Museum Monday – Raising the Visibility of Collection Care

Next Sunday, I will be speaking at the American Alliance of Museum’s conference in Baltimore, Maryland. The American Institute for Conservation’s Collection Care Network will be hosting a flash session, facilitating discussions with the audience about three important topics in collection care: raising the visibility of collection care in institutions, creating partnerships with facilities staff to further collection care goals, and guidance for working with consultant conservators, especially for small institutions.

I’m guiding the discussion on raising visibility of collection care. As a collections manager, I’m particularly interested in not just running the gauntlet of exhibition and publication projects and throwing my body in front of harm’s way to protect my collections. I want to target the bigger issues. How do we turn messages such as “the art is dusty! you need to dust more!” into “what factors can we change to reduce dust in the galleries?” Dusting artwork is abrasive to often delicate surfaces. Removing carpet from gallery spaces, using HEPA vacuums to clean the spaces, and routine regular maintenance of HVAC systems can reduce dust deposition on artwork.

Of course, in order to broach those subjects, we need to raise the visibility of collection care. It’s important for staff and/or departments undertaking this mission that it’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. Here are a few ideas to start fostering a greater understanding of collection care in your institution:

  • Try starting a meeting or discussion group at your institution about collection care. I did this at my institution in 2005. Before that time, the phrase “collection care” was not used. Now it is frequently used. People may not always understand exactly what collection care is, but bringing the phrase into conversation allows for the idea to grow and be shaped within the institution.
  • Ask administration for a short meeting every month about collection care. Hit a different topic every time. Bring in additional staff who have a stake in collection care. Suggest a comprehensive survey that can provide that administrator with an overall, digestible snapshot of collection care, like the Benchmarks in Collection Care survey from the Museum, Libraries, and Archives Council in the UK. Use the results to guide your conversations.
  • Have a big picture meeting with collection managers and other staff. Use it as a platform to talk about needed training, or challenges they are facing. Make collection care a necessary goal, not just “in between projects” work. Collection care is not a luxury.
  • Build out from your emergency program – if  you are talking about rare and catastrophic risks to collections, extend that discussion to talk about the constant everyday risks collections are facing, including dust, handling, light exposure, and lack of storage supports leading to distortion.
  • Sneak it into the health and safety or inventory section of your institution’s audit. I heard this suggestion at a British Library preservation conference. Audits are where institutions like to shine, so it’s a way to introduce goals or suggest projects that gets administration set the best practices bar higher. 
Share your ideas with me!


Lincoln Highway Snapshot

Mrs. G and I were telling a friend, Mrs. S., about our 2005 trip from Dixon, Illinois to New York City via the 1913 alignment of the Lincoln Highway. 

A shot from Joliet, Illinois.

RL Fifield

RL Fifield. Joliet, Illinois. 2005.

Working with the Dixon Ledgers, Port Royal, Virginia

My personal research focuses on the dress of indentured and enslaved servant women from 1750-1790. While I was in DC for work recently, I was able to slip over to the Library of Congress for a couple of hours and download images from a selection of Edward Dixon’s ledger books. Dixon was a merchant in Port Royal, Virginia, a town on the Rappahanock River in Caroline County. I’m looking for information about the sale of textiles for indentured and enslaved women, as well as owners of women who I have cataloged in my Runaway Clothing Database (here’s an earlier post on that project).

I just started looking at the ledgers last night, and they are a real treasure. Not only does the ledger I was looking at record costs for the making of shoes, shirts, and suits of clothes for slaves, it sometimes specifically records purchases of textiles for individual slaves. I’m working on the methodology for working on these materials while I’m at my research fellowship at the Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden in July.

Here’s a snippet from that ledger – apologies I can’t show a larger image. Thomas Turner’s estate made the purchase on Nov. 8, 1768 of 2 yards Cotton at 4s. a yard and 2 yards brown linen at 2s. a yard “for Negro Mary.” See the Library of Congress finding aid here.

Edward Dixon Ledger.

Edward Dixon Ledger. Box 24, Reel 8. Library of Congress. Apologies for the rasterization.




