Death By Green: Arsenic Poisoning

Paris_GreenThe Bata Shoe Museum’s current exhibition Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century exposes the dangers in the manufacture and wearing of many fashion trends of the past. One trend, a beautiful green dye used in the mid-19th century, led to illness and death because it was arsenic-based. These objects require vigilant management in museum collections today, because of their risks to collections staff.

Arsenic was also used to color paper, as discussed in this news item from 1861, where a child sucked on a green ticket, and died. Materials research is important not only for study of history, but also for modern management of collections. Smaller institutions often have large ephemera collections. It is important information about hazardous materials, contaminated collections, and safe handling are widely shared.

The National Park Service’s Conserv-o-Gram series has many useful articles on the management of museum collections. For more information on working on collections where arsenic may be present, click here.

Arsenic 02211861 Pittsfield Sun

Pittsfield Sun. Feburary 21, 1861. American Antiquarian Society.


Museum Monday: Why Set Collections Priorities for Emergencies? How to Get Started

Ready NYC has named their family emergency preparedness campaign “Winging it is not an emergency plan.” This may resonate with you if you have ever promoted an emergency preparedness effort, only to be told “each emergency is different. We can’t figure out what to do now. We can only decided what to do when it happens.” Resistance to planning can come from any section of your institution, from curators, administrators, and surprisingly, conservators and security staff.

Yes – each emergency is different. But not planning for how your institution will act during an emergency situation can lead to confusion, damage, and even loss of life. We participate in fire drills. We have our fire extinguishers inspected. And to preserve our collections to the best of our ability during disaster recovery, we need to drill our decision-making capability.

Priorities word cloudA good way to get started is for curatorial and conservation decision makers to brainstorm about what “collection priorities” means to them. Collections preparedness literature dictates that planners select their most valuable objects, mark them on maps, store extra keys to them offsite, and so forth. These are logical steps, but for large collections, this can seem overwhelming, and can derail discussions before they begin. But when your team practices establishing collection priorities, they are exercising their ability to make quick and meaningful decisions as a team about objects compromised by water and fire damage.

Sit your decision makers around a table. Include curatorial, collections, and conservation voices, depending on the make-up of your staff. Select one gallery or storeroom. Say “there has been a fire in this room. The fire is out. What do we need to salvage and/or secure first?” Most permanent staff can quickly pinpoint within that room groups, if not specific objects, that have high value to the institution’s mission, without using the collections information database. Make a list of the team’s first impressions. They could include “the cased photographs,” an Album quilt recently published and exhibited in a travelling exhibition, and so forth. Don’t forget rare books and institutional archives too. Object records, if without a digital or hard copy back-up offsite, must also be considered. Think about it: is it less expensive to begin a digitization project now, or to salvage damaged materials at a rate exceeding $50,000 for 800 linear feet later? Certainly, this list will change depending on what areas of your institution are affected.

One group we need to automatically account for during an emergency is objects loaned to the museum. These objects are not ours, and we need to alert the owner that their object has been involved in an incident, damaged or not. Depending on how many objects your museum borrows from outside lenders, this can be a big task during recovery.

Private collectors can also do this exercise. It is worth thinking about what objects are most valuable and most meaningful to you prior to an emergency.

Use the information from your first brainstorming session to refine collection priorities at subsequent meetings. The priority list should be reviewed and updated as new objects enter the collection. Flag priority objects in your collections database with a status flag, attaching a keyword, user-defined field, or collecting them in a package. Make sure you can search these priority objects by location, so that if a flood damages one gallery, you can quickly generate a list of priority objects from your database. Repeated sessions will familiarize and strengthen your team’s capacity to prioritize during a salvage operation.

This information will be critical to helping you, conservators, and your emergency response team make tough decisions during salvage operations after a fire or flood. This period is stressful and emotional. Help your team prepare for it by considering collection priorities now.

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National Maritime Grants Available

Deadline September 23, 2014

SS Columbia. Washington Rural Heritage.

SS Columbia. Washington Rural Heritage.

Maritime museums can get a real boost this year from $1.7 million available through the Maritime Heritage Program. The total grant amount over the next four years is $7 million. How, during these straightened times, did the Council of American Maritime Museums advocate successfully for this funding through MARAD (U.S. Maritime Administration) and the National Park Service?

This grant money was secured through the scrapping of obsolete ships in the National Defense Reserve Fleet. Congratulations to the CAMM for creative and persistent advocacy to obtain this funding.

