How Chloé Zhao Brought The Met’s Shaker Retiring Room to Life

Zhao saw her challenge as: “How can I capture some deeper emotional truth that would have been felt by an 18th-century person looking into that room?” she explains. “How can I evoke that in a 21st-century viewer? This aspect is very similar to my filmmaking.”

The concept for the room stems from the 2000 biography of Mother Ann Lee by Richard Francis, Ann the Word: The Story of Ann Lee, Female Messiah, Mother of the Shakers, the Woman Clothed with the Sun—particularly how Lee transformed into a Shaker leader and missionary.

Lee was born poor in 1736 to a difficult life in industrial Manchester, England. The textile worker found herself in an unhappy marriage (which may have influenced her later tenet of celibacy), and all four of her children died young, which thrust her into an intense postpartum depression. Lee suffered immense physical and emotional pain, was persecuted for her Shaker beliefs, and was repeatedly sent to an asylum and jailed. While imprisoned, she had a spiritual vision that convinced her to bring the Shaker Church to the New World.

One of the Shakers’ main convictions was that the spirit of God was both male and female: Jesus embodied the male side of that duality, and Lee was the female side, the second coming of Christ. “Her followers felt that her suffering was similar to Jesus’s,” Zhao notes. The sect’s principles of gender and social equality, as well as celibacy, pacifism, and communalism, struck Zhao as “extremely progressive for the time—and thus unacceptable.” The common 18th-century person encountering that room and the Shaker faith “would’ve had all kinds of feelings—shock, confusion, disgust, unease, curiosity, wonder,” she adds. 

Conjuring some of those same feelings in a 21st-century museumgoer required a bit of dramatic license. Zhao eschewed a strictly faithful, living-history-museum approach, aware of how a room “that is very austere and has women dressed in monastic outfits, sitting there in a reflective mode” would appear today: “conventional or even maybe a bit oppressive, which is the opposite of the truth—the ecstatic truth, which is something that Werner talks about, that exists inside that moment.”

Raffaello Sanzio, The Transfiguration, 1516-1520.Courtesy of the Vatican Museum.

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