Wanderlust Wednesday: Tucson

The end of March found my mom and I in southern Arizona. My great uncle Mr. B has a cattle ranch outside of Tucson, where he set up business in 1952 (read a post about the nearby historic site The Empire Ranch). Before we headed out to the ranch, Mom and I headed downtown to get some lunch.

Tucson’s wild west past certainly got trounced by 1970s architecture, but there are efforts to restore its early 20th century character. Here are a few quick snapshots from the eerily perfect Western Deco Hotel Congress.  We had lunch at its restaurant, the Cup Cafe.

Tucson is bringing back its streetcar lines –  this has torn up and closed a number of downtown streets, making it a bit difficult to navigate currently. But my uncle, a member of that old breed of Western Republican (fiscally conservative, socially pretty liberal for age 93), after bashing health care and government intervention, thought that installation of the streetcars was progress. Progress, c. 1910. Kudos for bringin’ it back, Tucson.


Tucson Streetcar track work. RL Fifield

Hotel Congress, Tucson, AZ. Photo: RL Fifield.

Hotel Congress, Tucson, AZ. Photo: RL Fifield.


Hotel Congress. RL Fifield.


RL Fifield.

RL Fifield.


The hotel switchboard. RL Fifield.


Museum Monday: All the Goings On…

Hello Readers of The Still Room!

I’ve missed writing posts for the blog, but have been putting my energies into some projects that may be of interest to you. Until I get through May, I’m going to keep my posts light and sweet.

I’m preparing for the American Institute for Conservation‘s Annual Meeting in Indianapolis. I’m the Vice Chair and a founding member of the Collection Care Network.  A project I’ve been spearheading since our last meeting is the Collection Care Staff Survey. We developed a survey to hear from collection managers, technicians, registrars, conservators, and other professionals responsible for collection care. We wanted to hear from this underserved group of museum staff: what are their challenges? what sort of training would help them further their career? We are preparing a summary to be released just prior to the Annual Meeting which takes place May 28-June 1.

I’ll be speaking at the American Alliance of Museums conference in Baltimore on May 19. The AIC Collection Care Network is hosting a flash session in which we foster discussion of collection care challenges. I’ll be speaking specifically about raising the visibility of collection care within institutions, while my co-presenters Rachael Perkins Arenstein and Patty Silence will be discussing working with consultant conservators in smaller institutions and collaborating with facilities staff to improve collection care, respectively.

I’ve recently been awarded a one-month research fellowship at Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden for the month of July, so I’m working on my methodology right now for working with their collections. I’m also there for a preventive conservation intensive, with the goal of creating a mid-career mentoring template for collection care staff.

And in the offing is my talk at the Threads of Feeling Symposium at Colonial Williamsburg, Oct. 20-22 – see the brochure here. I’ll be discussing my research into the clothing of indentured and enslaved runaways during my talk “Lately Imported: Rebuilding a Visual Lexicon of American Indentured and Enslaved Women’s Dress.” Too often the dress of working women has been placed in a box labeled “meager”, “brown”, “ragged”, without really exploring the choice and shaping factors behind how they shaped their own appearance and even created their own fashion. I

Thank goodness I have a vacation in France planned in there!

A Very Scary Moment in a Dark Alley: Trashing a Disney Princess Kitchen

I was scooting through my apartment building’s basement (a wonder in systems and architecture) on my way to pick up a package at the Super’s Office. My path crosses an alleyway in our complex where trash is collected prior to moving out onto the street, and I saw this terrifying object!!

Horror! Run away! Disney Princess Kitchen in the trash. Good riddance. RL Fifield photo 2013.

Horror! Run away! What are you supposed to make in this kitchen – roasted unicorn? Disney Princess Kitchen in the trash. Good riddance. RL Fifield photo 2013.

This is the set I had! Photo: Sewing on the edge Blog.

I was frozen in terror. A Disney Princess kitchen set. Not only does little girl get to learn household roles, she gets to feel like she’s engaging in a precious, pink activity while doing it (am I reaffirming gender stereotypes myself here by assuming this didn’t belong to a boy?). I certainly begged an Easy Bake Oven when I was a kid, but my mother was careful not to encourage role-stereotyping.  I think my only toy kitchen equipment was a small groovy set of orange, green, and brown toy Tupperware, some of which is still used by my parents for their lunches.

