Museum Monday: Researching Museum Collections for Living History Practitioners

Lecturing at the Bergen County Historical Society, March 2011.

I’m a Collections Manager in a large New York City institution. My first museum job was as a thirteen year old volunteer at a “living history” state park, Heritage Hill, in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Living history generally denotes that the park shares its educational mission – to educate visitors about history – via recreation of historical settings. Historical buildings or reproductions thereof are filled with animals, people fill social roles that the original occupants of the house held, and activities, such as cooking dinner, are carried out in a manner authentic to the period. Generally, a specific date is chosen, like 1836, 1871, or 1905. To perform living history well, a lot of details about the past must be collected. A living history practitioner (to use Heidi Campbell-Shoaf’s term, see her article here) must translate through their person a wealth of small material culture details, including textile history, dress, accessories, in addition to presenting mannerisms appropriate to their station.

To do this, many living history practitioners wish to perform research in collections rather than gaining this information from secondary sources. Museum staff know how to approach [most] collections, look at objects, ask for supporting material such as object files or database records, and follow up with the visited museum afterward. This isn’t so clear to others who might spend their everyday lives working as doctors, truck drivers, school teachers, and engineers. The expectation of the living history researcher might not match that of the collections manager or curator at a museum, creating misunderstandings and earning reenactors bad reputations as researchers. As a museum professional, I have often seen my colleagues, especially those in costume collections, roll their eyes when receiving research requests from living history practitioners.

Taking a light reading. Textiles are sensitive to light: keeping light levels below 50 lux for short periods of time and tracking light exposure helps museum staff preserve the textile’s appearance for future exhibition.

I inhabit both worlds: I am both a museum professional and spent a lot of my early career as a living history practitioner. Celebrating it’s fiftieth anniversary this year, the living history group the Brigade of the American Revolution holds a yearly school for its membership to share current research into material culture, the war, and how to put that knowledge into practice for public visiting our events. Research makes that happen, so I put together a lecture on performing research with museum object collections.

I included the following information in my talk:

  • A short glossary of museum terms. This includes accession number (the unique number assigned to each object in a collection), provenance (the history of the object), and collections management database (the descendant of the object card catalog, the program that stores in formation about the collections).
  • Who to approach to see the collection? This can be different in every institution, especially depending on the size of the institution. It can be including the Registrar, Collections Manager, Curator, Conservator, Librarian, Archivist, or even the Director in small museums.
  • How to Prepare to visit. Pick a reasonable amount of objects to view in the time given. If you only have two hours, pick ten objects. Let the museum staff guide you – ask them what is reasonable. Outside visits to collections might only make up 5% of the time they spend at work. There are lots of other things going on, from exhibitions, to photography projects, storage rehousing, and construction projects. So keep in mind that their time is valuable.  Define your research goals up front – don’t contact a museum and say “I want to see everything from the 18th century in your collection.” Be specific. And do your research to the greatest extent possible prior to your visit. If there is an online collections database available, try to pinpoint the types of collections you wish to see, then ask museum staff for suggestions.
  • During your visit. Not all museums are the same, or have the same rules. They are charged with preservation of collections, so museum staff will call the shots about how you may work with an object. Some museum staff will let you handle collections. Others will not. This generally depends on your credentials, the fragility of the object, and how often other researchers ask to see the object. Do bring a camera, your laptop, other research you may want to compare to the object you are viewing, pencils, and a measuring tape. Do not bring your own gloves (this personally drives me crazy). It signals to the museum staff that you expect to handle the object, and puts collections staff in an awkward position if it is against museum policy.
  • Looking. Collection staff spend their careers developing their skills of looking at objects, but this isn’t always a familiar skill for others. In the excitement of visiting with the object, you can forget important details, such as measurements, or how that sleeve was attached to the bodice.  Start by looking at any information the staff provides. Make sure you record the accession number. First, make notes about the overall object, then progress systematically to the details. Cover the structure of the object, the material, the color, how the surface is ornamented. Take meaningful measurements and photographs. Make sure that if you are shooting details of the object that you keep a photograph log, so you aren’t scratching your head when you get home.
  • Follow-up. Be a good guest and send a thank-you note. Send a summary of your research notes to the museum – they don’t always have the time or expertise that you might have, and they might incorporate your notes into the file for that object.

