Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Less Illustrious Discoveries

You guys. I think I discovered the ugliest dress in the collection.


Here is the rundown:
-Pea green satin and velvet combo
-Baggy/blousy top
-You can't tell from the photo, but somehow the skirt is also saggy and blousy
-Blue velvet making an appearance as the least offensive element involved
-And yes, fur trim under the collar and on the cuffs

I have, in fact, already identified the ugliest hat in the collection. I can't include a photo here because I'm afraid of what sort of black hole will be created if they appear together, but I can give you a pretty good idea. There are two stages of experiencing The Ugly Hat:

Stage 1: Spotting it on the shelf
"Who would trim ermine with gold lace?"

Stage 2: Picking it up

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Age of Discovery

There is a great article on the New York Times this week about the thrill and challenge of museum storage facilities. Click here: "Golden Age of Discovery…Down in the Basements" 

For me, right now, it does feel like a golden age of discovery, because I am researching stories that no one has ever researched before, and finding things in the MOHAI collection that have been neglected for decades. At the moment, most of it is centered around an upcoming lecture I'm giving titled From Paris to Seattle: The Fashion Careers of Helen Igoe and Madame Thiry.

After the success of the John Doyle Bishop lecture last year, Public Programs was happy to let Fashion Nerd Afternoon with Clara become a yearly offering (official called the Annual MOHAI Fashion Lecture). I was super excited about this until I realized that when I picked JDB as a subject, all the research was already in the can. I had done my master's thesis on him and so it just required putting together a few slides and condensing the story into 40 minutes. But this year, and every year after, I will need to hit the research shelves and learn new things. Which is difficult, time consuming, and awesome.

As far as I know, no one has researched either of these women before, and neither of them have archives or personal papers that I can access. So I'm grasping at every little newspaper mention, magazine advertisement, and city directory listing I can find. On the one hand, it means that I'm weaving a tale out of pretty scant information, but on the other it makes every little morsel that much more exciting. For example, just by looking at address listings in the city directories, I was able to piece together the story of a failed marriage and exactly when the gentleman in question was booted out.


And as luck would have it, I found a fantastic Madame Thiry dress this week during inventory. It was crammed into a tiny box with another 1920s dress, yet was in remarkably good shape. It was so chic and modern that I was almost fooled into thinking it was from the 1960s. Which is cool because her son ended up being a raging architectural modernist whose heyday was the 1950s and 60s. Coincidence? I'd like to think not. 

As I've been doing this research and looking at dresses in the collection, I'm also coming across lots of labels, names, and ads for Seattle stores and companies that I've never heard of. It was hard not to get immediately sidetracked, but it is thrilling to know that there are so many stories still waiting to be uncovered. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Dear Lord, Let It Be Millipedes

Last Friday, at 4:30 in the afternoon, I was doing my last diaper check before the weekend and noticed a little spot on the white wall. A bug. Then I saw another one. And another. They looked like living versions of the desiccated carcasses we've been pulling out of the costumes from the old storage location. Carpet beetles. I went cold with panic.

[A GIF has not yet been created for this emotion]

I summoned the collections manager to come see. Once we knew what we were looking for we found them everywhere. 

FYI this is the LEAST gross bug picture in this post. You have been warned.

Betsy grabbed as many as she could in a sticky trap and went to work trying to get a good microscope shot and identify them. I went to work with a Kleenex, killing as many as I could find. (If this is upsetting to you, you should probably stop reading now. I find my job has made me pretty compassionless toward the sanctity of bug life).

The first microscope pictures looked like this:

If you google "carpet beetle larva" you will see it didn't look good. 

All last weekend I was sick with worry about this situation. Carpet beetles would be disaster. I couldn't even blog about it-- it was too raw, to painful to joke about yet. On Monday we started getting responses back from the museum pest management listserv and some entomologists we know. A few agreed that it was probably a carpet beetle. But a few others brought up a new possibility…millipedes.

Apparently at this young stage, carpet beetles and millipedes look awfully similar. But millipedes are not a museum pest. Sometimes when it rains a lot they can flee inside (perhaps through a leak in the wall??) but they aren't interested in fabric. Once in a collections storage space they will either die off or leave of their own initiative. 