Culinary endeavors are certainly having a moment of fame here as Americans re-learn the importance of good food after the tragedies of the 20th century. I think the P-word is doing our girls a disservice. If she’s interested in cooking, how about getting her to stir cookie dough and actually make something? (or something healthy, if you object to cookies). I was equally disturbed by Goldie Blox, engineering toys for girls. The premise from this Kickstarter campaign is that in order to interest girls in science, you must wrap it in pink and sparkles and cute puppies and ribbons. Really? Have all our toys just become more gendered? I don’t remember anything particularly girl or boy about Tinkertoys, those sharp-edged all metal Tonka Toys, or my favorite, Lincoln Logs. I could play with Lincoln Logs for hours. (ok! full disclosure: so I did have Barbie and My Little Pony – but my brother and I spent hours playing with Matchbox cars too).

Read my post “Hold the Tulle: I’m Anti-Princess” about actually talking to girls about their brain, rather than indicating that their value is appearance-based.

Stop the fantasy homemaker madness!!!

Could this be any more scary? This is what we want for our girls? Complete with gold cell phone. So much for the feminist movement.

Transit Tuesday: Expansion Fantasy Maps – Train Geek Dreaming? Or Driving Force?

I have to ask the question above, because I truly don’t know the answer. I’m not a transportation expert (though sometimes I think I should have become one, rather than a museum professional). I grew up in the country, experienced the 20th century right of passage of getting my driver’s license that meant a bit more freedom for my parents (and a good deal more worry). But in my adult life, I’ve chosen to live in urban centers and not own a car. I now look at this country as places I can go to easily, and ones where I have to rent a car (don’t you love how it’s $25 when you rent, and $90 when you go to pay?). I’ve daydreamed about restored rail service about to many a town. I’m not alone.

Transportation blogs are full of train geeks musing about lost rail lines around the country. I recently discussed the difficulty of getting to Annapolis unless you own a car. Thinking about it technically, unless you own a car, you don’t have access to the state government in Maryland

I love the Greater Greater Washington DC and Beyond DC blogs, and I can’t think of any place on the east coast that needs the reason and vision of these transportation blogs like Washington, DC. Both have “fantasy” maps – I agree with Dan Malouff, it’s time to stop using “fantasy” and start using “vision.” How else does progress begin (or re-begin, in the case of our transportation systems) without vision?

While I”m having a heck of a time finding this directly on the Beyond DC site, here is a visionary expansion map for transit from Dan Malouff for the larger Baltimore/Washington area on Flickr. I admit to downright giddiness when I came across the  Rail service from Harrisburg and Hagerstown (and Westminster!) all the way to Richmond, and yes, Annapolis. Take a look at the Washington Baltimore transit expansion maps at Greater Greater Washington and the general fun at Urbanophile.

So many of these transit options are built upon what was, and rail right-of-ways abandoned in the 1940s-50s. The car was the fast and loose woman we all lost our heads over, now we are trying to win back the steady girl from next door: sustainable public transit. Buy the girl a drink.

Squeal! GG1 known as Blackjack (add up the numbers). Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. RL Fifield 2012.

Squeal! GG1 known as Blackjack (add up the numbers). Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. RL Fifield 2012.

Wanderlust Wednesday: Asbury Park

On the road, so keeping it short. My mind is turning toward summer travel. I haven’t been to Asbury Park since before Hurricane Sandy. I’m not sure how it’s going, but my first visit to Asbury was around 2006, before its resurgence began – so I know what’s possible.

Asbury Park. RL Fifield 2010.

Asbury Park. RL Fifield 2010.


A Maryland Breakfast: Fried Red Tomatoes in Cream Gravy

I recently visited my great uncle, Uncle B, in Arizona. Having left our ancestral seat for a life of western adventure in 1947, we don’t have all that much in common. However, as conversations meander in and out of the present and past, interesting cultural gems emerge, such as foodways, stories of prize winnings at The Graw racetrack in Havre de Grace, and hard work.

