Varnish is a Tricky Mistress, or, My Summer with the Boston Furniture Archive, Part 2

This blog post is by Erica Lome, a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware. This fall, she will be a Graduate Assistant at Nemours Mansion & Gardens.

A summer in Boston can really fly by when you’re exploring beautiful historic homes and encountering new types of furniture. My first blog post about my experience with the Boston Furniture Archive (BFA) covered only our orientation and the first few days of working at a site. Since then, we’ve visited four vastly different locations spanning distinct periods in American material culture. First, the 1749 Spooner House in Plymouth where one family lived for over 200 years. Then, onto the Bostonian Society (est.1881) located in the Old State House, where a dedicated group of antiquarians assembled to preserve the property and create a repository for objects significant to Boston’s history. Along the posh streets of Back Bay lay our next destination, the Gibson House Museum, a snapshot of Victorian domestic life circa 1860 untouched by modern museum interventions. Lastly, we recently finished a week at the Loring-Greenough House in Jamaica Plain, built in 1760 for Commodore Loring. While its gardens are used primarily as a public recreation space for the community, the house is often closed to visitors and contains both original objects and those collected by the historic Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club.

A peek inside the Loring-Greenough Hosue

A peek inside the Loring-Greenough House

At these sites, we encountered English beds from the seventeenth century, ornately carved Renaissance Revival sideboards, Queen Anne tea tables, and reproduction Chippendales. While I’ve benefited tremendously as a historian from this experience, I have also learned a great deal about what it takes to manage, steward, preserve and interpret collections at small institutions and museums. Curators and board members alike were deeply invested in the holistic mission of their sites and provided us with records, inventories, and family histories so that we could view the objects we catalogued as part of a larger historic and personal narrative, rather than as isolated specimens.

That being said, the day-to-day work of cataloguing and photographing led to some unique learning moments. Rather than recap everything I did, I’ve decided to list some of the important and unexpected lessons I’ve learned which may benefit future scholars in the field.

1) Space is nearly always limited. At the Bostonian Society, we worked in a narrow storage room, with chairs crammed into nearly every available corner. The Society started out collecting objects relevant to the interests of its founders, which included many nineteenth-century pieces. Presently, the Society is focused on building up its Colonial and Revolutionary-era collections, so many of the pieces formerly on view have been placed out of sight of the public. With these challenges, we had to be creative when it came to staging a photography studio, and flexible (literally) about moving around. We encountered similar space issues when it came to shooting furniture too heavy to move. You won’t always have a great space to work in, so come prepared to problem-solve!

BFA member Zoe, taking a picture from inside the bathroom at the Gibson House

BFA member Zoe, taking a picture from inside the bathroom at the Gibson House

Squeezing into the carriage house at the Spooner House

Squeezing into the carriage house at the Spooner House

Working in collaboration with the collection’s manager, we set up a tight but workable space for shooting at the Bostonian Society

Working in collaboration with the collection’s manager, we set up a tight but workable space for shooting at the Bostonian Society

2) Furniture lies. A piece you thought you examined in one kind of light will end up having a bunch of marks (graphite numbers, signatures, chalk inscriptions) under the super-intense lights of the photo studio. Varnish, especially coatings applied during the late nineteenth to early twentieth-century, will disguise the wood grain and make identification difficult, or may appear to look deceptively like veneer. Additionally, a table that looks steady on its feet in the corner will turn out to have a pin loose, or is held together by some glue.

BFA intern Melissa examines each individual drawer for marks, while my nesting tables in the foreground turned out to have quite a few dowels loose

BFA intern Melissa examines each individual drawer for marks, while my nesting tables in the foreground turned out to have quite a few dowels loose

I found this chalk signature on the underside of a fall-front desk, after removing all the drawer components. Quite a surprise!

I found this chalk signature on the underside of a fall-front desk, after removing all the drawer components. Quite a surprise!

3) Be ready to face years and years of cobwebs built up in every nook and cranny. Likely, there will be some critter still crawling around and angry that you’ve disturbed their home.

Cobwebs, yuck.

Cobwebs, yuck.

4) Strength is key! We often joked that part of our training should have been a furniture boot camp, where we would deadlift armchairs and do squats with pedestal-base tea tables. In order to avoid straining our backs, we had to train ourselves to lift things the right way. Some pieces took all four of us to move, all while half-blind and maneuvering around obstacles.

An example of the diverse holdings of chairs from the Bostonian Society, and the problems their surroundings presented when it came to moving them.

An example of the diverse holdings of chairs from the Bostonian Society, and the problems their surroundings presented when it came to moving them.

5) Drink water, you fool! Summertime in Boston is no joke. You will likely one day work in a historic house with little to no air conditioning, and you’ll probably be working in the attic too. Our time at the Gibson house was punctuated by periodic water breaks and trips downstairs to the small fan for a moment of respite from the humidity. With the bright studio lights adding ten degrees to any space we were in, paying attention to our bodies was crucial.

A selfie taken in a moment of rest in between shooting at the Gibson House. Between the lights, carpet, and insulating wallpaper, it was a very hot stairway.

A selfie taken in a moment of rest in between shooting at the Gibson House. Between the lights, carpet, and insulating wallpaper, it was a very hot stairway.