Educating the living history community about how to approach and work with museums not only opens the door to information that can improve living history impressions. It also assists museums to fulfill their mission of providing access by fostering a more educated researcher.

The Geisha Toye as a Vendor of Poems

This woodblock print in the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicts The Geisha Toye as a Vendor of Poems, and dates to c. 1795. Geisha were the purveyors of iki, a kind of dark artistic cool. Gei means art and officially, the artistic roles geisha filled were that of dancers and musicians, as well as being known as incredible conversationalists. Depicting herself as a poem vendor fashions Toye as a conjurer of visions and beauty through words. The literary theme carries over to the characters painted on her kimono.

The Geisha Toye as a Vendor of Poems. JP 1390, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

How Readers Find The Still Room

Gurnice Stephens. Harford County, Maryland. 1944.

It’s no secret, I can see the search terms readers use to get to The Still Room. Some I can tell that you’ve tripped onto this site by accident. Others, I wish you had left a comment so we could discuss what you were looking for, because it sounded of interest to me too. And, while I’m not surprised, the Lolita seekers are always at the top of the heap every day, finding my post on Lolita fashion, which has little to do with Lolita literature. Still, those of you that find the blog via search engines seem like a varied and interesting crowd.

Rail fans:
Norfolk Southern Heritage Units
pictures of the old penn station in new york city before it was demolished (sigh – see New York Penn Station)
ever again going to use Communipaw [Jersey City CRRNJ terminal in Liberty State Park] – reader, I wish so too.

New York searches:
study of archaeological manhole cover style change in new york city (what?) – See Travel by Design: Manhole Covers
West side highway
New York tenements plans – See Tenement Treatment for Tuberculosis

Museum folks:
What is a collections manager? (I’m glad I wrote that post, because it seems to have filled a need)
Heritage Preservation Emergency Preparedness and Salvage Wheel

Readers with whom I’d like to strike up a conversation (if this is you, please leave a comment!)
Gilbert and Paradise Archaeology Aberdeen (this is my family)
Gilbert family cemetery harford, md – see Digging Up My Ancestors
Millard Filmore Bayless canning business maryland (this is my great great great uncle) – see Waiting for Tomatoes
Bowman genealogy NC

Compelling servanthot
ma hot skip skip abby (I have no clue what this is)
I eat only tomatoes (I’m sorry)
don’t museum (museum is a verb? then I go museum-ing every day!)
i might be inbred – see Digging Up My Ancestors – Inbred, and join the club
what is age appropriate for lolita clothes? (*facepalm*)

Time for a Song: Women Should Their Time Divide

This  finger-wag at women about appropriately dividing their time between pleasure and work is fun to sing. Interesting that work is defined in the following  line as stitching – something that falls into the play category for me today. The men mentioned don’t have to decide between work and play – just whether to spend or save. “Women Should Their Time Divide” was published in The Essex Harmony Vol II, compiled by John Arnold in 1776, almost ten years after Volume I was published. While not all songs in the volume were by John Arnold, he penned “Women” as a catch for three voices.


Wanderlust Wednesday: Dusseldorf

Hallo Dusseldorf! Near the Kunstpalace.

Last week found me in Germany and Luxembourg. Dusseldorf, like many cities affected by World War II, is a new city, with glimpses of old fabric in surprising places. As in other European cities, the pedestrian mall of the 1950s used to rebuild shelled cities thrive, whereas in American cities, they bring the death knell. I suppose Americans could stand to get to know their feet better.

I arrived at 11am on Sunday, my rolling suitcase’s wheels creating quite a clatter on the sidewalk as I made my way to my hotel in a quiet residential area, near the Rhein.

After so much loss of historic fabric, it’s jarring to see demolition and construction continuing. Development goes on. Dusseldorf.

