Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Miss Fisher's FIC Mysteries

Once again, I skipped a week blogging and feel I need to offer an excuse. But that assumes that all of you dear readers hang on my every word and eagerly check each week for a post, and are lost and devastated when one doesn't appear (since there is very little to read or watch on the internet, so when one blogger drops the ball, the entertainment void is felt by all).

Fortunately I have a really good excuse. I spent all of last weekend watching Netflix.

Last week Olivia and I decided to try a new show which looked like it might be good: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. It quickly became clear that this wasn't just a "good" show, it was 100% up our alley in every way. Sassy, independent female lead, period setting with amazing costumes, attractive men in suits, and an ensemble of characters that are continuously delightful.

Not the least of which are Communist-leaning cab drivers, Burt & Cec

I realize this is going to sound like hyperbole (especially since I know MULTIPLE people who became parents this week) but there is nothing in this life quite like the supreme joy of discovering a new piece of entertainment--be it book/movie/TV show/play/music--that you love so much that you can feel your life getting tangibly better because of it.

Phyrne Fisher is just the role model we need with St. Catherine's Day right around the corner. She is fearless, fabulous, and sharp. In a strange way, I feel like she guided me into all kinds of awesome things this week.

First of all, I spent some time trying to figure out which 1920s pieces from our collection will be on display next year during the run of American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. This "looking for pretty dresses" part of my job is unfairly awesome, but was made even better because I felt like I was riffling through Miss Fisher's wardrobe.

I mean, I feel like she may actually own this coat:

And at the end of the week, I saw some long-term detective work of my own finally come to fruition. Fortunately I am not researching murders (although could be persuaded if a handsome, suit-wearing detective was part of the deal) but FICs

If only I had this team to help with all those mystery socks

MOHAI has a collection of hats from Chicago milliner Benjamin Green-Field, or Bes-Ben as his brand was called. Our first record of them is a handwritten note from the early 90s saying that they had been dropped off anonymously "many years ago." They were "discovered" again in 2007 and given an FIC number. 

Bes-Ben hats are wacky and fun. Google the name and you'll see what I'm talking about. MOHAI's set includes one with painted chicken legs. 

Even though the Seattle connection was unknown, the hats were displayed a few times and in 2011 they were featured as a "Thursday Hidden Treasure" on the MOHAI blog. What followed was amazing affirmation of why it is important for museums to use the internet to make their collections more public. A few months after that post, I was contacted by a woman from Chicago who wanted to know more about our Bes-Ben hats. I had to reluctantly tell her that I didn't have any information about the donor. She got excited about the mystery, and since she was looking at the business ledgers and records as part of her research, offered to help me. Over the next few years, as she had time and I had time, we exchanged information about the hats. Using the chicken feet as a starting point (shockingly, it was not a top seller) she was able to connect nearly all of the hats to a single Seattle-based client.

I spent time researching this likely donor and attempted to find contact information for her family. About a month ago I sent a letter to someone I hoped was her son. And YESTERDAY I got back a signed deed of gift. As I had hoped, he had shared the information and the images with his sister, so both children were on board with making the donation official. The sister even wrote a note saying that she recognized the hats as belonging to her mother. I literally bounded down the hallway when I opened the letter. This is the museum equivalent of solving a cold case murder. 


I have to admit, the woman in Chicago did most of the work so she may be the Phryne of this partnership. I guess that makes me Jack-- generally useful but mostly standing around looking great in a suit. Hmm...that analogy may have gotten away from me. What was I saying? Something about Jack looking good in a suit? 


And speaking of hats...if you are an archivist, educator, milliner, couture house worker, or unrepentant spinster, don't forget to celebrate St. Catherine's Day on the 25th! 

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