Volume 22, Issue 2 | Autumn 2023

American Art History Digitally
sponsored by the Terra Foundation for American Art
From Zuni to Dupont Circle: Isabel and Larz Anderson’s Native American CollectionProject Narrative

by Stephen T. Moskey and Isabel L. Taube

Scholarly Article|Interactive Feature |Project Narrative

This digital art history article is the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration between an art historian, Isabel L. Taube, who specializes in actual and represented interiors, and an independent scholar, Stephen T. (Skip) Moskey, who specializes in the history of nineteenth-century Washington, DC, and who wrote a biography of Isabel and Larz Anderson and edited the letters of Larz’s mother, Elizabeth Kilgour Anderson. We have drawn on Skip’s extensive knowledge of Washington’s cultural history and of the Andersons and their papers and publications; and on Isabel’s scholarship on eclecticism and interior decoration in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We have been working together on the Andersons’ Native American collection and its display in their homes in Washington, DC, and Brookline, Massachusetts, since 2017. Our initial interest was piqued by Skip’s research on Isabel Anderson’s donation in 1948 of “North American Indian material” to The Children’s Museum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts (now the Boston Children’s Museum), and on Frances Benjamin Johnston’s photograph of the Billiard Room at Anderson House from 1910, showing a cabinet with pottery from the US Southwest (fig. 1).‍[1] For this article, we have limited our scope to the display of pottery and weavings at Anderson House as documented in Johnston’s photographs, but we plan to continue our research into the Andersons’ Native American collection more broadly in the hope that we can further our understanding of how as well as why they acquired such objects.

figure 1
Fig. 1, Little and Browne (architecture firm), Northwest corner of the Billiard Room in 1910, Anderson House, Washington, constructed 1902–5. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Collection of The Society of the Cincinnati, Washington, DC. Image in the public domain; courtesy of The Society of the Cincinnati, Washington, DC.

Our research has made us aware of an imbalance in the visual and documentary sources we discovered, primarily in East Coast archives, which predominately support the white, elite, settler perspective. We recognize that additional work needs to be done to engage and learn from Native communities in discussions of their cultural heritage. This project has led us to initiate conversations with members of the Zuni and Acoma tribes, and our article has benefited from this outreach, which we plan to continue.

We have tried to be sensitive to the language we used to identify people, places, and objects. In particular, for pottery and photographs for which the name of the original creator was not recorded, we have adopted the terminology maker or photographer once known rather than unknown or anonymous. In doing so, we seek to acknowledge that these individuals once had names, and we wish to remind readers that now unknown makers were once known by their families, friends, and communities.

This project has been generously funded by a grant we received from the Terra Foundation for American Art, which gave us the opportunity to present our research on the Andersons’ acquisition and display of Native American pottery and weavings at Anderson House—an aspect of their collection that has not been previously studied or published—in both an article and an interactive feature. While the article focuses on the inclusion of the Native American objects in displays in four rooms of the house, the Interactive Feature broadens the scope to include the rooms visited by guests during an evening at Anderson House in the early decades of the twentieth century. We use the digital element both as a form of illustration, showing extant and nonextant aspects of the collection and its display, and as a means for understanding how visitors might have experienced pieces of pottery from the Southwest as part of a much larger constellation of objects from around the world.

Several factors influenced the format and presentation of our Interactive Feature, titled “An Evening at Anderson House”: the available archival materials and objects currently on display at Anderson House; Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide’s preference for open-source software; and the ability to navigate and interact directly with the digital features. A three-dimensional reconstruction of Anderson House’s main public rooms in 1910 was not possible, because we have only a limited number of photographs by Johnston, and they cannot be used to fully reconstruct the spaces. Instead, we have traced on floor plans the paths taken by guests; we have shown sightlines among objects; and we have combined Johnston’s photographs of the main public rooms with more recent photography to give readers a sense of the colors and lighting. In the accompanying text, we have identified overarching themes and types of objects throughout the house, and we have selected for further consideration individual objects we think best exemplify the Andersons’ eclecticism and, by extension, their cosmopolitanism.

