Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Living The Dream

There are a lot of things that are unpleasant about a career in museums. Tough job market, low pay, and the constant stress of caring way too much about one weird institution in one tiny corner of this fragile earth of ours.

(I thought it was time to end the Hiddleston gif drought on this blog)

But we do it because IT IS THE BEST.

(might as well have another)
The weirdest, but also the best.

This week presented two cases where a career in museum work allows you to take strange shortcuts and do things that other people only dream about. Things like:

Hold Major Sports Trophies

When a sports team wins a championship, there is that inevitable moment when the trophy is handed out and all the players want to hold/touch/kiss said trophy. It represents a tangible connection to the win, and there is no doubt something viscerally satisfying about caressing such a symbolic artifact.

But why waste all those years of physical exertion? Take the shortcut and work in a museum.

MOHAI is the current caretaker of the 1979 Sonics championship trophy and I have had the experience of holding it and carrying it around. The first time it happened, I thought to myself "Huh, there are basketball players who dream of holding one of these, but for me it only took a degree in fashion history."

This week my coworker Kristin, who has handled the Sonics trophy several times, got to add one more to her list:

In case you don't know, that is the Lombardi trophy which is a thing handed out to the winners of a little contest known as the SUPER BOWL. 

On tuesday the Seattle Storm (women's basketball) had a "championship night," celebrating four of Seattle's five championship wins. (The only one left out was our 1917 NHL Stanley Cup win, which is understandable since that team hasn't been around since the 20s). Kristin was the handler for the Sonics trophy, which means she got to schmooze with the other trophy handlers and take the above pic. 

Side note (and an excuse to use an great Tina Fey/Amy Poehler gif) the other two trophies on display belonged to the Seattle Storm themselves, the only professional team in Seattle to win TWO trophies. 

And now onto our second weird fantasy situation, in a museum job you might...

Have Bags Of Weed Openly Sitting Around Your Office

In case you haven't heard (and there is a high likelihood you HAVE heard because this story was picked up by the AP and made it into national and international news sites) this happened: 

MOHAI got a super cool donation this week when the woman who bought Seattle's first legal marijuana donated some items to commemorate the historic event. Among the acquisition was part of her purchase: one little state-sactioned packet of pot. And for about a day it was just sitting with a pile of stuff in the middle of my office. WHICH IS SO WEIRD. 

Also among the items were the hat and shirt she was wearing to wait in line overnight--which are, of course, under my jurisdiction now. If you want an idea of my level of cannabis familiarity prior to this point, let me only say that when the shirt arrived I had to google the word "Sativa" to realize that the message on her shirt had something to do with the herb in question. 

Anyway museum work is strange and wonderful. Although I should clarify that if you actually want to touch the trophies with your bare, oily hands, you are out of luck. And if you think that we actually get to consume marijuana in the office, you are dreaming. 

Lord knows what kinds of bugs that would attract. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Fashion Historian's Guide to Seattle

I've been meaning to do this one for a while, and was re-inspired this week when a grad school classmate of mine was in town. If you are a fashion historian (either visiting or local) what are best spots to visit in Seattle?

Obviously I could do a miles-long list of "on this site was ____" or "the offices for this company are at____" but I limited it to things that are open to the public and actually have something that you can go in and see.

So put on your walking shoes and suit up in your best outfit, we are going on a Seattle Fashion History Tour!

The Museum of History and Industry - 860 Terry Ave N 

Duh. Of course you have to visit my museum. If you don't know already, MOHAI tells the story of Seattle and the Puget Sound region. There are about ten dressed mannequins on display in the core exhibit True Northwest: The Seattle Journey, as well as lots of interesting smaller things in cases. The actual selections get rotated every six months, but the core themes remain the same. Some highlights include:

- An 1850s-60s dress representing something that could have been worn by an early pioneer
- A late 1880s bustle dress in the faux shop window for local department store Toklas & Singerman.
- A 1920s couple (guy in a tux, lady in an evening dress) in the section about Prohibition
- A 1950s outfit in the section about postwar changes, usually something known to have been purchased from a Seattle business
- A face-off of World's Fair outfits- something suitable for the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition across from a modernist "Century 21" look from the future-focused 1962 fair.

The photo above is of a Luly Yang couture gown with the Rainier R neon sign reflected in the case. The dress is on display until early August, but don't worry-- I have have something else jaw-dropping to go in its spot.