6) Communication and Collaboration. At the beginning of the summer, we worked in pairs to catalogue each object and photograph them. Once we grew more confident in our skills, we found it more effective to divide-and-conquer and work solo on smaller objects like chairs and side-tables. However, it is silly to think you alone can know everything there is to know about a piece of furniture. I still have trouble with wood identification, and frequently sought the advice of my cohort. Alternatively, I could helpfully point out the differences in a Federal (1795-1815) vs. Empire (1815-1840) example when asked. We also took turns consulting our traveling library, looking for similar examples to guide our decision-making. When it came to photographing stationary pieces like tall case clocks or secretaries, we all worked together to hold up white backdrops and brown felt to decrease the reflective glare on tabletop surfaces. Tiring work, but worth it for the catalogue-worthy picture.

BFA member Claire looks through different wood samples to determine the material of this tea table

BFA member Claire looks through different wood samples to determine the material of this tea table

7) Have fun! Once our group started clicking, we could approach our tasks with a good amount of levity and humor. Picture four tired, sweaty young women gazing with intense focus at a chair…inside of a thrift store with pop music blaring. After a day of moving and photographing (hot lights!), we took a well-deserved ice cream break and wandered into a local shop. Secondhand furniture lingered in the corner, and although it was clearly a reproduction, someone wondered aloud what kind of wood it was and the four of us leaned in for a beat of silence, faces screwed in concentration, and then we burst out laughing. Even in our off-hours, we still had furniture on the brain!

From atop the stepstool, Zoe passes the camera’s memory card to a recumbent Claire

From atop the stepstool, Zoe passes the camera’s memory card to a recumbent Claire

If this experience has taught me anything, it is to always be looking. Once you know how something is put together, or can recognize its stylistic influences, you see your material environment in a completely new way! One member of the BFA came to work sheepishly admitting she had spent the night before trying to figure out the wood of every piece of furniture in her bedroom; another claimed she couldn’t finish a movie set in the colonial era when she spotted an Eastlake piece in the periphery of the frame. As for myself, going with my mother through the famous annual Brimfield Antique Show became a chance to play “Antiques Roadshow,” to her delight.

With worksheets to transcribe and photos to edit, my summer in Boston will end on a more mundane note. However, I’m proud that my efforts will contribute to future scholarship and discoveries in the field of material culture. I return to the University of Delaware excited and prepared to tackle any new collections that come my way.

Mysterious chairs await at the Gibson House Museum

Mysterious chairs await at the Gibson House Museum

About the author: This blog post is by Erica Lome, a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware. This fall, she will be a Graduate Assistant at Nemours Mansion & Gardens.

Dovetails and Tenons: A Love Story, or My Summer with the Boston Furniture Archive Begins

This blog post is by Erica Lome, a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware. This fall, she will be a Graduate Assistant at Nemours Mansion & Gardens. You can find her at

Walking into an eighteenth-century house to find three women with their legs sticking out from halfway underneath a sofa makes for an interesting sight. For me, it’s all part of a day’s work. This summer, I’m joined by three other young historians as a member of the Boston Furniture Archive. We will assess, catalogue, and photograph objects from historic institutions throughout the greater Boston area.

The Boston Furniture Archive (BFA) is an extension of the Four Centuries of Massachusetts Furniture project (organized and operated by the Winterthur Museum), which seeks to explore and celebrate furniture-making in the Bay State. As part of our summer’s duties, we’ve been trained to examine objects ranging from Windsor chairs to high chests. Already in its third year, this is an extensive and ongoing cataloguing project that will benefit scholars of material culture in untold ways.

Before we could even begin, I joined my BFA cohort in Boston for a week-and-a-half-long training session held at various institutions hosted by some of the leading experts in the field. At the Trustees of Reservations, Broke Jobe (who, with others, literally wrote the book on southeastern Massachusetts furniture) took us through a decorative arts boot camp. We learned about handling furniture and conservation practices at Historic New England with Senior Conservator Alex Carlisle and Senior Curator Nancy Carlisle.

Care and handling of objects at Historic New England

Care and handling of objects at Historic New England

At the North Bennett Street School, Winterthur’s Gregory Landry and furniture-maker Steve Brown taught us all about craftsmanship and wood identification (one of the trickiest aspects of cataloguing by far).

Cabinetmaking samples at the North Bennett Street School, one of the oldest trade schools in America

Cabinetmaking samples at the North Bennett Street School, one of the oldest trade schools in America

And, finally, at the Golden Ball Tavern Museum in Weston, we had the opportunity to learn professional photography and photoshop techniques so that anyone can access the best quality images and information about the furniture they seek on the BFA’s online database:

Practicing our photography skills on a Queen Anne chair

Practicing our photography skills on a Queen Anne chair

After that week of intense hands-on training, we were pumped and ready to get on the road! Our first stop was the Spooner House (c.1743) at the Plymouth Antiquarian Society in Plymouth, MA. Right up the road from Plymouth Rock, this lovely historic property features objects descended directly from its original eighteenth-century occupants. Happily, we were welcomed by Am Civ alum Anne Reilly, now the executive director of the Plymouth Antiquarian Society!

Our journey begins at the Spooner House!

Our journey begins at the Spooner House!

Our first day was a real eye-opener: thinking we could breeze through catalogue sheets that were as long as eleven pages, we soon learned the challenges of looking at furniture with a critical gaze. Using wood samples, UV flashlights and magnifying glasses, we first looked at every panel, leg, and frame of a seemingly “simple” Federal card table to determine the primary and secondary woods. Often the answers eluded us–was that porous hardwood mahogany? Or walnut? What about the figured veneers–might it be burled maple? Another crucial component was the means of construction, and whether the piece was handcrafted or machine-made.

