Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

American Spirits!

Only ONE DAY LEFT before American Spirits : The Rise and Fall of Prohibition opens at MOHAI!!!

I've been doing lots to prepare. First of all, I got a haircut.

A 1920s-inspired bob and it looks AWESOME.

I've also been dressing mannequins and putting new things on display. I added a fabulous Helen Igoe dress into the exhibit (it is a traveling show from the National Constitution Center but there was some spots to add in local stuff). And on Monday I updated the 1920s case in the core Seattle history exhibit. It also looks pretty great.

So for contrast, remember when that case looked like this?

The concept for this case was
"Getting Murdered By Two Thugs Outside the Speakeasy"

Well now it looks like this!

The alley is the same, but the label text is about clothing for 
"Drinking Out" vs. "Drinking at Home."

There is a lot of interesting stuff going on here, but here is a feature you won't read about in the label text-- There is an optical illusion that is almost as cool as that dress that broke the internet a few months ago. The gray fabric covering the necks of the mannequins (which appears light gray on the left and dark gray on the right) is THE SAME FABRIC I KID YOU NOT. I even held up a swatch of it to convince myself and it was like it magically changed color as I moved from mannequin to mannequin.


This is not just how it looks through my crappy camera, that is how it looks IN PERSON.

So if you are in Seattle go see American Spirits, April 2 to Aug 23rd, and stop by the 1920s section in the Seattle history permanent exhibit and prepare to have your mind blown by swatches of gray fabric. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

In the Shadow of the Dome

This weekend I took a trip to Tacoma with my mom, and was perhaps more excited than a Seattleite is allowed to be about visiting Tacoma. (For my out-of-state readers, Tacoma is a large city about an hour drive south of Seattle. The two cities got in a vicious fight in the 19th century regarding a transcontinental railroad terminus and we've been throwing shade at each other ever since).

My mom's choir had a concert on Saturday and a late rehearsal the night before, so a bunch of choir members decided to stay the night in between. I came along in order to hear the concert and hopefully visit a museum while we were there. And Tacoma really rolled out all its grandeur for this trip. We stayed in a hotel with a glorious view of the Tacoma Dome:

(what this photo doesn't capture is the grime on the window)

But I was still excited about what Tacoma had to offer because it is home to the Washington State History Museum, which happened to have a clothing exhibition on view! The show was called Pomp & Circumstance: The Clothing of Transformation and when I heard about it I thought the concept was brilliant. It was all about special occasion clothing, which is exactly what every history museum has coming out of its ears. So why not put your wedding dresses, christening gowns, uniforms, inaugural gowns, and weird ceremonial gear from fraternal organizations on display together and come up with a theme that encompasses it all? GENIUS.


The exhibit was a little smaller than I expected and it looked like it had been put together on a tight budget, but there was a lot of interesting and unexpected stuff. It was the perfect topic to showcase their collection and I was really impressed by the loans they got. Including...



Mannequin dressing nitpick though: I would have put this dress on a slim male mannequin. If you add foam boobs to existing mannequin boobs you get: 


After basking in all the clothes, it was time to check out their core Washington State history exhibit which I hadn't seen since the 8th grade. It was light on artifacts and heavy on sets and props. Not my cup of tea but I realize that school groups are a huge part of their audience, and sitting inside a fake covered wagon is way more engaging for a kid than a real wagon wheel behind glass. But where they really lost me was with the full-size plaster people. These things were like creepy mannequins taken to the NEXT LEVEL.

So many plaster ruffles...

That is one pissed-off frontier drag queen

So remember how I said that there is a bit of a rivalry between Seattle and Tacoma? Because obviously Seattle is better and Tacoma is just bitter about it? 

Well, since this was an exhibit about the history of Washington State they obviously had to at least mention Seattle. So how did they do it? 

Welcome to Seattle! Land of hopeless slums!

Yep, they put the spotlight on Seattle for the section on the Great Depression, illustrating the era with a reproduction "Hooverville" shack. When you went inside there were two plaster men talking about how everything was terrible, accompanied by an audio track of heavy rain falling on a tin roof. 


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Estate Sales and Home Visits

Last weekend Olivia and I were walking around our neighborhood and saw a series of signs about an ESTATE SALE just a few blocks away. It was a nice day and we didn't have much to do, so we followed the arrows and ended up at an old Capitol Hill mansion with a long line of people waiting outside. Our interest had only barely carried us far enough to walk to the house, so when we saw that waiting was involved we decided to just go home.

I mean, we left the house when there was still Kimmy Schmidt to binge watch

But I kept thinking about that giant house and what could be inside, and so later in the afternoon I went back on my own. It was just one hour before they closed for the day and there was STILL a line. I heard people around me talking about how they had heard it was "amazing" and "worth the wait" and how the house had to be 7,000 square feet at least. When I finally made it inside...

