Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Grand Opening. Cleaning Lady. Realness.

I thought I was done posting about Grand Opening, but then one of my coworkers sent me this:

This is me and exhibits pal Meka about to go clean 7,000 fingerprints (and some mouth prints) off of all the exhibits cases after Grand Opening. Don't let our cheerful maid fabulousness fool you: those are smiles of exhaustion. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The New Normal

Now that I'm done with my posts about Grand Opening and New Orleans (GONO for short), I guess I have to catch you all up on all that has happened since then.

Right now at MOHAI, the most common phrase in conversations and all-staff emails is "the new normal," as in "we are still figuring out the new normal," and "I hope this isn't part of the new normal," and "me eating cake for lunch is the new normal." Basically, grand opening was such a massive success that we are drowning in public interest. Attendance is crazy, phones are ringing off the hook, and emails are pouring in. People want to book school groups, plan tours, rent event spaces, buy memberships, and donate artifacts, and our staff is struggling to keep up.  We know that opening created a peak in interest which will die down eventually, but we have no way of knowing when and by how much. Is this a passing phase, or is it the new normal?

Because of this wave of excitement, MOHAI made a second appearance on everyone's favorite local daytime talk show, New Day Northwest. For me it meant getting to the museum by 6:30 am to oversee the process of de-installing and packing the artifacts, unpacking at the studio and arranging the artifacts on a table, and then standing like a bouncer and slapping away hands that wanted to touch. Someone tried to set down three cups of water for "just a sec" next to the c. 1900 Nordstrom baby booties and I think my forceful "NO!" freaked her out a little. While I have a fondness for the booties, as far as everyone else was concerned the big deal artifact we brought this time was the basketball championship trophy won by the Sonics in 1979.

Yes, first put on your gloves
Now you may touch
Ok, I'll admit, it is pretty cool. My supervisors wanted only MOHAI people to handle and move it, so I got to carry it out to the table for the taping. I couldn't help but think to myself "There are lots of NBA players who have never held one of these, yet here I am, holding this...and all it took was a degree in fashion." 

The New Day Northwest clips were a pain to imbed last time, so if you want to see the whole thing, here is the link:

Trophy-holding aside, the new normal for me is mostly going to involve another major move project. The entire costume and textile collection has to be moved out of its old storage facility and into a new one. It is exciting, because I can't wait to start going through all the cool stuff we have, but totally overwhelming because there is just so much stuff. Some of it is organized, but there are lots of weird things stuck into strange places and vestiges of projects long past. The whole place is like a monument to the old normal. I found a box of random items with a note that said "these were on the front table when I started so I moved them here" and then some initials and a date from 1996. I also found a dress balled up in a clear garbage bag with a post-it note on the outside that read "Bugs! also stains." 

Among some mannequin props I found an entire shelf of things that looked like this:

If you can't tell what you are looking at (and why would you?) it is two different shapes of wood forms with custom pads that fit over. The one on the left has a round pad that has a drawstring on the top and bottom, and the one on the right has a pad (behind it) that looks like a tea cozy. 

On the way back from New Orleans I lost my phone and then got talked into making the leap to smartphoneville. I still wasn't sure it was the right choice until I encountered these things. I was able to take a photo, email it to the former manager of the costume collection, and receive a response about what the heck I was looking at, all on one device. The answer? The one on the left is hips and on the right is shoulders, and they were stuck on wood poles to create makeshift mannequins. Ingenious yet depressing! 

Yes, it is a brave new future at MOHAI, and I decided that mine is not going to include padded pole mannequins. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Clara's Busy Fortnight- Part III: New Orleans Museums

On my last day in New Orleans, I skipped the conference and visited three museums. Here is the rundown:

I’ve never been to the Deep South before, so I figured I should go for the full experience. So first up, I went to Confederate Memorial Hall

No photos were allowed inside

It was pretty sad, but not in the way I was expecting. I pictured something that had a whiff of modernity to it but that still had a clear Confederate apologist slant.  But it turned out to be one of those waaay old-style museums that maybe hadn’t been updated since its inception in the 1890s. (The handout I received at the front door still boasted about the highest attendance day in the museum's history: May 1893). The displays featured piles of random stuff arranged in glass-and-wood cases with labels printed on slips of paper. In several cases the glass was so warped with age that it was hard to read the labels. Because of the long-term display, the condition of most of the artifacts was pretty bad. It was particularly grim to see the state of the textiles: the wool had moth holes, the silk was shattering to bits, and hats were sagging and tearing on insufficient supports. 

In the gift shop, things went from "oh, what a sad little museum" to "I don't think they are selling these confederate flags ironically." Most bizarre was the fact that you could buy a bootleg copy of the controversial Disney movie Song of the South, which has never been released on home video in the US because it is really really racist. The text on the DVD case promised that it was good, family entertainment. 

Next, I went on a pre-scheduled AHA tour of the Historic New Orleans Collection -- a history museum in the heart of the French Quarter.

I found this image on the internet. I'm not sure I actually saw this room, but the whole place basically looked like this.