Nordstrom / Frederick & Nelson - 500 Pine Street
Nordstrom History on Historylink
Frederick & Nelson History on Historylink 
Frederick & Nelson c. 1918. MOHAI Photo Collection

Nordstrom is a fabulous and fashionable Seattle institution. With cash in his pocket from the Klondike Gold Rush, John Nordstrom set up a shoe store in 1901. In 1963 the Nordstrom family bought Best's Apparel and started selling clothes too. By 1985 it was the largest specialty store chain in the country, surpassing previous title-holder Saks Fifth Avenue. The flagship store in downtown Seattle is lovely and inviting. And make sure to visit the fourth floor (just before you cross over the skybridge to Pacific Place) there are usually a few historic shoes on display from the archives.

The building itself is historic, and Nordstrom is a relatively new tenant. When I grew up, Nordstrom was in a hodgepodge of connected buildings on the opposite corner.  This grand retail temple used to be home to Frederick & Nelson, a beloved department store founded in 1891. I like to say that the building at 500 Pine has been responsible for changing and revitalizing the downtown retail core three times. When Donald Frederick decided to build the building, people called it "Frederick's Folly" because it was so far uptown from 2nd Ave, which was the hub of the retail core at the time. But when it opened in 1918 it was a big success, and other retailers soon moved to be nearby. In the early 50s the building underwent a major renovation which included adding several floors. This set off a chain reaction of other renovations and expansions of the downtown stores. Frederick & Nelson went bankrupt in 1992 and Nordstrom moved in in 1998, sparking revitalization in the area once again.

The Bon Marché - 1601 3rd Avenue 
The Bon Marché on Historylink
Photo from Patricksmercy on flickr 

This building is now a Macy's, but every good Seattleite slips up now and then and calls it "The Bon." Founded in 1890 by Josephine and Edward Nordhoff, and named for the famous French department store, The Bon Marché was a major retail player in Seattle for over 100 years. This gigantic art-deco flagship store was built in 1928. There are still a few touches that will take you back in time: the elegant woodwork around the elevators on the first floor, the faded elegance of the ladies restroom on the second floor, and the bronze artwork "The Spirit of Northwest Industry" which is on either side of the escalators between the basement and the first floor. The piece was made in 2000, but the top eight panels (Fisheries, World Trade, Aviation, Mining, Forestry, Manufacturing, Agriculture, Construction) are reconstructions of bronze panels made in 1929. The artist then added two new panels: Retail and Technology. The "Retail" panel, of course, shows The Bon Marché and has a profile of Josephine Nordhoff. 

If you read the article on Historylink, you'll find out why Josephine gets top billing over her husband Edward. #InspiringLadies

Ruth Hill - 411 University St
Located inside the Fairmont Olympic Hotel

Photo courtesy of Ruth Hill

In 1910 a woman named Helen Igoe opened a speciality fashion shop unlike anything else in Seattle. Her taste was exquisite and she carried clothing from the top houses in Europe and New York. In 1950 she retired and sold her business to John Doyle Bishop. He then also became one of the most respected, beloved, and successful retailers in the city. After his death in 1980 the shop struggled and relocated to the historic Olympic hotel. When it was on the verge of bankruptcy a woman named Ruth Hill took over the business and brought it back to life. She renamed it after herself in 1990 (because important things can only happen in years ending in zero, apparently). Ruth and her husband David are wonderful, and what is astonishing about this shop is that even though the styles have changed, there is a lot about the business which would be familiar to Helen and John. Ruth still goes on buying trips to select stock for the store, and has built personal relationships with the vendors and family businesses she buys from. One of the chandeliers from John Doyle Bishop's original store is still in use--you can see it in the picture above.

Luly Yang Couture - 1218 4th Ave
photo from

Luly has only been in business since 2000, but she is the real deal. The word "Couture" gets thrown around a lot these days (or in the case of recently defunct crap fashion company Juicy Couture, thrown in the garbage) and people have forgotten what it means. But I have been to the workroom downstairs and seen with my own eyes the place where a master seamstress and her team carefully construct exquisite garments. There are even mannequins padded up to the size of devoted, repeat customers--just like in 1950s photos of couture houses in Paris. You can't tour the workroom for a regular visit, but you can go in the shop and look around. The staff is incredibly nice. There are also lots of gorgeous gowns to see in the windows.

Filson - 1555 4th Avenue South
Photo from

Speaking of the real deal: Filson. Filson started up during the Klondike Gold Rush by supplying rugged outdoor gear to Alaska-bound miners. Then they were known for outfitting loggers. Their stuff is still exceptionally well-made, and almost all of it still sewn right here in Seattle. Everything they make is available at their flagship store, and many of the styles are historic designs which have been unchanged since the early 20th century. I'm told they do factory tours (just a few blocks away from the flagship store) by appointment. I haven't done it yet, so I can't guarantee how it works. But try calling the main Seattle store or using the "contact us" box on the website. Worth a try!