While the 1991 film Fried Green Tomatoes brought that dish roaring back to the table, I have yet to see my family’s fried red tomatoes in cream gravy make any sort of resurgence. What I didn’t realize until this visit with Uncle B is that the dish was served for breakfast, and topped with smoked fish. While we mutally remembered a lot of things told by other family members since gone, we never did figure out what kind of smoked fish was used in Harford County, MD in the 1920s to top the tomatoes. Any guesses?

The Southern Railway offers Fried Tomatoes for breakfast on its 1905 Inspection trip. Boiled salt mackerel is available – could this have been the fish? From North Carolina. New York Public Library “What’s on the Menu?” project.

Connecting the Dots: Convict Servants in Maryland

Eddie Izzard puns on the Church of England: “Cake or Death?” For people found guilty of committing small crimes in England, transportation to the American colonies for seven to fourteen years of bound servitude was the cake option. Overcrowding in England’s prisons made transportation seem like the perfect option – just get the petty thieves out of here, much to the chagrin of Maryland, where most convicts arrived.

Within my study of the dress of indentured and enslaved runaway women 1750-90 (which used to be available free online, but I see that’s changed) at least fifty of the 1000 women are recorded as convicts, also colloquially known as “His Majesty’s 7 Year Passengers,” which related to the 7 year term of labor most of them served.  Using the The Proceedings of the Old Bailey: London’s Central Criminal Court 1674-1913 website, I can find the trials that sent some of my runaways to the colonies. Many of these trials includes theft of clothing and textiles – the Old Bailey proceedings are treasure troves for the researcher of dress, textiles, and the lesser sorts.

Isabella Watson was tried for violent theft in trying to rob 2 guineas from George Grace. She was acquitted of the violent theft, but was sentenced to Transportation for stealing the money.  Once she was sent to the colonies, she ran away twice: once in 1764, and again in 1768. Connecting the dots between these various sources reveals much more of the lives of working women otherwise forgotten. The transcript of the court case from September 14, 1763 is followed by the runaway advertisements.

Isabella Watson , spinster , was indicted for that she, together with another person, unknown, did put George Grace in corporal fear and danger of his life, in a certain dwelling-house near the king’s highway, in the parish of St. Bride’s, and violently taking two guineas from his person, his property , July 28 . ++

George Grace . On the 28th of July I was going home to the Bull-and-gate, in Holborn, from White-chapel, about 2 in the morning; going down Fleet-lane stood two women, one of them asked me if I would go and see her lodging; I said, with all my heart; I went with her, she asked what I would drink? I said, a pint of porter; she said, she would have a pint of wine; I said, I could not afford it; then the prisoner came in, and asked me to pay for the wine, (something was brought, but I did not taste it) I said I had none, and would not pay for any; then she laid hold on my throat, and held me backwards on an old bedstead, till they took two guineas out of my pocket, there was nobody else in the room at the time; I said, if they would not hurt me, I would pay for the wine; the other got off, and I laid hold of the prisoner; she got up one pair of stairs, I still kept hold of her, and called for the watch, as we were coming down stairs a man got between her and me, she got out at the shop door, and I at a passage door, both into Fleet market; the man crossed me two or three times, as I was running after her, she ran into a sort of a butcher’s slaughter-house, there I took her, and charged the watch with her. I believe I was not above five minutes in the lodging. William Chamberlaine, the constable, deposed, that the prosecutor and prisoner were brought to the watch house, he gave charge to him of the prisoner, for robbing him of two guineas, upon which he, and Thomas Newbury , went to the house, and in searching the room, where the robbery was said to be, Newbury found two guineas in an old chip hat, between the sacking and the bed; that before they went the prosecutor had told them one of the guineas was a little crooked, and one of them appeared as he had before related. (Produced in court.)

The prosecutor being asked, said his money could not have fallen out of his pocket at all, his breeches not being unbuttoned, and that he had not been in the room above three minutes before they robbed him.

The prisoner said nothing in her defence.

Guilty of stealing the money , T[ransportation]. Acquitted of the robbery.

Runaway advertisements for Isabella Watson. Note the 1768 advertisement indicates that she arrived in the colonies in 1764.

Maryland Gazette. 6/21/1764.

Maryland Gazette. 6/21/1764.

Isabella 2

Maryland Gazette, 7/21/1768.