Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Stuff in Pockets

You know that weird/awesome moment when you reach your pocket and find something you didn't expect? Like, sometimes it is $20 and you suddenly feel like some kind of high roller whose pockets are overflowing with MONEY.

Or sometimes you find a ticket from a concert you went to or a restaurant receipt, and you suddenly get filled with memories from that day. Or sometimes you find a weird paper lump, which was probably a ticket or a receipt before it went through the wash. Personally, I find a lot of Kleenex in my pockets. This is usually a sign that 1) I am wearing something that I borrowed from my mother, or 2) I am becoming my mother.

Well, this happens all the time in the costume collection. When we clean an artifact or prepare it for exhibit, sometime random stuff falls out of the pockets. Much like your own pockets, it can vary in levels of excitement. At best, you find something that tells more about the object-- like a photo, or a handwritten note, or a candy wrapper from famous Seattle restaurant which implies that that dress was probably worn there. But sometimes it is a half-melted lump of actual candy which is totally gross and needs to be cleaned out ASAP.

A lot of the time, what we find in the pockets is kind of a head scratcher. It is maybe a sort of interesting thing, but how it relates to the object is a mystery. I had one such case recently. It happened while a volunteer and I were dressing this lovely 1850s dress:

And in the pocket we found this newspaper clipping: 

So two…jokes? Based on the fact that the paper didn't totally disintegrate in my hand, I'm going to guess it is not from the same era as the dress. Someone probably wore it as a costume for something and then…felt the need to carry around these jokes? Jokes that aren't that funny? In case you don't want to squint and read it, I am going to re-tell you the first one and attempt to make it funny by adding gifs. 

Title: A New Garment 

An American...

...took a visiting Englishman... the theater.

An actor on stage dramatically pleaded with his wife just before he died. "Please don't bury me in Yonkers."

The Englishman looked puzzled a moment, and turning to his host asked: "I say, old chap, what are yonkers?"

Well, I tried. 

Although I think we can agree that with just slightly better writing, a Tom Haverford/Tom Hiddleston buddy comedy would be a 100% would watch situation. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Abducted by the Internet

This week I did something that was potentially a big mistake. I was doing research about some hats in our collection and so did a google search of the designer's name.  I found that there was a Pinterest page of their work but I couldn't see the whole thing unless I signed up.

So I signed up for Pinterest!

For those of you who don't know, Pinterest is basically a digital bulletin board. You can pin things you are interested in from around the internet. Some people use it for recipes, or how-to guides, but a lot of it is just creating a group of images that one finds appealing. I avoided it until now because I was worried I would love it and it would turn into a giant time suck.

Turns out, I was right!

As soon as I joined I knew I was about to watch my life drain away.  Right off the bat there was a page where I was supposed to select topics that I was interested in. They included big, general interest categories like "History," "Food," "Inspirational Quotes," and "Tom Hiddleston."

Seriously. Tom Hiddleston was up there in popularity with "Food" and all genres of history.   

I resisted the temptation to make a board of attractive British men, and instead started with images from my new Seattle fashion obsession-- illustrations by Ted Rand

Who? Me?

...and a MOHAI favorites board and general Seattle fashion one...

Fabulousness for Days

...and one for John Doyle Bishop


I think what appeals to me about it is that it is a very visual way to answer haters who say things like "Is there any fashion in Seattle?" or "Wasn't everyone just wearing plaid shirts and rain boots until [insert name of non-local store] came to town?". Now, instead of convulsing with rage I can instead say cheerfully "Oh! You should follow me on Pinterest!"

So come join me on Pinterest and we can watch our lives melt away together!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Deaccessioning: Everyone Remain Calm

This past month I've been spending a lot of time on one of the most complicated, stressful and controversial things that collections departments do: Deaccessioning.

Now, if you type "deaccession" or "deaccessioning" into Word you will get an immediate red squiggle because no one outside the museum world knows what it is. Basically, to "accession" something into a museum is to make it part of the collection. So to "deaccession" is to remove it from the collection. 

It is controversial and misunderstood because the public tends to FREAK OUT when they hear a museum is getting rid of something. The immediate assumption is either 1) We are tossing priceless cultural artifacts into the dumpster or 2) We are selling off the collection so that the whole staff can get yachts.

Our actual intentions are much less nefarious. To begin with, people don't realize how large museum collections are. Most museums have only about 5-10% of their collection on display at any given time. With 100,000 artifacts and about 2,000 on display, MOHAI clocks in at 2%. So you shouldn't picture beloved artifacts disappearing from display--it is usually stuff you never knew about is departing from deep corners of storage. 

MOHAI has one hundred thousand artifacts. Let that sink in a little. Are you picturing the final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark? That is what it feels like sometimes. We have thousands of square feet of storage space and some of it is packed full. In order to be good stewards of the collection (and have space to keep collecting new things) we have make sure we are using our resources to care for things that are actually relevant to our mission. 

So, say for example that we decide to deaccession a typewriter. "NO!" the public cries, "Typewriters were an essential writing tool before personal computers. How will our children know about typewriters if the museum doesn't teach them?" 

Usually said with some combination of hand wringing and/or pearl clutching

What if then I tell you we have 84 typewriters in the collection. The one we are deaccessioning is one of thirty that have no connection to Seattle, one of twenty that are broken, and one of six from the exact same year. Once it is deaccessioned there will still be 83 typewriters in the collection. 

Starting to get it? 

But the real panic sets in about what we do with things we deaccession. Does it all go in the dumpster? Does it end up in the curator's home? Do we sell it in some back alley transaction, get the money in singles, and then ask an intern to "make it rain"?

Sounds ethical to me!