The indispensable wood sample box, helping for learning wood types

The indispensable wood sample box, helping for learning wood types, which is part of our cataloguing kit

Certain things are dead giveaways to the former or latter, such as nail shape and size, saw marks, and joinery techniques. Of course, there’s also the style of a piece. Inlays, banding, and therm legs (or squared, tapered legs) certainly indicate the card table was from the Federal Period (1790-1815), but we might encounter revival styles in the future–or even reproductions!

Learning construction techniques at the North Bennett Street School

Learning construction techniques at the North Bennett Street School

Most importantly, our mission is to contribute to Boston’s furniture-making history. It’s been pointed out to us time and time again how little research and scholarship exists for this subject, as most furniture after the eighteenth century is attributed to New York or Philadelphia. The work we do this summer, at places like the Bostonian Society, Gibson House Museum, and New England Historic Genealogical Society, provides much-needed materials for historians of material culture in their ongoing and future projects. My own research examines how historical memory, craftsmanship, and American culture intersect and inform one another, and the benefits of having a resource like the Boston Furniture Archive are not to be underestimated. So often, our education in material culture comes from books, or museums, or the archives. Actually being able to handle furniture and comprehend their design and construction goes a long way towards enriching one’s education.

Furniture historians in their natural habitat!

Furniture historians in their natural habitat!

We have a busy summer ahead of us, and I hope to update the Am Civ blog as we make progress!

About the Author: Erica Lome is a student in the History of American Civilization Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware. This fall, she will be a Graduate Assistant at Nemours Mansion & Gardens. You can find her at

Change Over Time

Watching intently as the workshop leaders shuffled hot embers from the front to the back of the hearth at an introductory hearth cooking workshop I took at Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum yesterday, I wondered whether I would have a chance to probe and prod meat again as it simmered and stewed over the fire. The first time I wielded a spatula was earlier that morning when I was directed to flip the meatballs. After accomplishing that mission, I stepped back to help chop and mix up turnips, onions, parsley, and butter. Lots of butter.

Nicole flipping meatballs over an open hearth (a 1930s-era reconstruction) at Landis Valley, February 2015

Nicole flipping meatballs over an open hearth (a 1930s-era reconstruction) at Landis Valley, February 2015

As a historian of the material culture of everyday life of early America, I spend a lot of time in museum collections and archives. As a result, I know how all this stuff works in theory. I’ve read countless historic recipes and walked past more hearths in historic houses (usually over-accessorized) that I can count. I’ve also seen cooking over a fire demonstrated in a variety of reputable historic sites and houses.

I love my work.

But I registered for the workshop to expand how I learn about and interpret the past. In other words, to bring my interpretative powers up to the next level, I knew I needed to get some time in front of the fire and to dedicate more time overall doing living history. When I say “living history,” I mean what museum and cultural heritage professionals refer to as practicing or enacting activities of the past (such as sewing, fighting, or just passing time at home), often wearing clothing from that period also. Some better-known historic sites that incorporate living history into their visitor experience include Colonial Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation, but there are plenty more fine examples out there. As living history professionals and hobbyists and experimental archaeologists (or any teacher, really) will tell you, doing is knowing. And I want to do more doing.

Why bother?

I wanted to learn if you really could cook a chicken over hot coals in time to have it for dinner (yes!) and how to manipulate the cooking equipment to make food cook faster or slower (it’s complicated).

Chicken garnished and ready to be eaten at Landis Valley Museum, February 2015

Chicken garnished and ready to be eaten at Landis Valley Museum, February 2015

But I also learned things that will add subtlety to my understanding of the past I probably could not have learned any other way. I learned, for instance, that when you bend over a pot you have to battle your own shadow to see inside whether the lamb is still red. I learned what food tastes like if you get it too close to the embers. I also learned why any sort of warming plate, tray, or cabinet you find in any number of museum collections would have been desirable given how darn cold once warm and toasty chicken gets if it’s been sitting to the side of the hearth while you’ve been baking potato rolls, sautéing mushrooms, and roasting pork-wrapped bacon in a tin reflector oven.

Roasting pork-wrapped bacon in a reflector over at Landis Valley, February 2015

Roasting pork-wrapped bacon in a reflector over at Landis Valley, February 2015

I did something! I know more now.

What I didn’t expect to learn was how much of a twenty-first century person I really am. But that’s exactly what happened. As I was minding the lamb in the small cauldron, flipping it periodically to sear it before we threw it into a pot with veggies to make a stew, I accidentally catapulted a chunk of lamb into the fiery embers.

My heart stopped.

“Oh, no!” I gasped with genuine worry as I watched the cube of lamb become a red fireball, indistinguishable from the surrounding coals.

I panicked, just like I do at home when I drop something on a stove burner. I looked around desperately for help. How would I get a burning piece of meat out of the fire? It’s going to smell terribly! Won’t it set off a fire alarm?

I was surprised that in the midst of my horror, everyone was standing calmly behind me. Most were chuckling.

Of course they were. We already have a fire. A big one. In the hearth. I wasn’t making it any worse.

“We’ll just scoop it up,” the Marsha Houston the instructor explained. “Don’t worry about it!”

Right. We’ll just scoop it up. Of course!