Grants are available to state, tribal and local governments, as well as private non-profit organizations. Both education and preservation projects will be funded. This is an excellent arrangement, recognizing that ensuring access to collections is securely linked to preservation. Education projects can request $25,000-50,000; preservation projects can request $50,000-200,000. The application deadline is September 23, 2014. See more program details here.

Do you need assistance making sure your institution’s preservation grant application makes a great case for funding? Contact me at 617.212.1468 or email me here.

Museum Monday: New Frontiers

Visiting Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond at the Louisiana State Museum in March 2012.

Visiting Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond at the Louisiana State Museum in March 2012.

This month I begin a new venture: developing a preservation and emergency consulting practice. You can visit my new website at I’ve largely been an institutional creature up to this point in my career. I crave process and figuring out systems that bring colleagues together. I’ve decided to take that enthusiasm to help a variety of organizations with their preservation and emergency planning challenges. I’ll be offering collections management and emergency preparedness services as well as historical research and interpretation services. Some of my favorite past experiences included my work with local history collections and historical sites. Staff and volunteers at these sites often provide much of the elbow grease and demonstrate real buy-in. These are organizations that can really benefit from a systematic approach to preservation that uses their limited resources wisely. Successful preservation programs are dependent not only on conservation science, but on creative management, benchmarking, and staff coaching. Preservation must be a joint effort in which all inputs are valued – this fosters cross-organization collaboration.

Maryland Material Culture: Bushel Basket

What goes in here?

Quiz: What does a bushel basket signify to a Marylander?

Sure, you can put fruit or vegetables in it (it is pick-ur-own strawberry season), but Marylanders most want to see this lined with newspaper and stuffed with steamed crabs, caked with Old Bay seasoning.

Here’s to summer time eating, whether you use a mallet or a knife to clear your claws.



Transportation Tuesday – B&O Centenary Pageant, 1927

Ladies in nymph-like attire twirling and leaping through fields – sounds like the turn of the century pageantry movement to me. The Centenary Pageant in 1927 for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad is a rather late occurrence of this type of display of civic and industrial pride. Part artistic endeavor and part technological exhibition, Baltimore and Ohio set up a location for the festival at Halethorpe near Baltimore.

The pageant, staged each afternoon of the festival, melded historical displays and demonstrations of historic equipment. Company musical groups made up the cast of the pageant, including the Women’s Music Club, the Men’s Glee Club, and the Mount Clare Band, with the addition of some outside performers. The Baltimore Sun captured women wearing vintage clothing from the 1830s and members of the Blackfeet tribe that camped on the festival grounds.

Interestingly, the B & O intended the buildings in Halethorpe to house and display their historic collections. In 1935, an intense storm toppled the buildings. Eventually, the B & O Museum opened on the Mount Clare site in Baltimore. The collapse of the B&O Museum roundhouse roof in 2001 in an ice storm likely means some of their collections have weathered more than one disaster. Restoration of the damaged works continues today.

See a fascinating short film by Eastman Kodak of the Pageant here. The first half, showing men and women in historic clothing riding on stage coaches and scrambling down from the first locomotives is followed by a timeline of rail equipment.

For more reading, see David Shackleford’s The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Maryland and David Vrooman’s Daniel Willard and Progressive Management on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

The Baltimore Sun, Sept. 20, 1927. Is the woman on the right wearing 1830s dress? Her gigot sleeves and higher waistline with inverted box pleats and her large brimmed bonnet may point to great-grandmother’s wardrobe as the source (check out the hem detail though).

Event site at Halethorpe along B&O’s Main Line. Photo: Baltimore Sun. Sept 14, 1927. 




Museum Monday: Ten Things in the Indiana State Museum’s Video that Make Me Happy

What makes me happy when I watch the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites Happy video? See it here!

  • Double-sided side truck
  • Not one, but two fume hoods
  • Heritage Preservation’s Emergency Salvage and Response Wheel
  • Labeled archive boxes
  • Blackout/dust covers over hanging costume storage and shelving content lists
  • Nice loading dock leveler
  • Stellar carpentry shop
  • People in meetings -non-museum people don’t know what sorts of coordination is necessary to make it all happen!
  • Huge freight elevator
  • Great museum cabinets and compact units


The staff at the Indiana State Museum truly seems happy! It takes a lot of talent to run a museum, so kudos to all the different departments making it happen at ISMHS and represented in the video(knowing full well that staffing is different in every institution, so if I give the folks at ISM a chuckle, great):Preparators, Photo Studio, Design, Security, Facilities, curator (drinking coffee?), Museum Shop, Conservators, Collections staff of varying ilks, Registrars (did I see a clipboard or two?), Visitor Services, and Education. And of course, the folks who filmed and edited it. Thanks!