I was reminded that giant houses full of stuff are never quite as fun as they sound.

And I should know.

At the museum we sometimes get calls from potential donors who don't have one specific thing they want to donate, but are cleaning out their grandma's/parents'/beloved neighbor's house and want the museum to come and take whatever they want. On paper, this sounds AWESOME. Room after room of stuff for the taking!!! But having gone on a few home visits, and I gotta say, it's not all it is cracked up to be. Here is why:

#1: It is overwhelming

We all own too much stuff. I share a two bedroom apartment and wherever there is space I have filled it with stuff. If I lived in a 7,000 square foot house I would fill it with stuff. Some people have the energy to hunt through mountains of stuff to uncover that one awesome find (these people are usually expert thrift store shoppers) but I am not one of them. I loose energy really fast when faced with sorting through piles of stuff to find that "gem."

#2: There is too much pressure

Estate sales foster impulse buys and competitive shopping--you had better grab that thing and commit to it before anyone else does. For museum home visits the person hosting you wants you to commit to taking as many things as possible, and taking it quick. We don't say yes to every offered home visit because we often don't have the staff resources to do it within the timeframe they need ("everything has to be gone by Friday!"). They are usually experiencing a mix of grief and stress: facing the loss or declining health of someone they love and just wanting this damn house cleaned out already. You taking armloads of stuff assists with both problems: they can be comforted knowing that the legacy of their loved one will be preserved by a museum, and you will be reducing the number of things they have to get deal with themselves. You want to make them happy, but you aren't excited about taking tons of stuff because...

#3: It is mostly things that you don't want and/or have too much of already

Table and bed linens, dishes, well-used polyester clothes, MORE DISHES. There are always so many dishes. Dishes can be cool and interesting but the Seattle Art Museum has already won the prize in this town for doing an amazing display of dishes and there just isn't a need for MOHAI to go there.

I ended up not buying anything at the estate sale. But I have taken things during museum home visits that I was genuinely excited about. So I can't pretend that I am immune to the siren call of "a house full of stuff."

Amazing future museum artifacts are out there...waiting...perhaps just beyond that wall of monogrammed towels...

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Dressed for the Sea

I've been having blog writer's block because I don't feel like anything BIG has been happening lately. I haven't made any new discoveries about John Doyle Bishop, no new bug nightmares have occurred at work, and I haven't fallen in love with any new shows or movies. It is sort of like when a friend who has recently gotten married or started a new job or had a baby is like "What's new with you!?!?!" and the only appropriate response is "nothing." Because you can't follow "My body just produced this tiny human!" with "I tried out this new brunch place. It was ok."

But that doesn't mean that life is bad. John Doyle Bishop is still magical to me, it is a blessing that there haven't been any new bug crises, and I love watching movie/tv favorites for the umpteenth time. I mean, why watch something new when Strictly Ballroom is quite possibly the perfect movie?


Mostly, stuff has just been chugging along, being great. Our big 2015 effort to reorganize and improve the shoe storage is well underway. I'm totally digging our new database. The big vacuuming project from last year is nearly done and all my volunteers are rocking at their new projects. Last week we had an all-staff retreat and it was actually pretty productive. 

Ooh wait! I do have a story about that one!

Before the retreat we were asked to submit a photo of an artifact "that reflects you but that others might not immediately associate with you." Assuming that this would be used for some sort of icebreaker guessing game, I was beside myself trying to comply with that last part. Any garment or accessory I picked was going to be a dead giveaway, ESPECIALLY if I picked something in storage that no one else knew about. Over lunch, us collections and library staff started coming up with the silliest possible options. Could we pick a mirror? What about the creepiest artifact photos in the database? That broken doll that is just a jumble of parts? What about that box that is full of random pieces of wood? That weird 1950s toy that looks like an elephant eating a baby?

Collections staff! Are you not taking this seriously!?!?!

I ended up picking one of our ship's figureheads-- the male one. I picked it for several reasons. One: I remember seeing it on display at MOHAI when I was a kid, long before I knew I was into museums or history. Two: I like artifacts with weird hidden stories. It is unusual to have a male figurehead on a ship, and this one was made to represent its owner. He originally had a beard, and when the ship changed hands, the new owner (who only wore a mustache) had him "shaved" by carving away the beard. 

And Three: Since I am one of the few people in Seattle who doesn't love camping and hiking and kayaking in the great outdoors I appreciate this guy's style. He is strapped to the front of a boat but he still took the time to dress up. I feel that. He is my spirit figurehead.