A Brutally Intelligent Exhibition: War-Damaged Works at the Bode Museum Drive a Discussion about Conservation

Originally published at www.rebeccafifieldpreservation.com.

When preservation fails, do we have the courage to discuss where to go next?

Opening today, 19 March 2015 at the Bode Museum is The Lost Museum, an exhibition of 70 works damaged in World War II. Bullet holes, damage to faience surfaces, and outright loss of works is juxtaposed with a discussion about conservation of this damage – do we remove the marks of a painful history to restore the artist’s original intent? Or do we maintain the physical markings as part of the object’s history, and the story about our people? As an American, I remember the first time the pall that struck me as I observed the physical marks of war on the walls of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This damage to an important facade was not repaired – how shall we consider the damage upon the collection itself?

A multi-media feature (audio available in English) at the Bode Museum’s website provides snippets of discussion about the damage or loss of each highlighted piece and arguments for or against conservation. Perhaps the most poignant is that of Francois Duquesnoy’s Amor Carving his Boy, a small cherub marked by bullet holes to the head and shoulders. The conservators contributing to the discussion both do and don’t support restoration of the piece. To see the small boy figure marred by such a violent act will say much more to audiences about how the war marked this collection more than the restored piece. Will a photograph do in this instance, to show the damage? Or must we now plan for preservation of that damage?

Many museums are hesitant to display works that have not been restored, regardless of whether the damage happened due to natural disaster, man-made disaster, or when collection stewardship doesn’t quite meet its goals. In our efforts to share behind-the-scenes museum experience with our public, we must tell the larger story of preservation.

View of now destroyed Rubens paintings. The Lost Museum. Photo: The Bode Museum.

View of now destroyed Rubens paintings. The Lost Museum. Photo: The Bode Museum.

The Pain of Mosul – A Preservation Professional’s Perspective

This was originally published at wwww.rebeccafifieldpreservation.com earlier today.

I have spent my life caring for cultural heritage. As a museum collection manager, my work aims to preserve the physical and intellectual values of collections by limiting risks, such as pollutants, inappropriate environment, pests, physical distortion, loss of information, and so on. When I was a teen, I worked with the rural material culture of Maryland farmers. Later, I worked with collections at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and eventually, sculpture, ceremonial objects, and adornments created by African, Oceanic, and Ancient American cultures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I now assist other museums and individuals in preservation planning for their collections.

63932813When you care for a collection, you are keenly aware of your tiny point on the timeline of an object’s existence. Preservation isn’t like an exhibition deadline. There is no opening party, no symposium, no gala dinners. Preservation is constant, infinite, every day, ongoing. It is comprised of a continuum of actions that sustain material culture, so that we may continue to gain meaning from these objects. My work contributes to the preservation of ideas in tangible form.

Upon viewing the video of the destruction, I wept. I started working in museums when I was 13. I have spent half my life working in the spaces where these men used sledgehammers. Men probably chatting causally about something banal like how to choose from these best lists for key chain knives, while historians weep! I have used environmental monitors and soft brushes where they used jackhammers. I know how preservation happens – it requires the concerted efforts of generations of people. It requires archaeologists, curators, conservators, registrars, technicians, mountmakers, scientists, preparators, security staff, photographers, packers and shippers, facilities staff – the list goes on. Under the sledgehammer, thousands of years of effort, ingenuity, and breakthrough that preserved the vision of past peoples were wiped away in minutes.

When disaster strikes we turn to our cultural heritage to recover as soon as our basic survival needs are met. In some cases, they sustain us until our basic needs are met. How much harder that will be now, with this scar added to so many others.

For more, see the proceedings from International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property’s (ICCROM) 2005 conference Cultural Heritage in Postwar Recovery.

Postpartum Depression and Witchcraft

If you have had a baby, you know the months afterward can be tough, and memorable.

There are numerous explanations as to what lunacy gripped Salem Village (now Danvers) in 1692. Ergot poisoning. Adolescent girls seeking power. Class inequality. Disputes over property lines. My 8th great-grandmother, Mary Clements Osgood, of Andover, was examined in the last month before the Court of Oyer and Terminer was dissolved. While she was imprisoned, she was not condemned. She confessed to witchcraft, saving her life. She recanted her confession a month later in a conversation with Reverend Increase Mather, claiming she had been browbeaten.