On Memorial Day

Memorial Day is the descendant of Decoration Day, when the graves of Civil War casualties would be marked in memory. Today, we use the holiday to remember all veterans’ service, letting the day encroach on Veterans Day, where all US service members are honored. That’s not a bad thing – certainly efforts and sacrifices are best recognized when the honoree can witness the appreciation.

I have several family members from Maryland and Pennsylvania that served in the Union Army. This photo is most likely my great great grandfather, a man of whom I have no memory. With this holiday, the sacrifices of the Civil War generation are replaced with more general notions of national struggle and perseverance in the absence of personal memory. The holiday has evolved to honor veterans from subsequent wars in order to hold onto the personal aspects of Memorial Day. We now honor our grandfathers’ World War II and Korean War service, our fathers’ Vietnam service, and so many endeavors of men and women in subsequent military operations. It is the personal that is our path to the national meaning of the holiday.

George Harrison Bowman (1841-1921), c. 1861. A native of Harford County, Maryland, my great great served in the 1st and 7th Maryland Infantry. Ambrotype. Collection of RL Fifield.

George Harrison Bowman (1841-1921), c. 1861. A native of Harford County, Maryland, my great great grandfather served in the 1st and 7th Maryland Infantry. Ambrotype. Collection of RL Fifield.

When Your Favorite Place Closes

Pintxos. It was a tiny hole in the wall on Greenwich Street in a cluster of old storefronts squeezed against the Hudson at the end of Spring Street. Small tables snugged up against benches with cushions and the perfect night there was a soft summer night, the windows thrown open onto the sidewalk. I remember squid ink paella and minerally Txakoli. Other nights held croquetas, heartbreakingly good olives and cheese, and friends I no longer see. The kitchen was the size of my apartment kitchen – just enough space for a cook to stand in one place and reach everything. Chatting with the owner one night, he said the tight kitchen was the most efficient way to execute his craft. You don’t spend time running across the floor to the fridge, the prep space, the stove. It became my philosophy in renovating my 24 sq. foot Manhattan kitchen.

But Pintxos closed many years ago, and while I heard that their chef moved to Cafe Ronda, another favorite tapas space of mine, you never can go home again. When a restaurant closes, so do your memories. Did you ever exist in that space? You can’t visit to reconfirm that joke, that night she said yes, that moment in which you both decided the answer was “no longer.” Pintxos is now a bit of a curled lip and a shrug.

I figured that if I ate every meal in a restaurant in NYC, I would never eat at the same place twice. This is especially true considering those restaurants that are flashes in the pan, opening and closing, and being replaced in short order. Sometimes I wonder at the point of having a favorite place in NYC; given all the options, it seems wasteful to go to the same place again and again. But choice can be too much – many New Yorkers consider five blocks distant from their apartments to be another neighborhood. We’ll haunt our Mexican hole in the wall, Sabor a Mexico, Burger Fi, Om Indian, or the Upper East Side version of the Meatball Shop without restraint. One has to set limits.

One of our first dates took place at Nina’s Argentinian Pizzeria, on 2nd Avenue in the 90s. The project of Italian immigrants to Argentina, their food offered the best of both worlds, incredible pasta, empanadas, sangria, flan, and chewy crust pizza – our favorite was one with chimichurri and meatballs. They greeted you with a soft, garlicky eggplant spread, made silken with olive oil. We bemoan that the owner hasn’t seemed to relocate, but it doesn’t stop us from occasionally Googling Nina’s. It wouldn’t be the same, but couldn’t he have reopened in Brooklyn, or maybe Hoboken? Alas. Those special first evenings can’t be relived. But we’d love to be able to make a pilgrimage to Nina’s to mark the passing of time all the same.

Pintxos, NYC, a tapas restaurant on Greenwich Street. Strong in the memory, though it closed several years ago.

Transportation Tuesday: Fundraising for Railcar Restoration

Kudos to the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad as they restore Western Maryland Railway’s Pullman Business Car #204. Built in 1918, it has spent the last 50 years as a residence near Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland. Many foundations focus on the big, multi-million donor that will get the job done and take up the smallest plaque possible. But heritage tugs at the heartstrings of people with wallets of all different sizes. The WMSR Foundation, with this in mind, has developed a funding scheme so that donors can fund the replacement of windows $100-750 dollars. While certainly there is the need for larger sums (the platform door is $5000), these smaller sums are great for smaller donors and classroom/scout troop fundraising pools. More speed Business Car #204! Visit their website to donate.

Rendering, Fundraising scheme for the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad Foundation Pullman Business Car #204.