On Tuesday we decided to take another round of microscope photos. I went and chased down a few of the biggest ones I could find, trying to get them as intact as possible onto the trap. The new round of pictures looked like this: 

Millipedes at a similar stage look like this:


The entomologists also suggested taking a leg count. Any more than six and it can't be a beetle. One was flipped over on the trap, and we are pretty sure that that is a whole bunch of little legs sticking up. 

So why am I telling you this in so much detail and including all these gross pictures that are probably making your skin crawl a little?

Because I am trying to make sense of the fact that my life has taken a turn in which I am genuinely excited about a millipede infestation. Seriously. On Tuesday all I wanted to talk about was millipedes and how I was in a good mood because of millipedes and how it was so exciting that it was millipedes.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Diaper Duty

This week it rained a lot and the leak returned in the textile storage room.

My reaction was calm.

In that first picture you will notice some sad, soggy white lumps (and in the GIF, sad sack GOB Bluth) which are actually cloth diapers. We keep them on hand for various cleaning tasks, because they are soft cotton and very absorbent. They have also proven to be quite useful for sopping up watery messes. Each morning this week I cleaned up any standing water that had appeared overnight, stuffed dry diapers into the spots where water was coming in, and then checked back periodically to switch out any wet diapers. 

In other words: I spent a major portion of my workweek changing diapers. Hmm. If I wanted that for my life...


Or maybe there is some metaphor there about the collection being my baby. 

Maybe when it grows up it  will learn how to clean itself and make its own damn padded hangers. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Inventory Progress, Successful Human Interactions and SPMWDH

I had it pretty good this week.

On Monday I got to put up a very exciting sign:

BOOM! The inventory project is on a ROLL.

Later that day I had a bit of a reality check. A former volunteer (who is moving back to the East Coast- *sob*) had brought her husband in to show where she had been working all this time. She asked about the inventory and I gleefully walked her back…into this giant room…past rows and rows of tall shelving bays….to point out…ONE tiny shelf.

Well, it's a start.

On Tuesday I got to be the collections representative at a meeting about a future exhibit in the Community Gallery-- a partnership with the Washington State Jewish Historical Society. The registrar Kristin (who usually gets recruited for meetings like that) was happy to hand over the reins but also rather apprehensive. As a longtime museum employee, she has mastered the art of the diplomatic "no." I have not. I think she was a little worried that my enthusiasm and inexperience would result in me somehow agreeing to plan, organize, and install the entire show.

Fortunately I kept my mouth shut for most of the meeting (a major feat for a chatterbox like me) which accomplished both my goals of 1) not signing on for projects I have no business doing and 2) not going off on a tangent about Joanna Eckstein and her couture wardrobe WHICH WE HAVE IN THE MOHAI COLLECTION

The week was a bit rougher for my roommate Olivia, who was housebound and miserable due to her broken ankle. Each evening I would come home and try to cheer her up and pick something silly to watch. When we discovered that the new Thor movie was coming out on DVD this week, I actually went to the video store and put my name on the wait list so that we could spend the evening having out lives brightened by Tom Hiddleston. 

(Yes, there is an actual independent video store in our neighborhood and it is totally intimidating to ask the super-cool hipster clerks for things like "Thor" and "Miss Congeniality." When I managed to talk to one of them and somehow come across as funny and normal, I totally felt like:

Anyway, we watched Thor 2 and decided that it was basically a gibberish movie except when Tom Hiddleston was on screen. 

It was all like BLAH BLAH BLAH evil guys with braids BLAH guys with swords BLAH also spaceships and lasers somehow BLAH BLAH BLAH Natalie Portman kissing some magical dude on a fantasy planet thinking "Wasn't I already in this movie? It was called Star Wars and it was also kind of bad" BLAH BLAH BLAH Subtitles for weird fake elf language BLAH BLAH BLAH Is that Idris Elba? Why would you put someone so aggressively good looking in a costume where you can barely see his face?!?!?! BLAH BLAH BLAH EXPLOSIONS

And then Loki has a scene and it is like you are watching some sort of nuanced Shakespearean drama.

Other than museum work, fashion, and Seattle, I'm realizing one of the sub-themes emerging on this blog is Sassy Pale Men With Dark Hair. In fact, I think I am going to make that a tag right now. That way you can have easy access to all my posts which mention Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, skating fashion plate Johnny Weir, and Dmitry Sholokhov from Project Runway.

(The fact that all of the above are either fashionable gay men or emotionally unavailable sociopaths makes me think that tag is going to get used a lot with "single life.")