In inventing the story to save her life, she didn’t just construct a story with random timing; instead, she turned to the period of sadness that stuck with her even 12 years later: the period after the birth of the last of her 12 children. She noted during her examination “she was in a melancholy state and condition, she used to walk abroad in her orchard” where she came upon a cat that diverted her from praying to God. There was more than one reason for melancholy: Clements (b. 1680) was a second child with that name. The first Clements (b.1678 d.1680) had died earlier that year. Mary’s husband John died in 1693. She lived another eighteen years, dying in 1710 at the age of 73.

You can search documents by accused person’s name through the The Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, hosted by the University of Virginia. It’s an older online resource, but has links to several documents, maps, and images.

( Rev. Increase Mather’s Report of his Conversation in Prison with Mary Osgood )
Being asked why she prefixed a time, and spake of her being baptized, &c., about twelve years since, she replied and said, that, when she had owned the thing, they asked the time, to which she answered that she knew not the time. But, being told that she did know the time, and must tell the time, and the like, she considered that about twelve years before (when she had her last child) she had a fit of sickness, and was melancholy; and so thought that that time might be as proper a time to mention as any, and accordingly did prefix the said time. Being asked about the cat, in the shape of which she had confessed that the Devil had appeared to her, &c., she replied, that, being told that the Devil had appeared to her, and must needs appear to her, &c. (she being a witch), she at length did own that the Devil had appeared to her; and, being pressed to say in what creature’s shape he appeared, she at length did say that it was in the shape of a cat. Remembering that, some time before her being apprehended, as she went out at her door, she saw a cat, &c.; not as though she any whit suspected the said cat to be the Devil, in the day of it, but because some creature she must mention, and this came into her mind at that time. 

Mary’s family asked for restitution of 5L 7s 4p for her imprisonment, along with a names of many, many others.

Mary Osgood


Maryland Preparations for the Sick, 1881

‘Tis the season for illness. Cooking tomes of the past often included a chapter of recipes to be made for the ill and infirm. Certainly, our need for something comforting remains, but general folklore shared today mentions chicken soup, ginger ale, toast, and saltines. Consider these recipes from Fifty Years in Maryland Kitchen (1881) by Mrs. B. C. Howard.

Be well.


RacahautToast Water


New Year’s Day – A Great Day to Run Away

Der Wöchentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote 9/17/1773.

Der Wöchentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote 9/17/1773. RL Fifield Photo. Library of Congress.

Many of us choose some aspect of life to rejuvenate on the 1st of January. On a whim, I decided to reference my runaway servant research database to see how popular a day New Year’s Day was for running away. My study focuses on indentured and enslaved women living in North America, 1750-90, who were advertised for recapture in newspapers (read a previous post on the project). I used this information to create a database of 1,000 women and their 6,000 garments. Additionally, the database can be used to study languages spoken, hair color, aptitudes and habits, and other information.

Numbers of servants in the study running away during different times of year. Temperate represents Spring and Fall. Yellow represents enslaved women, while red represents indentured women.

Numbers of servants in the study running away during different times of year. Temperate represents Spring and Fall. Yellow represents enslaved women, while red represents indentured women. RL Fifield chart.

I found twelve women who chose to elope on New Year’s Day; interestingly, this is the greatest number of runaways in my study that ran away on a single day. Believably, sixty percent of these women lived in the South. And 9 of the 12 women were enslaved; most of these women lived in the South, except for Mary, who ran away from New London, Connecticut in 1773.

Logically, many of the servants in the study ran away during the warmer months. But the motivations to run knew no season, and twenty percent of the women in my study absconded from their masters during the winter. The ability to analyze information in this way can educate us about how the working classes dressed against the winter cold. Woolen fabrics and layering were employed. Mary wore a black and white drugget gown, Nancy wore a dark striped stuff gown upon her elopement from Charleston, SC in 1785, and Mary Diggens wore a brown damask gown with velvet cuffs, pink durant petticoat, and a white silk bonnet when leaving Dover, DE in 1768.

But New Year’s Eve was not a popular date for beginning new ventures: only one woman of the 1,000 in the study, Mary Young of Philadelphia, made off just before the start of 1759. She wore a calico petticoat over a linsey one, a “half worn very small black Bonnet”, “a dark Manchester Cotton narrow striped Gown”, topped with a short light-colored cloak.

This project has benefitted from digitization of historic newspaper collections, especially those held by the American Antiquarian Society. These projects are so important as they  help us ask new questions and spur on the development of the next generation of digital resources that help us to analyze the information contained within historic documents. Preserving access through digitization is the first step to a greater understanding of those less documented in history.



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.



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.