preserved based on this and the space and resources to preserve these items appropriately. For those indigenous, enslaved, servants, and farm workers during the period of significance, you can see their material culture in the tools they used, artifacts, and the structures that they lived in that still exist. Oral history, tradition and research, help fill in the gaps to tell their stories.
When people move out of a house they take their belongings with them. When the last family member dies, usually, the family shares what is left from their loved one. Sotterley is fortunate that it was continually owned over the years. That is one of the reasons it still exists, although, there were different owners over hundreds of years, so the house contents have changed.
Sotterley’s collections you see today in the manor house mostly come from Sotterley’s last two private owners, Herbert and Louisa Satterlee, 1910-1947 and the last private owner, Mabel Satterlee Ingalls, 1947-1993. Mabel Ingalls opened the house to the public in the early 1960’s but continued to own the property until her death in 1993. So when Mrs. Ingalls died, her family collected what belonged to them, and what was left on the site, became our museum collections, as the whole of Sotterley was turned over to what was Sotterley Foundation then. It is Historic Sotterley, Inc. today.
Most of these items date from the mid-1800’s to the mid 1900’s. A few of their pieces date earlier than that. Sotterley does have some 18th and 19th century pieces that have been donated back to the museum by descendants of 18th and 19th century owners. The manor house itself, a part of collection, dates from about 1703 and has been changed over the years to suit the owners at the time.
So the answer is, yes, Sotterley’s collections are original, all connected to the people of Sotterley’s long history, valuable in themselves, worthy of preservation, and valuable to Sotterley’s story.