I apologized profusely. But I don’t think I was really apologizing for losing a nice piece of meat or even for Marsha having to move it aside. I think I was apologizing for caring so much. In this context, dropping a piece of meat onto a cooking surface wasn’t a big deal. In the space of just a few moments, I had found the gap between my pre-industrial self and my twenty-first century self. And it was a large one. Yes, doing is knowing.

Change over time was never so apparent.

Further Reading and Doing

There are lots of books that the history of domestic life and kitchens. I will list just one here that focuses on kitchen spaces. Nancy Carlisle and Melinda Talbot Nasardinov with Jennifer Pustz, America’s Kitchens (Boston: Historic New England, 2008).

Many museums and historic sites around the country host single- and multi-day hearth cooking workshops. See, for example, Old Sturbridge Village, Genesee Country Village and Museum, Historic Deerfield, and Old Salem Museum & Gardens. Investigate museums in your area and find your own adventure! If you’ve participated in a historic foldaways workshop you particularly liked, let me know.

You can also pay visits to many wonderfully intact historic kitchens at historic sites. In this area, check out The Woodlands in Philadelphia (circa 1786) or The George Read House and Gardens (1803-1805) in New Castle, Delaware. Do you have a favorite?

If you want to learn and talk about about historic foldaways with members from the Philadelphia region, follow Cliveden’s Kitchen Conversations programming.

About the author: Nicole Belolan is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware. She is writing a dissertation about the material culture of physical disability in early America.This blog post was originally published at her professional web site. Nicole tweets @nicolebelolan.

Alumni Profile: Janneken Smucker

The History of American Civilization Program at the University of Delaware boasts many accomplished graduates currently working in a range of capacities at cultural heritage institutions and in academia. We sat down recently with Dr. Janneken Smucker (Am Civ ’10) to talk about what she’s been doing with her degree as an Assistant Professor of History at West Chester University. Here’s what she had to say.

Prof. Janneken Smucker, Am Civ '10 (Photo provided by Janneken Smucker)

Prof. Janneken Smucker, Am Civ ’10 (Photo provided by Janneken Smucker)

Am Civ: What attracted you to the University of Delaware’s History of American Civilization Program? What had you done before coming to UD?

Janneken: Before I applied to the History of American Civilization program at UD, I had earned my MA in Textile History/Quilt Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, working with the International Quilt Study Center. I knew I wanted to continue to study objects, specifically quilts, but within broader contexts of consumer and visual culture. I sought a program in which my niche research interests would be taken seriously, where professors and other students would understand the merits of studying quilts. But I wanted comprehensive training in the field of American history to accompany my more narrow focus on material culture. UD’s AmCiv uniquely provides this.

Am Civ: Your dissertation, which you published as Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon with Johns Hopkins University Press in 2013, gives readers a scholarly yet accessible take on the production and consumption of Amish quilts in American culture. In your book’s introduction, you explain that you are a fifth-generation Mennonite quiltmaker. How would you say your experience making the things you study has informed your research?

Janneken: First of all, my hobby of making quilts inspired my interest in studying these objects. I didn’t even know the phrase “material culture,” but eventually figured out that I could combine quilts with my academic fields of History and Women’s Studies. Because I make quilts—or at least did when I wasn’t frantically juggling being an Assistant Professor and mother—I understand the process of making choices, adapting patterns, adding personal touches, while maintaining aspects of tradition. I knew that quiltmaking is both an individual act and a communal one, and one influenced by many other media and forms of consumer culture. I find understanding the process an essential part of studying these objects.

Am Civ: Before starting as a professor in the Department of History at West Chester University, you worked for Night Kitchen Interactive, a firm that works with museums and other cultural institutions on producing websites and other types of interactive experiences. Now, you teach courses in history as well as in digital humanities at West Chester University. How do you think digital tools enhance the study of the humanities among scholars and the public alike? 

Janneken: I am most interested in “public humanities” and how digital media and technologies can enhance public engagement with humanities content. New tools and platforms for disseminating historical and cultural content promote not just one-sided consumption of content, but participation and co-production of knowledge. Members of the public can share their own stories and perspectives, contribute by volunteering their own expertise through initiatives like Wikipedia, HistoryPin, and crowdsourced transcription projects. History should not be a conversation only among academics, but one that has relevancy to a broad public, and digital history helps make this possible.

Am Civ: What projects are you working on now?

Janneken: On campus I’ve been working with my colleague Professor Charles Hardy and students to create Goin’ North: Stories from the First Great Migration to Philadelphia. Our students created a digital archive of images and primary sources, detailed oral history indexes, and imaginative digital storytelling projects, which re-created the world southern newcomers encountered in early 20th-century Philadelphia. The Oral History Association named it the best non-print project of 2015, and we’re planning to expand the project, teaching the course again in Spring 2016.

In my own research, I am continuing to investigate the role of quilts in American culture, analyzing how New Deal era governmental programs including the Farm Security Administration and the Works Progress Administration drew on the symbolic power of quilts to help advance the nation’s economic recovery.

Am Civ: Do you have any words of wisdom for graduate students currently studying for advanced degrees in material culture studies?

Janneken: I encourage students to think imaginatively about what their futures may hold by taking risks and pursuing unforeseen opportunities. We tend to enter grad school with a distinct vision of a future career; but actual paths during and after grad school may lead in unexpected directions. I took a low-paying internship upon defending my dissertation, and this position led me to develop a whole new skill set in digital technologies, which I would have missed if I had stuck to a more conventional path.

