Book: The Public Library by Robert Dawson

library-copyLast night I read The Public Library, A Photographic Essay by Robert Dawson. I didn’t borrow it from my public library, which is the Carnegie-built Webster branch of the New York Public Library. It’s at the end of my street and used to have a Czech reading room on the 3rd floor for the turn of the century residents of Yorkville. Instead, I borrowed it from the New York Society Library, a much older institution, one that is technically available to the public, but for a yearly fee. George Washington forgot to return a book to them in 1789 (Mount Vernon bought them a replacement copy in 2010 for $12,000), as I had The Public Library. I figured I had better enjoy it quickly – there is something wrong about keeping a book entitled The Public Library past its due date.

Robert Dawson’s photos capture mostly historic structures, grand and modest, still lively or woefully abandoned. If you value libraries, you’ll enjoy the short, personal reflections offered by Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Bill Moyers. I delighted in the architecture of that enshrined the importance of these secular community spaces meant to spur on advancement. You will mourn deterioration of the community pursuit of intelligence in viewing images of broken Detroit libraries and structures shuttered. If you didn’t realize it before, libraries have to stand in when crisis strikes, such as the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the Queens Library system and how libraries provide daytime shelter for the homeless and mentally ill, as social services shrink for those populations. The news today focuses on the modest Ferguson, MO library, which has committed to staying open through protests and a site for solace and centering. Dawson’s photographs capture libraries growing into spaces where they did not exist before, into banks, gas stations, failed big box store spaces. I want this to be a visible sign that our need for knowledge, information, and ready access to people of all walks of life is still well and healthy. When the public library is left to wither, so do our opportunities.

I love a library, and the books within (read my post Stack Lurker: Some Love for Libraries). You are surrounded by ideas in physical form, which you might bring with you, to absorb, one by one, again and again.

Thanksgiving, Sauerkraut, and the Railroad

Marylanders, love it or hate it, serve sauerkraut at Thanksgiving (see a previous post on the subject here). I particularly like the tang of fermented cabbage to break up the richness of the other dishes on offer.

I’m curious how and when sauerkraut made it onto the menu, and where it doesn’t appear. This Thanksgiving menu from the Royal Blue Line, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s elite rail service, doesn’t list it. Other regional dishes appear, including terrapin, canvasback duck, oyster dressing, and stewed tomatoes.

Was sauerkraut too homey a dish? Not considered elegant? Too pungent for the train? This is yet another intriguing menu from the What’s on the Menu? project at the New York Public Library. Now, to figure out Iced California Malagas…

What's on the Menu? New York Public Library. Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, 1900.

What’s on the Menu? New York Public Library. Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, 1900.

Five Projects You Can Fund with a NEH Preservation Assistance Grant

Six months. That’s the amount of time you have to think about what a National Endowment for the Humanities Preservation Assistance Grant (PAG) can do for your institution. Designed for small to mid-sized institutions, these awards of up to $6000 are perfect for moving your preservation efforts down the field. They are also awarded at higher rates than other NEH and IMLS preservation grant programs: around 34%. Applications are due May 5, 2015 for projects starting in January 2016. Assemble your team, whether that includes a collection manager, a registrar, a director, or a handful of volunteers, and consider how these projects can transform your collections:

