Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Saturday, April 23, 2016

This is Unhelpful

If there was a hippocratic oath for museum collections staff it would definitely contain something about leaving behind information in a form which will be helpful to my successors.  We've all suffered through enough collections mysteries to know that an attitude of "I'm going to make up my own weird system to do this!" and "I'm sure I won't forget to finish that project" is a recipe for disaster.

Worst of all are those projects that someone clearly spent tons of time on which resulted in something completely useless. When one of my coworkers started in the department and asked if the collection had ever been inventoried she was told "yes! lots of times!" and shown a drawer full of lists of artifacts. No location information, no images, no condition details. Just a list of artifacts by type.

Anyway, so while working on our collection of fans, I found a note so astonishingly unhelpful I had to laugh. Apparently, some sort of fan expert had been through the box and wrote a summary of what was found inside. Here it is verbatim, IN IT'S ENTIRETY:

Some inexpensive 20th century fans. 
Most fans in this box are last half 19th century. 
A few 18th century fans. 
Three fantastic (no pun intended) fans I’ve never seen before in 35 years of fan research! No other museum has them, including New York Met., Smithsonian, DeYoung, etc. 

There was no included list indicating which fans were which. NONE. Nothing in the box seemed that amazing to me, but I could identify one or two that seemed to be a little different or of somewhat better quality. I spent some time looking at the Met's database and saw a bunch of SPECTACULAR fans which were way more impressive than anything in this box. 





Which made me think...who even knows what was in this box when the note was written? Or if the note was even placed with the right box!?! I later came across a few fans that, while not any more exceptional than anything I saw on the Met website, were potentially in the same league. But wait...there's more! A couple boxes later I found ANOTHER note, with the same handwriting, full of more juicy information: 

Most of the fans are last quarter 19th century. Some oriental. Some very good fans. A lot of not so good fans. A few should definitely be mended!

Without any hint of the object numbers or even a vague description or list there was nothing I can do with this information other than throw it away. 

JK I put both notes up on my bulletin board and am going to laugh at them every day. 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Things I Learned at the Pop Culture Conference

A couple weeks ago I attended the national conference for the Pop Culture Association & American Culture Association. I had submitted a paper to them on a whim-- the conference was in Seattle so why not? I picked my paper on the Hemline Index (the idea that skirts get shorter when the economy is good and longer when it is bad) which I wrote in grad school and have revised a few times. It was accepted, so I gamely looked forward to attending this conference for an organization I otherwise knew nothing about.

With such a broad range of subjects encompassed by "pop culture" and "American culture" most of the sessions didn't relate much to what I do. Some of the topics were pretty niche, but amazing that people are studying this stuff at an academic level. I had a great time just picking things that sounded interesting and learning some weird stuff.

When I went to my first talk I was also trying to get a sense of the typical presentation style. It turned out to be a tough one to start with because speaker didn't use any notes (impressive!) but then it quickly became clear that his talk was...kinda bad. There was maybe a thesis in there somewhere, but mostly it seemed like he just really wanted to tell us about his favorite sketch comedy show and what all the actors have done since then. He also had this to say about a woman on the show:

"She played a range of female characters, from the attractive to the unattractive"

Wow! The prize for the most sexist comment went to the first presenter in the first session! What are the odds!?!

Another head-scratcher was a scholar who was "transitioning" from a retail career to academia, and the presentation was basically just him gushing about how amazing the flagship Ralph Lauren store is. He was an engaging and confident presenter but...what?!

Now, you didn't hear this from me, but I've heard some whispers in the fashion historian community that Ralph Lauren ALLEGEDLY copies a lot of his designs. So I internally giggled when the presenter told a story about how Ralph fell in love with a staircase in a European mansion and requested to recreate it in his store. I wrote down the following quote:

"Can I make an exact replica?" -- Ralph Lauren

One talk that DID relate to my job was about the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle. All four presenters were not from the area, so I was VERY intrigued to know how people outside Seattle talk about the fair.  I learned a lot, but my favorite tidbit had to be the fact that the New York Public Library has, in its collection on the 1964/65 New York fair, three whole boxes of documents on the Seattle fair. There was a big rivalry between the two because it was two U.S. fairs in a short period of time, and Seattle had won the official endorsement from the Bureau of International Expositions. The papers document all the drama and the New York committee's plans to go "into enemy territory" by visiting the Seattle fair and plotting to make theirs better. Since the Seattle fair was first, had the official BIE endorsement, and was a financial success, the Seattle committee was basically like:

One really fun session was given by a woman who studies wedding-themed reality television. She actually wrote her PhD thesis on the subject. I mean, sometimes it feels like binge-watching Say Yes To The Dress makes me dumber, but this woman is like I WATCHED SO MUCH SYTTD I NOW HAVE A PHD.

So she is basically my new hero.