Am Civ: Thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions, Janneken!

On What it Means to Last

By Alyce Graham

In the last week of October, I had the good fortune to attend “Meant to Last? Preserving the Modern & Contemporary,” a conference hosted by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

College of Physicians
College of Physicians (Wiki Commons) 

The two-day conference brought together museum professionals, archivists, conservators, and students from around the region. The discussions prompted by each session raised valuable questions about how collections of modern materials should be composed, conserved, and disseminated.

Gregory Dale Smith, Senior Conservation Scientist at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, led one of the most valuable sessions. By describing the process of setting up his lab at the museum and walking through a few case studies, Smith entered into a wider consideration of what obligations museums had to care for objects made of inherently ephemeral materials. Modern materials often defy traditional cleaning techniques. For example, the plastic webbing on a collection of designer hats had begun to degrade. As plasticizers oozed out, the hats collected dust and lost the glossy appearance intended by the artist. But the plastic resisted water, so the lab stepped in to determine what the best procedure for cleaning and stabilizing the degradation. Unfortunately, they discovered that removing the dust and the sticky residue would only encourage more sticky residue to rise to the surface of the plastic, eventually causing considerable loss to the object. So the curators had to weigh their options: leave the hats dirty, in opposition to their original appearance; or clean the hats and risk losing the object. Smith’s analysis of this situation will help many curators as they work through similar crises in their own collections.

Plastics: Looking at the Future and Learning from the Past
Smith recommended this book called Plastics: Looking at the Future and Learning from the Past

Smith led another session the following day focusing on the case study of a ceramic vase decorated with fugitive inks from a set of markers, the Italian equivalent of Crayola. The vase had gone on a touring exhibition under standard light and humidity restrictions, only to return with near total losses of color over several areas. The museum has not determined a solution to this problem yet. They are working with the artist to understand his intention—was fading and loss part of his plan for the lifespan of the object?—and with conservators and scientists to set storage parameters for the vase. It also served as a reminder to registrars to go ahead and set extremely restrictive light parameters for objects going out on loan, especially if they are made of modern or untested materials. Another reminder came from Smith’s description of a set of plastic lamps that crystallized when left in a storage crate for over a year. Despite the admonition that the crates should not serve as permanent storage, a reorganization of the museum’s storage areas made it seem safer to keep them packed. During that year, the wood of the packing crates turned the interior environment of the crates acidic, causing the crystallization. The crystallized lamps have been deaccessioned into a study collection, and now we all have one more reason to unpack promptly.

Besides the scientific case studies, the conference also provided several sessions that asked wider questions about what collections of modern materials could mean to the public. Several talks broadly considered the implications of collection and conservation. There was an excellent explanation of copyright laws, and a panel discussion about digital collections. Anne C. Jones, curator at the 1950’s All-Electric House at the Johnson County (KS) Museums, spoke about their acquisition and furnishing of an entire house. The museum collected a tract house as an exemplar of the style of homes that changed post-war America. There was nothing special about it architecturally or historically. Instead, it was refurbished as a model home exactly like the ones people would have toured in the 1950s. In light of this, Jones shunned traditional conservation of several objects, reaching out instead to commercial restoration services to make the objects “look new.” This unorthodox decision allowed her to protect the museum’s intent for the house’s collection.

Even for those of us material culture scholars who love the really old stuff, it is likely that the collections we will care for in our professional futures will hold objects made of modern materials. As we care for whatever sort of degrading plastic hats or vases made with cheap, nontoxic markers in our own collections, holding aloft the questions of our collection’s purpose and the artist’s intent can guide us as we make critical decisions.

About the author: Alyce Graham is a fifth-year American Civilization PhD candidate writing her dissertation about hardship and suffering in nineteenth-century polar exploration.

Reflections on the art installation “from hear to ear” at the Peabody Essex Museum

by Alyce Graham

At the end of March, I went to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA to visit their special exhibit from here to ear.” The exhibit ran in the Special Exhibitions Gallery from January through April.

The installation by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot involved over seventy live zebra finches flying loose around a serene space with electric guitars set up as their perches. Wherever the finches landed, they created chords reverberating in gently expressive feedback loops through the amplifiers nestled throughout the space. The music the finches created—erratic, unexpected, discordant, melodic—drew people through the exhibit space along a carefully sculpted pathway.

PEM screen shotZebra finches are the most strikingly colored and sweetly shaped little birds. It felt magical just being so close to them as they fluttered around the bundles of reed nesting baskets hanging from the ceiling or rustled around the sandy nests they built behind the amplifiers. And, just as promised, the birds landed on the guitar perches and made music. But they did not simply land on the guitars and stand there. Instead, they hopped up and down the fingerboards, popping out bright chords along the way. They cleaned their beaks, a glissando back and forth across the strings. They squabbled with one another over the frets. One fat little bird even fell asleep on the warm place on the guitar body where the electric hook-ups connected, his feathers creating waves of sound by brushing up against the strings as he snored. The unexpected difference between reading about the exhibit and attending the exhibit was the dimensionality of it. When a new chord thrummed through the room, everyone looked to see where it came from, what cluster of birds was creating it, and what they were doing. Sound suggested motion and activity, not alarm but curiosity.

