The MESDA Summer Institute is a rigorous, hands-on, multi-disciplinary decorative arts and material culture field school for graduate students, museum professionals, and scholars. Using MESDA’s unparalleled collection and research resources, students learn methods of object-based analysis and interpretation to become comfortable working with decorative arts across a range of media and learn how to create compelling object- and place-based narratives. The 2022 MESDA Summer Institute will center on the objects, buildings, and landscapes of the Inland South from the late 18th century to the Civil War, and the diverse craftsmen and consumers who called the region home.

The course is research driven. It is organized around a capstone research paper and presentation that is generally based on an object chosen from MESDA’s collection and primary source documents. During their time at MESDA, students enjoy privileged access to both MESDA’s collection and research resources. Students also learn from Old Salem’s master craftspeople through hands-on workshops in foodways, metals, ceramics, and woodworking.

In addition to MESDA’s curators and staff, students also spend significant time with scholars, curators, and researchers from other museums and academic institutions as well as collectors. During a week-long study trip, students participate in collections studies and do research in important private and public collections throughout the region. In 2022 the study trip will focus on sites in in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley

At the end of the Summer Institute, students present their research at a public symposium and produce a final paper to be added to MESDA’s collection files. Many student projects eventually mature into journal articles, theses, dissertations, books, and exhibitions.

Upon successful completion of the MESDA Summer Institute, three hours of graduate credit are awarded through the University of Virginia’s Graduate Program in the History of Art and Architecture.

Program Resources

The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) at Old Salem Museums & Gardens is home to the country’s finest collection of decorative arts made and used by the diverse people who lived and worked in the early American South. Through its collection, scholarly research, publications, and programs, the museum is a leader in the study of early southern decorative arts and material culture. The MESDA Collection spans five centuries and includes furniture, paintings, ceramics, textiles, metalwork, and other decorative arts from Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The Anne P. and Thomas A. Gray Library and MESDA Research Center is home to extensive documentary resources related to objects made in the South and the craftsmen who made them. These resources include biographical files on more than 90,000 craftspeople, an object database containing files on nearly 20,000 southern objects, and a 20,000-volume library and rare book and manuscript collection focused on southern history, material culture, and decorative arts.

The University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819. The University sustains the ideal of developing, through education, leaders who are well prepared to help shape the future of the nation. During the course students will have access to the University of Virginia’s extensive digital scholarly resources.


During the Summer Institute students live on the campus of Salem College, located in the heart of historic Old Salem Museums and Gardens.  The dormitory includes a common living room, kitchen, and laundry facilities.  The dormitory is a short walk from the center of Institute activity at The Frank L. Horton Museum Center.