So many rivers that travel through American cities are channels for shipping – they are dredged and walled in to fit specific spaces. It was a bit wondrous to see the Rhein’s banks, and people enjoying their Sunday picnics along the river. All the bridges have a pedestrian component, and I ran down the riverbank and up and over the river. I dodged ringing bicycles the whole way, ubiquitous and in charge of the sidewalks. Even with their red bicycling lanes, the pavement is much more a sidebike, than a sidewalk.

Alt, the local beer in Dusseldorf. RL Fifield 2012.

I went to the Stadtmuseum and K21Standehaus, a contemporary art space in an old government building, set in a lush park. Their interior cafe evokes whatever the Belle Epoque was in Germany, and the sunny terrace served as a great place for writing, a place to channel all those thoughts that emerge between the gaps in jetlag and discovery.

Museum Monday: Dust

Where there is space, there is dust.

RL Fifield dusting.

Over dust, visitors to our museum and I connect. Dust is an ongoing challenge for collection care staff. It gets on your cases. It gets on objects on open display, such as the large wooden and stone sculptures in our galleries. Dust, plainly, is us. If we limited visitors to the galleries, we wouldn’t have such a dust problem. Obviously, that’s not a solution for museums. So combine dead skin, fibers from winter coats and other clothing, and automotive pollutants with a few enterprising spiders, and you have a need for a regular gallery maintenance campaign.

A standard in museums: the Nilfisk GM80 HEPA vacuum with a variable speed control.

Why do we need to dust artworks? The components of dust damage the surfaces of artwork over time. If we don’t remove dust on a regular basis, it works its way further into the surface, destroying finshes, matting original sheen, and becoming harder to clean as time passes. Cleaning artwork is no easy matter. Much of the collections I work with have minimally bound pigmented surfaces – this means that the gentle pressure of a hake brush can dislodge not only dirt, but material that is part of the object. It’s an activity that requires vigilance and monitoring.

Soft hake brushes are good for dislodging dust from most surfaces. Used in combination with the HEPA vacuum to keep from redepositing dust on surfaces, they are the two most important tools in the collection care arsenal (besides one’s brain and a whole lot of patience).


Sometimes, museum visitors take pictures of me dusting collections. They are trying to understand something they do for housework in a museum context. My ego can get in the way. A comment like “can you come do that at my house” can make me think “yes, I have a Masters degree in vacuuming.” But it’s the best time to stop, and discuss why dusting is important, and how regularly it must be done and documented. I talk about the space of our galleries, and how only two people dust that large area. Take every opportunity to educate museum visitors, trustees, volunteers, and others who stop to gawk that collection care is a necessary part of museum operations – and that it needs their understanding and support.

Feeling Swank: The Green Mill, Chicago

Swank at The Green Mill. RL Fifield 2012.

During our recent trip to see Jeremy W.(of Le Cafe Witteveen) and Tina S. in their Chicago stomping grounds, we got to check out some incredible local spots. One of them was The Green Mill, a nightclub paused during its heyday, when Al Capone used to manage it and a number of surrounding establishments, all connected by hidden basement tunnels. The neighborhood has a number of incredible old theaters, just waiting for the loving hand of historic preservation to rejuvenate them. The rattle of the nearby El helped set the vintage mood. Plop on your cloche and throw on your beads.

We pulled in after dinner. It had been 99 deg. that day, and we were fried from too much sun and too little air conditioning. Perfect timing for alcohol.

Mmmm Manhattan. Even though I was in Chicago. RL Fifield 2012.

The Green Mill is dark inside, the way old clubs are dark. Banquettes! The conversation-friendly lunette shape isn’t used enough anymore. Carved wood panels surrounded murals that could use some cleaning. Cafe tables were strewn around a stage up front, guarded by towering statue of a woman. We were taken by the Art Nouveau bar lamp, doing an Atlas routine by holding up a lit globe that was belted “SCHLITZ.” A charming but bulky bouncer asked us to whisper during performances, so there’s a code of decorum here. Up under “Green Mill,” scripted in green neon, was performing Howard Levy & Acoustic Express. Feeling cool on a very hot night.

Wanderlust Wednesday: Cold Spring, NY

Cold Spring. RL Fifield 2012.