It was a lovely museum but it was very...dry. The artifacts in the core New Orleans history exhibition were nearly all maps, documents, and paintings. Everything was very beautiful and had this old-world elegance to it, but it was probably exactly the kind of thing that people picture when they make statements like "history is boring." 

For a while I tried to be a good historian and get invigorated by signatures on documents related to the Louisiana purchase, but at some point I realized that if I left right away I would still have time for one more museum. 

My final pick was The Presbytere, one of several museums associated with the Louisiana State Museum. Their main exhibit was about Hurricane Katrina, and it was really really good. I cried. I'm tearing up a little just thinking about it now. It used video clips, oral histories, photographs, and interesting (not beautiful) artifacts to tell a story that was pretty emotionally devastating. 

Fats Domino's piano, displayed exactly as it was found in his home after Katrina

During my visit to New Orleans I heard locals talk about Katrina and how in some ways they felt abandoned by the rest of the country--not just in terms of aid, but in how other Americans felt and talked about it. Hurricane Katrina didn't resonate with people in the same way that something like September 11th did. The general response (and I was certainly guilty of this too) was a feeling of "That's terrible, but this doesn't affect me personally because I'm not from there." Whereas New York has a symbolic pull for a lot of Americans, a city like New Orleans is treated as distant and foreign.  The Katrina exhibition was amazing because it gave me an emotional connection to a place I'm not from and an event I didn't live through. All history museums should strive to create experiences like that. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Clara's Busy Fortnight- Part II: AHA Conference

On January 2nd it was on to the next adventure. I flew to New Orleans to present my paper about the Hemline Index at the American Historical Association conference.

I was staying in a hotel by myself, and a pretty nice one at that. This was exciting for a lot of reasons, but chief among them was the ridiculous number of pillows that I had all to myself.

There was also an extra in the closet
After the long week at MOHAI, it was very tempting to just make a pillow nest and watch reality shows on TLC. But I was good, and convinced myself to leave the room and actually attend the conference. 

Even though it promotes itself as an organization for all historians, the AHA is really geared toward people who have PhDs and tenured professorships and those who are trying to get those things.  (When I emailed a question to the IT people the response came back “Dear Dr. Berg…”). It was a big honor to be asked to present and I wanted to do a good job, but if I bungled the whole thing it wouldn't be that big of a deal. Unlike most people there, I wasn’t trying to find employment, beef up my credentials for tenure, or catch the eye of a publisher.

Luckily, my talk did go well, and was delivered to a rapturously attentive crowd of eight. After it was over, I could relax and just go hear other people talk. The sessions I picked included papers on the portrayal of women in 1950s Hallmark Hall of Fame movies, a detailed rundown of every Civil War monument built in Kentucky, and what it is like to be a white guy who teaches Latin American history to Latino students. Fascinating stuff. 

One thing I was particularly interested to find out was how stereotypically historian-looking the AHA crowd would be. There were certainly people there who didn't look like fusty old academics (young people! women! people of color!) but there was a solid contingent of people who skewed the general profile toward the gray haired and tweedy. Three proofs of this fact: 1) At any larger session there always seemed to be an inordinate amount of old-man coughing. Not the "I have a cold" kind, but the "I've reached a point in my life where I just open my mouth and cough every 2 minutes" kind. 2) After I gave my talk I opened my conference booklet and saw a picture of AHA president William Cronon--and realized he looked exactly like the guy sitting in the front row of my talk! So exciting! I later found out that it was, in fact, a different older white male with white hair and glasses. 3) On the first night, early AHA arrivals mixed in the lobby with football fans there for something called the "Sugar Bowl." There was no mistaking who was there for which event.

When I got back, I opened my email and saw that I had been sent this NY Times article:

So it doesn't talk about me or my specific talk, but THE ARTICLE MENTIONED MY PANEL. Which means one of those eight people in the room was a reporter from the New York Times. So yeah, I think the whole thing counts as a win. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Clara's Busy Fortnight- Part 1: MOHAI Opening

As expected, the last couple of weeks have been crazy. From the 27th to the 1st it was all MOHAI all the time. We had a triumphant opening that drew crowds of thousands. The highlights included…

…me looking fabulous at the VIP opening

…and MOHAI’s featured appearance on the front page of New York Times online

The lowlight was me becoming exhaustion sick after the third day of being on my feet. I don’t really know how else to describe it—and I felt totally lame since everyone was working just as hard if not harder than I was—but basically I felt faint, sick to my stomach, and had the chills as if I had a fever. I got sent home early and felt mostly better after an afternoon on the couch and a full night of sleep. I was assigned sitting jobs for the next two days and so I made it through, but I still felt weak and strange and even opted to go to bed at 11pm on New Years Eve.

But despite everything, it was still exciting to be part of this momentous chapter in my museum’s history. I teared up when they cut the ribbon, and brimmed with pride as visitors made exclamations of awe as they entered. My single favorite overheard conversation went as follows:

Little girl: Oooohhh! Awesome!
Dad: Awesome? You didn’t even want to come!
Little girl: I didn’t know it was going to be like this!

Hopefully that same feeling is repeated by history museum haters for years to come.