Ok, I keep making fun of the "the public" but they do have a point about all this. Museums shouldn't have free rein to get rid of things that we have been entrusted to care for. Which is why there are a lot of ethical rules that govern deaccessioning. Like, a lot. I started writing a list but it turned this already long post into a short novel.

Here is the abbreviated, abbreviated version:
-The process is long, involves doing research, and a committee that has to vote unanimously on the decision.
-Once deaccessioned, it is preferable to transfer items to other institutions while sale is a second choice. Not all museums make that priority but MOHAI does and we are lucky that the board members on our collections committee really uphold it (sometimes it is board members who can get dollar signs in their eyes and want to sell, sell, sell).
-If things are sold, no one associated with the museum can buy them (huge conflict of interest) and the money earned can only go back into improving the care of the collection (so artifacts can't be sold off to solve a museum's finical woes and/or facilitate yacht buying).

Hopefully at this point you aren't lighting your torches and heading off to rescue all the artifacts since clearly we can't be trusted with this "deaccessioning" business.

Anyway, I've been having a lot of fun working on deaccession proposals. As part of the process we research the artifact, the donor, the maker, and any other shred of information in case we uncover some reason why the object is worth keeping. Sometimes when I go down a rabbit hole of society intrigue in early 20th century Louisiana or family trees in Minnesota I'll feel like I'm going overboard, but deaccessioning really should be about doing our due diligence.

Because of these stockings I learned that "Bowbells" is the 106th largest town in North Dakota

The research also helps with transferring items. The more you know, the easier it is to find another institution that might be a better fit. When stuff clearly has no Puget Sound connection, it is fun to poke around on the internet, find some potentially relevant museum or historical society, and then send an email and make a connection with a colleague in some other corner of the country.

But sometimes stuff stays close to home. Last month we deaccessioned a surplice (which is your liturgical vocabulary word of the day!) that had belonged to Bishop Stephen Bayne, third Bishop of the Diocese of Olympia.

also known as a church caftan

Despite its name, the Diocese of Olympia is headquartered in Seattle, and Bishop Bayne is one of the predecessors of my oil-dumping friend Greg. BUT this particular surplice was made by for his ordination in New York (made by his mother! awwww) and so doesn't really tell the story of his ministry in Washington.

Bishop Bayne donated it to MOHAI about twenty years before the Diocese of Olympia set up their own archive. So we deaccessioned it and transferred it there, so it could hang out with other vestments and the personal papers of Bishop Bayne.  I got to take it personally to archive, which is held in the top floor of the beautiful Diocesan House on Capitol Hill. The archivist showed me around and told me about the house, the portraits of all the Bishops, and the contents of the archives. She kept apologizing for "probably telling you more than you wanted to know" and I was like ARE YOU KIDDING I'M EATING THIS UP!!!

Kids in Candy Stores = Museum People in Old Mansions
The most exciting thing was that two of the Bishop portraits were painted by Ted Rand, a Seattle-area painter and illustrator who also did ads for Frederick & Nelson in the 1950s.

Ted Rand: Illustrator of Fashion, Painter of Bishops
See, deaccessioning isn't scary and evil! It finds happy homes for neglected artifacts, creates connections between organizations, and somehow led us into a world were you can talk about local church history and fashion advertising in the same sentence. EVERYONE WINS.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Music for Work: Brahms and Beyoncé

When I'm away from my desk, working on some organizational task in the textile room or the conservation lab, I like to listen to music. If I'm in earlier than anyone else, or back in a corner by myself, sometimes I lip-sync along or even dance around if I feel inspired.

But I always listen with headphones or turn it down when someone comes into the room.  My taste is eclectic and wouldn't pass most tests of coolness. Basically, at work I am usually either listening to classical music (mostly choral pieces that I have sung or am about to sing), or dance-y pop music. It's Lady Gaga and Martin Lauridsen, 'Nsync and Nunc Dimittis .


Lately, my faves have been Johannes Brahms and Beyoncé.

I've been listening to a lot of Brahms because last weekend my parents had a big Brahms Requiem "sing along" party. (You know, typical American Labor day fun.) They had a conductor, two soloists,  the orchestration played by a duo on the piano, and about 30 singers at their house. We rehearsed in the afternoon, took a break for dinner, and then ran the whole thing in the evening.  I had never sung the Brahms Requiem before and when I wasn't completely botching the notes, I was finding myself deeply moved by many of the passages.

Then, on Sunday, I picked up some items waiting for me at the library, including Beyoncé's latest album which comes with a DVD of music videos for every song on the album. Olivia and I put it on, thinking that we could talk and get other stuff done while watching, but instead sat totally transfixed and silent for almost the entire seventy minutes.

If you know me, you know I talk A LOT. Olivia also likes to talk. One reason we like watching trashy reality TV shows is that we can talk over them and never really miss anything important (because, let's be honest, nothing legitimately important is ever happening, ever). When we watch something like Sherlock it takes focus and a lot more silence, so we just have to make sure we are both in the mental space to do that. So it is a big deal for us to plan to talk over something and be rendered totally speechless.

Even when it wasn't a song I loved, the visuals and the performances were POWERFUL. And in "Flawless" when she samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Ted Talk about feminism...


(You might be surprised to know that there are more Beyoncé gifs than Brahms ones on the internet)

Wait…I found one...


ANYWAY, two weeks ago it was all Brahms all the time and this last week I was listening almost exclusively to Beyoncé as I put away dresses. 

Knowing that I am in a choir, one of my coworkers once asked why I don't sing more at work. I hope the above information clarifies why. If I did sing it would either be an out-of-context vocal part from a choral arrangement or a rendition of "Partition" so cringe-worthy that people in nearby buildings would feel the shame. 

In conclusion:

This week I'm thinking John Rutter and Robyn.