Obituary: Cheryl Robertson, Interdisciplinary Educator and Design Historian Dies at 60
Any museum curator needing expertise in nineteenth- or twentieth-century American decorative arts would have likely contacted Cheryl Ann Robertson, an independent scholar and museum consultant. Her vast knowledge of the Colonial Revival and Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts Movements (1870s-1930s) kept her in great demand, while her original research, publications, lectures, and mentoring of hundreds of students made her a respected colleague. She knew objects and loved ideas, and her rare ability to combine the two made her one of the leading decorative arts and architectural historians in the country. It is a great loss that Cheryl Robertson died suddenly in her Cambridge home, the weekend of July 6th.
For 30 years, Cheryl straddled museums, academia and commerce. She served as curator of American Decorative Arts at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (Hartford, CT), Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at the National Heritage Museum (Lexington, MA), and Curator of Decorative Arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum. She also served as Assistant Director and lecturer at Sotheby’s Institute for American Art in New York City and as an Assistant Professor in the Winterthur Program in American Culture (University of Delaware). More recently, she taught in the American and New England Studies Program at Boston University.
Cheryl contributed her knowledge of Asian and Anglo-American decorative arts— especially nineteenth- and twentieth-century ceramics and architecture and Prairie School design—to many seminal museum exhibitions, including the pioneering “The Art that is Life” (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1987) and “International Arts and Crafts” (Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2005). While curator at the National Heritage Museum, she mounted “Designing in the Wright Style: Furniture and Interiors by Frank Lloyd Wright and George Niedecken” and wrote the accompanying book. Her keen interest in English industrial designer Christopher Dresser and the Japanese influence on American art was surpassed only by her passion for women’s studies; in particular, the female role in homemaking. She wrote and lectured extensively and was a consultant to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Oakland Museum (CA), Milwaukee Art Museum, Wright’s Darwin Martin House (Buffalo, NY), and Stonehurst Mansion (Waltham, MA), among other institutions. A longtime board member of the Victorian Society of America, she had recently been elected co-president of the Boston China Students’ Club and was affiliated with scores of other organizations.
Wendy Kaplan, Department Head and Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, remembered that, “Cheryl’s passionate advocacy had an enormous impact on Arts and Crafts movement scholarship. Her meticulous research and cogent analysis not only informed her own writing and teaching, but made her the ‘go to’ first reader for her friends in the field, including me. Boundlessly generous, intellectually curious, and an astute observer both of historical documents and human nature, she was an invaluable colleague and friend.”
Cheryl was a culture hound, attending lectures, theater and concerts regularly. Recipients of her New Year’s letter looked forward to receiving her annual photographic collage and amazing compendium of adventure, travel, and accomplishments. The last letter featured her and her husband David snowshoeing in New Hampshire, scuba diving in Belize, camping at Acadia National Park, and exploring Mesa Verde. The latter, was done the week before she gave the keynote lecture for the conference “At the Frontier’s Edge: The Arts & Crafts Movement in Denver and Environs.”
Cheryl was born in Dayton, Ohio, the only child of Vera and Leroy Keener. She studied history and French at Oberlin College from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in 1975. She received a M.A. from the Winterthur Program in Early American Material Culture at the University of Delaware in 1979. Cheryl is survived by her husband of almost fourteen years, David Schloerb, of Cambridge, MA; her first cousins Amy and Jon Shellabarger of Minneapolis, MN, and Miami, FL, respectively; and hundreds of admiring colleagues, students and friends. Donations may be made in her memory to Winterthur for research fellowships there. (Cheryl had received three of these.) A memorial service will be held in her honor at the Old North Church in Boston’s historic North End on Saturday, July 27; a reception will follow. For further details, contact Marilee Meyer at email@example.com.