Hundreds of period-appropriate set items, costumes, and paper facsimiles of Dickinson’s writings were gifted to the museums.
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In the first episode of Dickinson, Apple+ TV’s unorthodox, anachronistic series about the life and work of the 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson, the viewer is introduced to the figure of Death (played by Wiz Khalifa), who takes Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) for a ride in a richly upholstered carriage drawn by spectral horses — a reference to her celebrated poem “Because I could not stop for Death.” That carriage is among the hundreds of period-appropriate set items, costume pieces, and props from the streaming series that have been gifted by Apple TV+ and wiip Productions to the Emily Dickinson Museum, located at the former Dickinson residences in Amherst, Massachusetts.
A second institution also received a donation. The show’s production archive, including its scripts, and props such as paper facsimiles of Dickinson’s writings and recreations of the handmade “fascicle” books that contained them, will head to Harvard University’s Houghton Library, a repository for rare books, manuscripts, and archives that holds over 1,000 of Dickinson’s original manuscripts, including 40 fascicles.
Though Dickinson, who died aged 55 in 1886 after more than two years of ill health, wrote some 1,800 poems, less than a dozen were published in her lifetime. Her fame came posthumously when her cache of poetry was unearthed by her younger sister Lavinia. Four years later, the first volume of her lyric poetry was released to great acclaim. Today, Dickinson is a cult figure and widely viewed as one of the most important American poets of her time, characterized by her distinctive voice and conveyance of complex concepts with clear imagery.
Dickinson, the brainchild of writer-producer Alena Smith, premiered in fall 2019 on the heels of the Dickinsonian movie Wild Nights with Emily (2018). Advertised as a “comedy series that audaciously explores the constraints of society, gender and family from the perspective of rebellious young poet Emily Dickinson,” the popular show is currently on its third and final season, which will come to a close on December 24, 2021.
Beginning in pre-production and continuing as the series developed, the show worked closely with the Emily Dickinson Museum. The house museum is sited at the family home where Dickinson was born and died (the Homestead) as well as the home belonging to her brother and sister-in-law, who was also the poet’s alleged lover (the Evergreens). Researchers and production staff frequently reached out to the museum with questions, while actors toured the museum and the production crew studied the buildings’ architecture and floor plans.
Announced on December 10, the 191st anniversary of the Sagittarius poet’s birthday, the donation includes antique furniture, lighting fixtures, and over 100 costume pieces. In a statement, the museum said that items from the show were “sourced in the same ways the Museum would have done so to acquire appropriate objects for its collection.” Despite technically lacking “Dickinson provenance,” the furnishings will be incorporated into the décor of the museum. Virtually the entire intact kitchen from Dickinson’s home in the series will migrate to the real Homestead, which is currently closed for a restoration project.
Harvard’s Houghton Library, which boasts the largest collection of Dickinson manuscripts in the world — among other significant Dickinsonian items, such as the poet’s writing table and chair — was approached by the show regarding reproduction permissions for an image. When Smith offered up props and items from the production archive several years later, the Houghton Library accepted a donation from a television show for the first time. The gift spans scrapbook “tone books,” fictional and facsimile newspapers seen in the show, and facsimile loose manuscripts, as well as several dozen prop fascicles, recreations of the hand-sewn books into which Dickinson copied hundreds of poems. The real fascicles were unfortunately dismantled by Dickinson’s first editors, so none are precisely as the poet left them.
In a statement released by the Dickinson Museum, Smith said that she could not “imagine a more meaningful conclusion to the journey of Dickinson than giving this gift.” She continued: “It is the greatest end to the story I wanted to tell, and it makes me feel so proud that these pieces of our production will contribute to Emily’s legacy and help the Museum in its mission of deepening scholarly and historic preservation.”
Cassie Packard is an NYC-based writer and cultural critic with bylines at publications including Artforum, BOMB, frieze, and Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic. More by Cassie Packard