The exhibit encouraged visitation to another gallery with an exhibit on animal “collaboration” in art, which included videos, paintings, sculpture, and photography that used animals in their statements. (Sadly, all the ants in the artistic ant farm had died after crawling into what looked like a custom-built ant panic room, but the crickets in the tiny replica of a mid-century modern home were doing well.) In this way, the museum extended their visitors’ allotted twenty minutes of “from here to ear” and presented them with a host of interconnected ideas about how to think of the art they had just experienced.

The Peabody Essex took a risk putting on an exhibit where guests interacted with live animals. Most museums loathe unpredictability. They took appropriate measures to protect both the birds and their permanent collections. The small number of visitors and timed tickets contained people’s interactions with the finches. Entrance to the exhibit was through several doors, minimizing the chance of loose birds. Large signs warned people with allergies to feathers and birdseed that the exhibit was not a purified space. A gallery interpreter was present at all times—an enviable job, playing with the finches all day. (Read more about them on the museum blog.) And a veterinarian was on staff, too, watching for injury or signs of stress. So risks to the collection were recognized and mitigated, and the museum drew throngs of visitors from the contemporary art scene, the Audubon crowd, and the local community.

A short video of the installation can be seen here.

About the author: Alyce Graham is a fourth-year American Civilization PhD candidate writing her dissertation about hardship and suffering in nineteenth-century polar exploration.

Inside the Decoy Shop: The Period Room at the Upper Bay Museum

Standing inside the Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum in North East, Maryland, in late January, I could not decide where to start our Museum Studies SWAT team Decoy Shop project.

Inside View Decoy Shop

Where should we begin?

Should we work from top to bottom, or should we tackle one corner at a time? At the suggestion of one of my colleagues, we carefully plucked a wooden duck decoy from a worktable and started with artifacts displayed on that surface. Our eight day project to inventory, clean, photograph, and catalogue the period room–or a museum exhibit room created to evoke a specific time and place–at the Upper Bay Museum had begun. (Other SWAT team members catalogued the other collections displayed throughout the Museum.)

What can we learn from the Upper Bay Museum Decoy Shop period room?

Kaey Grier examining duck decoy

University of Delaware Museum Studies Director Kasey Grier examines decoys at the Upper Bay Museum prior to the begin in of the SWAT project

The Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum is an installation curated by Upper Chesapeake Bay residents who make decoys, or imitations of ducks or other animals hunters have used to lure their prey at least since 400 BC, and who hunt and fish in the region known as the Susquehanna Flats in the Upper Chesapeake Bay.

Decoy Shop in gallery area

The Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum in North East, MD

Unlike many period rooms, though, the Shop interior was not copied directly from archival documentation or taken in its entirety from an original shop. Rather, the shop is a conglomeration of decoy-making related objects from several makers. Museum curators likely drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including twentieth-century interior photographs of other decoy shops in the region as well as the personal experiences Museum curators and local practitioners have had with decoy carving.

Steve and Lem Ward inside a decoy carving shop around 1918  (From Joe Engers, ed., The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys, 2000

Steve and Lem Ward inside a decoy carving shop around 1918
(From Joe Engers, ed., The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys, 2000)

Upper Bay Museum curators arranged the artifacts to evoke the interior of a working mid twentieth-century decoy maker’s shop on the Upper Chesapeake at the tale end the height of market duck hunting but during the continuation of sport duck hunting. This interpretive choice offers a different type of historical authenticity than do other methods of creating period rooms (no single method of which I find “right” or “wrong”–all are all fascinating and informative).

Tyler catalogues one of over 25 shotguns made and used  between 1850 and 1950

Tyler catalogues one of over 25 shotguns made and used between 1850 and 1950

The Decoy Shop is unique in that it is one of only a handful of workshop period rooms in American museums. (In contrast, countless domestic period rooms–championed in the early twentieth century by institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York–fill museums throughout the country.) Others workshop period rooms include a Decoy Shop exhibit at the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, the Dominy Shops (furniture and clockmaking) at the Winterthur Museum, and the Wright Cycle Shop at Greenfield Village. European examples include a recreation of a sixteenth-century jeweler’s workshop, based on a 1576 engraving, on display in the Museum of London’s show about the Cheapside Hoard.

The Museum of London Jeweler's Period, as reported by the Associated Press

The Museum of London Jeweler’s Period, as reported by the Associated Press

The Upper Bay Museum and its collections embody rich interpretative value relating to the interconnectedness of the region’s cultural and environmental history. To that end, the Museum’s Decoy Shop period room plays a unique didactic role that could not be achieved by a traditional gallery display featuring rows of workbenches and tools. Instead, by furnishing the Decoy Shop with a variety of objects associated with the craft and related industries, the period room display provides visitors with an opportunity to explore the relationships between decoy-making tools, decoy parts, the spaces and places where decoys were made, and the people who made them, as determined by Upper Chesapeake individuals with ties to the profession and hobby of decoy carving and duck hunting.

Cataloguing decoys at the Upper Bay Museum

Cataloguing decoys at the Upper Bay Museum

Visitors view the Shop interior from one vantage point behind a door or from behind the Shop’s two windows. There is plenty to see. The shop is filled with hundreds of objects associated with decoy carving as well as with hunting, fishing, and boating in the upper Chesapeake more generally. The objects are displayed on shelves, on the walls, and on the floor. Objects range from workbenches to piles of nails. Primary object groups include: large pieces of work furniture; containers filled with supplies and tools; hand tools such as files and spoke shaves; completed decoys as well as decoys in various states of completion; a few items associated with the H. L. Harvey Company (active from about 1880 to the mid twentieth century); and miscellaneous items associated with fishing and hunting such as a life preservers and boat parts. In addition, the Shop “complex” also includes two workbenches installed just outside the shop.