For ideas and inspiration for the format of our Interactive Feature, we began by surveying online exhibitions and visual essays about art on Google Arts and Culture, the New York Times website, and museum websites. Then, Carey Gibbons, NCAW’s Digital Art History editor, suggested we look at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)’s online exhibition Alexander von Humboldt and the United States, which has a more interactive character rather than one prescribed path. It includes a sidebar with running text separate from the images; buttons that allow the user to decide if they want more information on specific objects or themes; and headings at the top of the screen so the user can select which part of the exhibition they want to experience and can easily move from one section to the next without having to scroll through the entire presentation, as required in the Google Arts and Culture online exhibitions. The SAAM exhibition, however, has much less text than we wanted and is powered by ArcGIS Story Map, which is not open source. So we turned to NCAW’s web developer Allan McLeod, who was able to create an interactive experience with options for viewing more or less information as desired as well as features that suited our specific requirements by writing his own scripts in OpenSeadragon. Working with Allan and Carey, we found a way to combine a prescribed pathway through our Interactive Feature with more interactivity, so users can decide which rooms and objects they want to learn about in greater depth. Some featured objects are accessed by clicking on highlighted text, which opens a pop-up window, while others are available by clicking on labeled buttons. We also used floor plans to show sightlines and locations of objects in a room, thereby establishing visually the associational character of the eclectic displays so essential to our main argument. We hope our Interactive Feature will be useful to scholars, especially those who work on interiors and face the challenge of presenting spatial experiences in the virtual realm.


This digital art history article would not have been possible without the generosity and expertise of many colleagues and friends. We are grateful to several individuals for sharing their knowledge about Native American art and material culture: Dwight Lanmon, Elysia Poon, and Brian Vallo; and to others who have contributed to our understanding of the Andersons, their house in Washington, their collections, and their time period: John Cort, Linda Docherty, Isabelle J. Gournay, Erin Hasinoff, Anne Monahan, Caren Pauley, and Elizabeth Pergam.

For access to and information about archival materials essential to our research, we want to express our deep appreciation to the following archivists and curators: Rachel Farkas at the Boston Children’s Museum; Diana Zlatonovski and Alfred Zuñiga at the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Daisy Njoku and Gina Rappaport at the National Anthropological Archives (Smithsonian Institution), Suitland, Maryland; and Barbara Watanabe (now retired) at the National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology (Smithsonian Institution), Suitland, Maryland. At Anderson House/The Society of the Cincinnati, F. Anderson Morse, Ellen McCallister Clark, Emily L. Parsons, Glenn A. Hennessey, Rachel Nellis, Paul Newman, and Andrew M. Outten provided indispensable assistance over more than six years.

We want to thank Harry I. Martin for the floorplans of Anderson House that he redrew from the original Little and Browne blueprints, and both Bruce Guthrie and Bruce White for photography.

We are also grateful both to have had the opportunity to present our research at several venues along the way and to the individuals who made our presentations possible: George Calderaro, Victorian Society, New York; Thomas Hayes, Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, Lenox, Massachusetts; and Cynthia Field, The Cosmos Club Historic Preservation Foundation (Mary Scott Townsend House), Washington, DC.

For their invaluable assistance in bringing this article to publishable form, we extend many thanks to the anonymous art history and digital art history peer reviewers; the NCAW editorial team (Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, Carey Gibbons, and Kim Orcutt); NCAW copyeditor Robyn Roslak; and NCAW web developer Allan McLeod. We also want to acknowledge the Terra Foundation for American Art, which provided the funding that made this digital art history article possible.


[1] In 2013, while working on his biography of the Andersons, Moskey found a letter dated April 29, 1948, written to Isabel by Elsie M. Boyle, director of what was then known as The Children’s Museum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts (now the Boston Children’s Museum [BCM]). The letter, a follow-up to a meeting Isabel had had with a museum staff person, suggested, among other things, that Isabel donate “the North American Indian material,” which the staffer had seen. With a copy of that letter in hand, Moskey approached the BCM to ask if the materials had ever been transferred there. No one at the BCM had any memory of ever seeing the items, leading to a search that lasted several months. The collection was eventually located in deep storage in the museum. We learned that Isabel had indeed donated a collection of souvenirs and artifacts collected during the Andersons’ travels, including seven pieces of pottery and several pieces of jewelry from their Native American collection. This material was previously displayed at “Weld,” the Andersons’ country house in Brookline, and is outside the scope of this article. Letter from Elsie M. Boyle to Mrs. Larz Anderson, April 29, 1948, box 12, The Larz and Isabel Anderson Collection (1895–1948), Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, MA.