EMP Museum - 325 5th Ave N

EMP is sometimes a bit of a punchline.  Along with "carry umbrellas" and "go up the Space Needle" it often shows up on lists of "things real Seattleites don't do." It was conceived as a Jimi Hendrix oriented, high-tech rock n' roll museum, and is housed in a weird blob of a Frank Gehry building. Currently its focus has broadened (EMP originally stood for "Experience Music Project") and the new tagline is "Music + Sci-Fi + Pop Culture." So, it is kind of a weird place with some identity issues. But the thing that everyone forgets is that it is actually full of cool stuff.  Last time I went, there were costumes from Game of Thrones and The Princess Bride, the sweater Kurt Cobain wore in the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit, Macklemore's fur coat from the Thrift Shop video, and some jaw-droppingly fab Jimi Hendrix outfits that were made for him in London (see photo above). We are talking bespoke-quality stuff with 60s Peacock Revolution style, and worn by Jimi Freaking Hendrix. That is some hardcore fashion history provenance right there folks.

The Henry Art Gallery - 15th Ave NE & 41st St
Schiaparelli Sweater,

Ok, this one takes a bit more work on your part, and is really for the serious historians who are knee-deep in some cool research project. The Henry houses a collection of costumes and textiles collected by various University of Washington departments. The museum specializes in contemporary art, and so the fashion collection is rarely on display.  But they do have a study center and with a little advance planning you can make an appointment and see something cool.

Start by searching their online database and find something you want to see. Then, go here and read up on their polices and their hours. Once you are ready to commit, use the contact info on that page to request an appointment.

Ok, now get out there and see the historical fashion sights of Seattle! And let me know if you find a destination you think I should add to the list.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Insect Stoicism

Do I talk about bugs too much on this blog? I really want to do a post about bugs this week, but for some reason I feel like it is overdone. Well I'm going to go ahead anyway.


It struck me this week that you have to have a very specific reaction to bugs in order to be a museum collections person. First of all, you can't have compassion for them. If you are the kind of person who likes to trap spiders and carefully escort them outside, collections work is going to be tough. In grad school, during a lecture about deep-freezing a carpet beetle infested textile, someone piped up and asked if there wasn't some more humane way that didn't involve killing the bugs.

Look, I'm not some big advocate of DDT who wants to see all insects eradicated from earth. 'Cause, you know, ecosystems and circle of life and such. But when bugs are feeding on a wool textile, there just isn't a way to, like, ask nicely if they would leave.

But on the other hand, you can't be squeamish about bugs. If you HATE all things that creep and crawl  and are more like to to scream and run when encountering insects, collections work is probably not the gig for you.

This week Betsy and I tried to get our Integrated Pest Management plan in order (IPM for short). IPM is a big part of many collections jobs. What you are supposed to do is strategically place sticky traps around your space (aka "blunder" traps which don't lure with food or pheromones, but just try to catch whoever is walking past), change them periodically, identify all the bugs you catch, and keep the data of what you are finding. No matter how clean and sealed your collections space is there WILL be bugs. If you monitor though, you know if you are getting any bad bugs, and can keep track of what kinds of things you get seasonally.

In other words, you have to be totally ok with spending some serious quality time with dead bugs.

And in MOHAI's case it also means you get to spend some quality time with what may be the single oldest laptop continually in use in the city of Seattle.

Now upgraded to Windows 2000!

We use it because it runs an old CD-ROM program that connects to a microscope. You can see the image on the screen, take snapshots, and download them to a USB. The laptop is a little wheezy but it works fine and the program is actually pretty cool.

It turns out that in order to be a great collections manager, your approach to bugs has to be that of a fourth grader. You have to be inquisitive, slightly sadistic, and thrilled by the gross-out factor. Seeing little specks get blown up into six-legged creatures on screen tapped into the "Whoa! Cool!" science side of me. I mean, just check out these pics:


I really like this pic of two spiders hanging out with a millipede

This is maybe a beetle locked in the death snare of a spider

Let's look closer:

I have to admit though, it was hard not to get just a little creeped out sometimes by all these multi-legged beasts appearing so big on a computer screen. The best part was when Betsy and I were quietly considering a section of the trap when one of the bugs STARTED MOVING. 

We screamed and jumped back. I guess not everything was fully dead, and the heat from the microscope light sort of woke it up. Kristin was back in her corner laughing at us, and then came over to look too. We found the spot and then all had a super girly EWWWWWWWW GROSS moment before stoically resuming our work.