  1. clipboard #5Start with a plan – Your institution may realize that they aren’t sure which preservation priorities to tackle first. The walls are sweating in your archives. There are lots of spider webs in your historic house. Things need boxing. And you can’t locate objects without thumbing through folders of deeds of gifts dating to the 1930s. While managing a membership drive, monthly events, school tours, and board meetings, you might need a preservation consultant to indicate in which order you need to tackle these preservation issues. It’s a great place to start, and creates a systematic foundation upon to base subsequent requests.
  2. Collections environment assessment – You can use a PAG to work with a preservation consultant, engineer, and to purchase environmental monitoring equipment. If you are unsure whether your environment is satisfactory for collections preservation, it is worth having the current operation of HVAC systems analyzed. This is doubly important when your organization is located in a historic structure. Doing so can help you improve conditions and often do so more efficiently. Funds can be used to monitor conditions (and gain training to do so), fine tune existing systems, and develop a plan to acquire new equipment or environmental control methods.
  3. Storage rehousing – Perhaps you had a vulnerable collection identified in an earlier preservation assessment as urgently needing rehousing. Or maybe there is a collection bursting with research potential, but its current storage makes it difficult to access for researchers. PAGs pay for consultation and purchase of materials to rehouse collections. And experience shows that rehousing collections matters. In the National Museum of Iraq, collections that were stored well and appeared inventoried were less looted than those sitting open on shelves. Collections exposed to fire weather better if temergency-management-cyclehey are boxed; amazingly, the box burns, but the object within is often protected to a high degree. Appropriate storage makes leaks or other events less problematic because of the protection good storage provides collections.
  4. Disaster Plan writing – Flooding, fire, pipe burst. Any of these events can overwhelm your institution financially, physically, and psychologically. A disaster threatens the cultural heritage your institution preserves, but can also damage your credibility as an institution. Use a Preservation Assistance Grant to help your institution develop resiliency to weather the duress of an emergency situation.
  5. Learn –Including a training component within your grant project that develops lasting skill in your institution and local community makes a PAG go further. Think about training in making object housing enclosures, integrated pest management, managing collections with new forms of technology, disaster preparedness – the possibilities are endless. A PAG can pay for consultant-led training and fees to attend webinars or workshops.

These grants are excellent next steps after participating in IMLS’s and Heritage Preservation’s Conservation Assessment Program, which, like Step 1 above, also assist institutions in assessing current conditions and developing a prioritized action plan to improve preservation. Visit the PAG website to read the narratives from earlier successful grants, and visualize what you wish you could accomplish in your institution if you had a dedicated chunk of funds. Applications for the next round of grants will become available around February, 2015.

If you want to talk through any of the above ideas for a Preservation Assistance Grant project or need a scrutinizing eye to review your grant narrative, please give me a call at 443.502.0595 or email me at becky@rebeccafifieldpreservation.com. I can help you to train your staff, plan for disasters, determine what types of furniture and housing materials you need to rehouse a variety of collections, or do a general preservation assessment if you aren’t sure where to start. Visit www.rebeccafifieldpreservation.com for more information about my services.

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This post first appeared at www.rebeccafifieldpreservation.com.

Doors Open Baltimore – This Saturday, October 25

After my last post about the decay of Baltimore progressive civic icons from the 19th century, Doors Open Baltimore celebrates the industrial past that made it possible this Saturday, October 25, 2014 from 10am-4pm. Fascinating physical industrial heritage spanning from the early 19th century forward still survives in the city.

If I were going to be in Bawlmer this weekend, I would go see…

  • Mt Royal Station, former uptown home of the Baltimore and Ohio RR. It closed in 1961 and was purchased by the Maryland Institute College of Art. Photo: Wikipedia.

    Mt Royal Station, former uptown home of the Baltimore and Ohio RR. It closed in 1961 and was purchased by the Maryland Institute College of Art. Photo: Wikipedia.

    Mt Royal Station (now owned by Maryland Institute College of Art, itself a Baltimore institution of long standing)

  • Montgomery Park – a 1925 mega warehouse, one of 9 in the states
  • Union Mill – at the time it was built largest manufactory of cotton duck
  • Merritt Downtown Athletic Club – didn’t know it was the Northern Central Railroad freight shed
  • Crown Cork and Seal – the inventor of the bottle cap in 1892
  • Baltimore Streetcar Museum – been there already, but for electric traction and Ma & Pa Railroad fans, it’s a good time. Lots of volunteer gear-head spirit makes this place happen.

Make your own itinerary and get program info at http://doorsopenbaltimore.org.

