The Foster Museum at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park is a must-see, and not just because of its loving celebration of the songwriter. Of even greater interest are the museum’s dioramas, which are a quaint time-capsule of artistic innovation, circa 1950.
I hope this never changes.
The dioramas depict scenes from Foster’s most famous songs, and they do it in a dreamy, melancholic way, utilizing static sculpted figures and some “live action” excitement. The museum hasn’t changed a thing since it opened in 1950, making me believe it transcends change in the same way that Foster’s music has transcended trend.
As you enter the museum, you see the dioramas set into the walls of the central hall. Underneath each is the title of the represented song. Where there is some “animation,” it is in the form of a tiny glowing electric fireplace, a steamboat that moves along a track that is concealed by a miniature hedge, and an exciting horse race that is cheered along by grooms and gentry alike.
Understand that this could all be ruined by modern technology. I can see it now. You’d enter the museum only to be greeted by a hologram of the composer, who would endear you with a warm Southern welcome (Foster’s native Pennsylvania dialect removed so as not to clash with the mansion’s Southern aesthetic). You would be a bit taken aback by this 3D representation, but you would reluctantly let the hologram direct you to an aural assault in which “Camptown Races” was played as a hip-hop song to which you could karaoke (and nearly everyone does). If so inclined, visitors could place a bet at the Stephen Foster OTB, featuring races from Gulfstream Park. You would not be able to leave the park without a Gucci golf bag imprinted with interlocking “SF” logo and, for the ladies, the gift shop would feature the “Jeanie Bikini,” which is more or less a strip of fabric with a ruffle on it, period-authentic, naturally.
*****Foster Museum, Stephen Foster Folk Culture State Park
If you visit: Plan to spend the day. Besides the museum, there are hiking trails, picnic areas, a boat launch, a gift shop, crafts demonstrations, and the friendliest park rangers I’ve met anywhere.
It’s “Old Folks at Home,” but this diorama chose to identify the song by its popular title, albeit with an un-PC dialect. There was a time when the question of political correctness did not enter the dialogue, and this diorama’s title is emblematic of that era. Research into Foster’s lyrical portaits indicates that the songwriter wanted listeners to feel compassion for the slave, even as the songs were written in the minstrel tradition.
The little riverboat that moves along the Suwannee.
Somebody bet on the bay.