Museum Studies Staff Assistant Tracy Jentzsch vacuuming an early twentieth-century life vest at the Upper Bay Museum

Museum Studies Staff Assistant Tracy Jentzsch vacuuming an early twentieth-century life vest at the Upper Bay Museum

In the process or leading the group that documented and catalogued the shop contents, it occurred to me that, even though we carefully removed and replaced each artifact, the Shop looked slightly different–a bit more tidy and spruced-up–when we were through with our work (before photo at left; after photo at right). We did, after all, dust every object and display surface; vacuum using a HEPA vac; sweep; wash the windows; secure objects using cotton twill tape where there had been duct tape…and more (all of which will help ensure the longer-term preservation of the objects). Even these slight, non-interpretative changes made the shop look different. What are the effects of more evasive interpretation changes on period rooms? How does one strike an appropriate balance of preservation and work-room-like authenticity?

back right corner before

Back right corner BEFORE

Back right corner after

Back right corner AFTER










In the case of the Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum, authenticity derives from workshop dirt, the objects’ provenance (or history of ownership and use), and the identities of those who put them there. The Shop contents were made and used by several Upper Bay decoy carvers, a layered history that highlights continuities and change over time as it relates to decoy carving in this region. Some upper Bay decoy carvers represented here include Standley Evans (1887-1979; active 1919-1933) (used the decoy horse inside the shop); Horace D. Graham (1893-1982; active 1955-1978) (used the auto-sander inside the shop and shaving bench outside the shop as well as the many miscellaneous workshop contents distributed throughout the shop), and Paul Gibson (1902-1985; active 1915-1985) (used the painting table and paint brushes on display).

Nicole Belolan cataloguing Paul Gibson's painting worktable inside the Decoy Shop

Nicole Belolan cataloguing Paul Gibson’s painting worktable inside the Decoy Shop

Despite the fact that hunting waterfowl in the Upper Chesapeake was limited to sport (rather than market hunting) after 1918, decoy carvers—such as those represented inside this Shop—continued to provide decoys for sportsmen into the mid-twentieth century. Some of the decoy carvers represented inside the Shop were hobbyists; others made decoys for a living. All of them used store-bought tools in combination with handmade tools made using a mix of reused and new materials, suggesting the fact that many decoy carvers engaged with (and continue to engage with) their craft as skilled do-it-yourself artisans or tinkerers. For example, the Horace Graham auto-sander was made with used wood and a washing machine motor:

Auto sander


His shaving bench features repurposed moldings:

Shaving bench

Shaving bench

Many of the supply containers were made from recycled mid-twentieth-century food containers, examples of which can be seen lining the Shop shelves in the photograph below. Anyone who has ventured inside a contemporary workshop has probably seen similar examples of reuse.

Repurposed containers inside Shop

Repurposed containers inside Shop

And of course, there are the decoys. The unfinished duck decoy parts, some of which are displayed inside this basket, were made by the following individuals, several of whom are still living: Mike Laird, J.E. Gonce, Bill Streaker, Jeff Muller, Vernon S. Bryant, Joey Jacobs[?], James Frey, and Bobby Simons:

Decoy parts

Decoy parts

Hardly a static exhibit meant to evoke one time period, the Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum embodies the continued local interest in and practice of the craft of decoy making.

What could be more authentic than that?

To learn more about how your museum can apply to the UD Museum Studies SWAT project, visit the Sustaining Places web site. This blog post has been cross-posted at the University of Delaware Museum Studies blog.

In preparing for my work at the Upper Bay Museum, I found that C. John Sullivan’s Waterfowling on the Chesapeake, 1819-1936 (2003) provides readers with the best historical context for duck decoy use. Those with a theoretical bent might enjoy Marjolein Efting Dijkstra’s The Animal Substitute: An Ethnological Perspective on the Origin of Image-Making and Art (2010).

About the author: Nicole Belolan is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware. She is also a graduate assistant for Sustaining Places, an IMLS-funded initiative that is dedicated to providing hands-on, practical resources for small museums.

From Half-eaten Cookies to RFID Labels: Reflections on the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists Conference

On the first weekend in November, I attended the first conference of the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS) in Chicago. I am grateful that the History Department provided professional development funding to help with the cost.

The ARCS conference included twenty-four sessions over three days, interspersed with lunches, coffee breaks, and evening receptions. Since more than 500 people attended the conference, these events acted as networking events. I tried to introduce myself to five new people every day, and in this way I met registrars and art handlers from museums across the country.

I enjoyed all the sessions I attended, because I felt like they would be professionally helpful for me at my future job or because they dealt with some aspect of the work I was not familiar with or wanted to know more about. For instance, registrars from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh talked about their integrated pest management program in terms of the discovery of a massive infestation discovered during their cataloguing process. This brought pest management, a general topic I feel fairly comfortable having a conversation about, into a new plane of consideration: how to deal with an infestation in an uncatalogued collection, how to address the infestation without disrupting the cataloguing process, and how to organize and implement a pest management system in the midst of a crisis. Plus, they showed slides of insects devouring non-traditional museum collection objects that The Warhol has, like dog biscuits or half-eaten cookies. These slides were revolting and informative.