The Zoo, the Park, and a Baltimore Befuddlement

I’m not an expert on Baltimore, by any means. I’ve never lived there. I was born in Towson and grew up in Carroll County. But Baltimore was my first exposure to City and all that big “C” entails. The redeveloped Harborplace of the early 80s. Field trips to the National Aquarium, before it was $35 per person. Seeing traveling Broadway productions at the Morris Mechanic Theatre, now being turned into brutalist rubble. It pains me to see the amazingly beautiful stretches of Baltimore neighborhoods underused.

A 1921 Postcard showing the Mansion House, 1801, turned into a mid-19th century pavilion at the Zoo. Rootsweb.

A 1921 Postcard showing the Mansion House, 1801, turned into a mid-19th century pavilion at the Zoo. Rootsweb.

We visited the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore last weekend (terrible name, change it back to Baltimore Zoo as soon as you possibly can, regardless of who is footing the bill). I don’t think I had been by Druid Hill Park since my last visit to the zoo 30 years ago.  Baltimore, its fine bones seen from train or car window, is a place worth restoring. Easy access to interstates and suburbs and the gutting of public transportation caused a fast and sudden osmosis of talent and neighbors in the 1950s and 60s. The collapse of industry in the 1980s finished off many other human resources.

Driving past Druid Park, I thought of what was, and what could be. The Zoo is rather fascinating in terms of its long institutional history. With roots extending to the 1860s, there are institutional artifacts littering the property. Other institutions may have torn them down, but they provide fascinating layers of cultural heritage to view. Why not celebrate that heritage with some interpretive signage? (Disclaimer: I could have missed labels, now that I have a son). Instead of taking the tram from the entry gates, we walked to the park, past stone foundations of unknown purpose. Ancient pagoda-like wood aviaries (possibly?) sat behind a “Staff Only” sign near the entrance. My father remembered visiting the zoo in the 1950s, when you could drive through it. I think that the relics of the many previous incarnations of the zoo tell a great story on their own and deserve interpretation.

The grand Mansion House Pavilion (1801) belies the donation of the Rogers Family of their estate to Baltimore during the mid-19th century parks movement. Entry to the zoo takes you past the fantastical Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens of Baltimore. Late nineteenth century bits of revival architecture litter the landscape, speaking of former fountains, rail lines through the park, and other social ideas left to deteriorate. During my years here in New York, I’m amazed at what types of structures can no longer exist within my adopted city due to its ravenous developers and boom boom boom mentality, but are preserved in others.

Wikipedia.

Wikipedia.

Nearby stand landmarks to public transportation, the City Beautiful movement, Jewish heritage, and more complicated stories of segregation (the white tennis courts were integrated by 24 African-American players in 1948, and arrested for doing so) and anti-immigrant politics. Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue is a beautiful, rock-faced 1920s structure that served Eastern European immigrants until their move to suburbs like Pikesville in the 1960s. Interestingly, the Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association used the Mansion House in the zoo in the 1940s for meetings.

Amazingly, the car barns for the Baltimore City Passenger Railway Park Terminal line the route. A Doorway beckons mysteriously “Waiting Room.” These buildings are rare veterans of the streetcar era and have repurposing by the MTA as a bus depot and urban blight to thank for their survival. (I’m surprised some rail fan hasn’t made this complex their mission and created an online monument to it). As noted by many streetcar-friendly urban planners and historic preservationists, streetcars foster greater economic development along their entire length than bus routes. The Baltimore streetcar lines were famous, and could be a force for revitalizing past City Beautiful investments.

April 1943. “Baltimore, Maryland. Trolleys inside the Park Terminal at night.” Photo by Marjory Collins for the Office of War Information.

April 1943. “Baltimore, Maryland. Trolleys inside the Park Terminal at night.” Photo by Marjory Collins for the Office of War Information. Shorpy.

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.

This blog first appeared at www.rebeccafifieldpreservation.com. If you want to read more like this, subscribe on the News page.

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 www.rebeccafifieldpreservation.com. 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.