Windows to Another World: What We Talk About When We Talk About Display Cases
Furniture serves a function. A sofa relieves weary legs, a table becomes surface for family gatherings, a desk sets the stage for projects, presentations, or (all too often) procrastination. Even a gilded vase complements aesthetic or simply excites the eyes. Objects have occupations. Their labor, like any other job, provides purpose.
The display cabinet is humble. Modest in stature, it holds no candle to a baroque chaise or Barcelona chair. Plain, sturdy, intentionally unremarkable, it inspires no awe. Other furniture elicits action, from dresser drawers pulled and rustled through on hectic mornings to a mounted globe you just can’t resist spinning, but the display cabinet remains motionless. Hinged doors open. They close. At first glance, that’s about it.
At second glance, there’s much, much more.
The display cabinet also serves function, despite its meek façade. In fact, its meek façade is its function. A subtle backdrop, display cabinets imbue their contents with prominence, elevating items to artifacts. Like a podium in a lecture hall, their statute spells importance. Their windows whisper “look within.” Display cabinets are simple for a reason. They let their subject do the talking.
About a month ago, I searched the CDI offices for a story. An engaging page-turner. Armoires? Credenzas? La-Z-Boys? Diana Bernacki mentions Mother Cabrini. She speaks of blood on a bathmat. Dysentery. Christmas candy and a rocking chair. Her manner is off-hand and casual, as if recounting a story she’s told hundreds of times. But I’m all ears, firing questions and typing rapidly. This is great material! Diana is surprised at my enthusiasm. “How do you find this interesting?” she says. “How do you not find it interesting?!” I reply.
In late 2012, Bernacki & Associates were selected to conserve, restore, preserve, and finally display artifacts of Saint Francis Xavier Cabrini, otherwise known as “Mother Cabrini” – the first US Citizen Saint. As Diana says, “objects are objects but there’s fascinating history behind those objects.” Among those objects were address books, personal notations, and writing instruments. Clothing, linens, undershirts. “The carcass of a desk” was restored. The rocking chair where she sat and died. Bernacki & Associates meticulously researched construction and materials according to conservation and historical standards. Working under an aura of particular peace and unity, the team created a complete archival unit rivaling that of any museum while remaining reverent to the spirit of a Saint. Now a first-hand witness, I can attest that the results are truly spectacular. The shrine’s arrangement is in harmonic accord. The display cases are elegantly understated. The gloss of their finish and whorl of their wooden pedestals in homage to artifacts they exhibit and - as intended – they let the artifacts do the storytelling.
Mother Cabrini’s history is riveting…even to a jaded, agnostic internet-addict. The paper boats she made as a child in Italy, signifying her wish to travel as a missionary. The Pope’s directions to “look not East, but West,” pointing away from social work in China and toward suffering immigrants in the United States. There’s her role in establishing Columbus hospital, making her forever “Chicago’s Own.” Diana knows the “Cabrini” name well. Their relationship is both spiritual and comfortably familiar. To me, the “Cabrini” name means, as a child, “ducking down” when driving through the projects. If you’d asked me a few months ago, I’d have guessed “Cabrini” was a one-time alderman.
After a trail of emails, a two-hour interview, and a trip to Lincoln Park, I certainly know better.
I visited the National Shrine of Saint Francis Xavier Cabrini on a bleary-eyed Friday morning. Appropriately accompanied by a (literal) sister, we brought along my grandmother for her 90th birthday. With occasions I’ve been in churches – weddings, funerals, and touristy sightseeing – countable on one hand, a shrine is beyond foreign. My preconception of the clergy plays like a medieval mini-series and I worried about propriety. What does one wear to a shrine? Is black off-limits? Can I bring my cell phone? Luckily, Diana set me straight before my visit. “The nuns are part of society,” she said, describing the sisterhood as adept, skilled, and educated. “They’re not cloistered. They drive cars, they’re computer-savvy. They run Quickbooks.”
A flashing marquee at the shrine’s entrance backed Diana’s promise of modernity. Inside, a specious, warmly-lit lobby sparked with shots of brilliant color; a pastel floor mosaic, peek of stained glass, white dove flapping wings against pale blue sky in animated interlude to a video documentary. A man named Anthony greeted me with enthusiasm in stark contrast to the stoicism I expected. I was introduced to Sister Bridget Zanin, Director of the Shrine, dressed in slacks and blouse. Both seemed friendly, eager to explain the life of Mother Cabrini. In lieu of interview, I opted to wander, soaking in the atmosphere. We set off, I with notebook, my sister with camera, Grandma ambling along.
As I walk, my feet bother me. I’ve had painful blisters for days (4” heels and an 8,000 sq. ft. conservation lab don’t mix) and, in this sacred place of worship, I’ve doubted my choice of sandals. But a quote on the wall reads, “Mother Cabrini was a mystic who kept her feet upon the ground” and I take it as affirmation. Her habit stands front and center. Her slippers delicate set at corner. Black with leather swaths and nearly identical to mine. Her bathmat – with spot of blood – is to the right. Upon red upholstery, the pink fibers appear pronounced. The texture prominent. On solid red elm base, its display case is waist-high, inviting you to lean closer. Behind acrylic, you notice the stain’s darkness and the irregularity around its edges. The display case is a strange dichotomy. Sometimes honorable, sometimes brutally human.
Before it’s time to go, I decide I want a rosary. Made in Italy and a pretty shade of seafoam with Mother Cabrini portrait at center. Sister Bridget records the purchase…in Quickbooks. On our way out, we stop at a stand marked “Petitions” where visitors write prayers on note cards and drop them into a clear receptacle. My message reads, “I hope this story affects someone, somewhere.”