I also attended a session on transporting works of art to Italy. While this is irrelevant to my current position, I hope I get to use this knowledge in the future, because it would mean I was working at a place that exchanged artworks with Italy. When that happens, I will know to write a clause into the insurance agreement that allows the artwork to be pulled behind a tractor or transported by gondola, methods that insurance agreements typically discourage.

The most useful session covered the uses of new technology like iPads for registrars. Besides introducing us to several helpful applications, the speakers described a beautifully brief process for taking condition reports that went from taking incoming photography to saving the final report on the computer without having to leave the object’s side. Other suggestions included attaching RFID labels to packing crates of traveling exhibitions that uploaded a video of handling or mounting procedures when scanned and using collaborative software to track workflow. I have already started using some of the ideas from this session in my work at Winterthur, where I have had a graduate assistantship in the Registrar’s Office since 2010.

ARCS has a student membership rate, and they host networking events in the area, too. Anyone who is interested in more information can visit their website, The next conference will be in 2015.

About the author: Alyce Graham is the Student Assistant to the Registrar at the Winterthur Museum and a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate writing about hardship and suffering in nineteenth-century polar exploration.


Semester Roundup

As usual, Am Civvies have been busy this semester publishing articles and giving talks. Here is just a sampling of some of the things they’ve written and the places they’ve gone:

Nicole Belolan

  • “Collecting Disability History,” UK Disability History Month 2013 series, Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields 1780-1948, November 25, 2013.
  • “About Something of for Someone? Curatorial Ethics and Curatorial Debts,” roundtable participant, discussed early 20th-century art museum program for disable children, American Studies Association annual meeting, Washington, D.C. (November 22, 2013)
  • “Aunt Patty’s Furniture: Adult Cradles and the History of Physical Mobility Impairment in Early America,” New Thoughts on Old Things: Four Centuries of Furnishing the Northeast, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA (October 4, 2013)

Lisa Minardi

  • “The Muhlenberg Family and the War for American Independence,” The Transatlantic World of Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg in the Eighteenth Century, eds. A. Gregg Roeber, Thomas Müller-Bahlke,and Hermann Wellenreuther (Halle, Germany: Franckesche Stiftungen, 2013).
  • “Palladian architecture, Germanic style: The Hiester House in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania,” The Magazine Antiques (September/October 2013): 140–147.

Nalleli Guillen

  • Book review of Rebecca Cawood McIntyre, Souvenirs of the Old South: Northern Tourism and Southern MythologyWinterthur Portfolio 47, 4 (Winter 2013: 304-306.

Tyler Putman

  • “‘Every man turned out in the best he had’: Clothing and Buttons in the Historical and Archaeological Records of Johnson’s Island Prisoner-of-War Depot, 1862-1865,” Northeast Historical Archaeology 40 (2011, published 2013): 86-103.
  • Civil War-style military drill instructor (experiential history) for Prof. J. Ritchie Garrison’s innovative undergraduate history course “The Emancipation Project.”

Summer Projects in Material Culture

From sewing tents to digging up sherds, Ph.D. students in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware’s Department of History know how to keep themselves busy during the summer. Here is a sampling of what we’ll be doing over the next few months:

Nicole Belolan, Elizabeth Jones, and Anne Reilly will all participate as fellows in the University of Delaware’s Public Humanities Institute (DELPHI). DELPHI exposes graduate students studying material culture to a variety of tools for communicating their research to a broad audience. After two weeks of workshops in June, participants purse their research and work on public outreach projects. Nicole, Anne and Liz will all continue to pursue research they are conducting for their dissertations. You can read short descriptions of their research below. You can also learn more at the DELPHI web site.

  • Nicole is working on the material culture of physical mobility impairment in early America. She is investigating how early Americans used objects to manage their bodies and how those experiences shaped ideas and practices related to gender roles, citizenship, and identity.
  •  Liz’s research examines the role of women’s consumption in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century mid Atlantic, utilizing methodologies from both economic history and material culture studies.
  • Anne is working on twentieth-century public commemorations. This summer, Anne will continue her research on the 1907 Jamestown Tercentenary. She will begin in Richmond, supported by a research fellowship from the Virginia Historical Society.

Alison Kreitzer will be interning at the Hagley Museum and Library this summer. She is part of a team working to finish processing the Z. Taylor Vinson Transportation Collection. Researchers will gain access to the 700 cubic feet of transportation (mainly automobile) memorabilia in 2014. In the meantime, learn more about the Z. Taylor Vinson Transportation Collection by visiting Hagley’s blog.

Lisa Minardi is organizing the fifth annual archaeology field school at The Speaker’s House. The house was the home of Frederick Muhlenberg (1750-1801), the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Muhlenberg’s house is located in Montgomery County, PA. The dig runs June 4th through 22th. Visit to learn more.

Tyler Putman sewing. His tailoring skills will come in handy this summer while working at Colonial Williamsburg.

Tyler Putman sewing. His tailoring skills will come in handy this summer while working at Colonial Williamsburg.

Tyler Putman will be dusting off his needles to help reproduce the field tent or marquee George Washington used during the American Revolution. The Museum of the American Revolution owns the original “First Oval Office,” which will serve as the project’s model. Several expert “tailor-historians” will sew the reproduction while interpreting the process at Colonial Williamsburg this summer. You can read more about the project here, and  you can “follow” the tent on its Facebook page here. In addition,check out the project’s progress throughout the summer via the web cam.

Be sure to check back during the summer to read some reports from the field!