Dr. V and I took the week off a couple of weeks ago, and finally followed through on a plan to go hiking. Most modern Americans expect to hop in their car in order to achieve reaching a remote wooded location. But as residents of Manhattan, we wanted to reach the trails by public transportation. Cold Spring, New York, fits the bill. The Hudson line of Metro-North deposits you right on Main Street. After walking about two blocks up Main Street, turn left on Fair Street. Just past where it combines with a larger road are a few parking slots and the trail head.

There are scads of trails in the Hudson Valley. We stopped by Hudson Valley Outfitters to buy a pack of trail maps. They are printed on Tyvek, so that’s a lot more durable and all-weather than the free paper photocopies found in the box by the trailhead. You can also sign up for kayak tours of Constitutional Marsh at HVO for $25. We aren’t super experienced hikers, so we first hiked up the white trail towards Breakneck Ridge. Keep your eyes on the trail blazes. When we reached the quarry, we got distracted, and circled it twice looking for the way out. The trail is well marked – it’s your responsibility to pay attention. We turned left on the Undercliff (yellow) trail for a gentle descent through the woods, with excellent views of West Point and the Hudson, and then came by the abandoned Cornish Farm on the red and blue trails.

The perfect first stop post-hike is the Go-Go Pops shop on Main Street. The sour cherry  popsicle really fit the bill. There are a number of others I’d try, including Blueberry-Buttermilk, Lime Mojito, and Cucumber-Chili. We also visited Cold Spring Depot for a late lunch. This restaurant occupies Cold Spring’s New York Central depot from 1893. Trains stop at raised platforms nearby, but there’s still plenty of train traffic to watch (and hear) while at the Cold Spring Depot.

We finished the day by sitting by taking the passage under the tracks to reach the Hudson River – beautiful.

Transportation Tuesday: Runaway!

This post is not about servants. So much of the time when I refer to runaways, it’s in relation to indentured and enslaved women.

Communipaw Terminal’s now grassy rail beds. RL Fifield, 2011.

Thanks to Mr. I for sending around this link to a well-written article in Popular Science about a runaway Jersey Central ghost train that charged out of Jersey City’s Communipaw Terminal on November 12, 1959 at 10:30pm. Read the article here. How the locomotive jumped a closed switch and other safety features to prevent runaway engines from entering the main line remained a mystery for many years, and continues to be a subject of occasional discussion on several rail fan forums today.

I particularly love the sidebar proclaiming “Double Length Feature of True Science Adventure.” I’d like to remind readers that this article is from the “good old days” and Popular Science was written to address a general audience thrilled by science. Even if I think trains have a greater role to play in the US than they do today (just think about Comlink going out of business and loss of regional air service) it can be funny to remember that rail was science – and still is. Enjoy the adventure that is science.

Museum Monday: Hygrothermographs for the Layman

What is that box with all the dials sitting in the corner of the gallery?

A hygrothermograph. Photo: Oakton.

Chances are, it’s a hygrothermograph. It’s a device that tracks temperature and relative humidity over time. Museum staff use it to understand the environment in a space, and how it is affecting the objects being displayed. So, you ask, why does this matter?

Many objects are sensitive to changes in relative humidity. Think of doors that stick in their jambs in the summer. Drawers that fit tighter when it’s humid out. Think about your hair. And that’s how hygrothermographs work. A lock of hair is attached to gauges within the device. When there is more humidity in the air, the hair becomes longer, and this relays to the pens tracking the relative humidity on the graph.

Let’s throw another word into the mix: hygroscopic. This term is applied to materials that absorb and hold water, usually resulting in some sort of physical change. Wood, ivory, textiles, and paper are examples of hygroscopic materials. Stone, ceramic, and metal are not (though I will point out that damp environments are not good for storage of metals, as this can accelerate corrosion).

Hobo datalogger. Photo: Onset.

So using hygrothermographs to determine conditions in a space, and how museum staff will display and store objects based on whether they are hygroscopic or not is a big part of preventive conservation practice. Many museums are shifting now toward the use of dataloggers to track relative humidity and temperature, so that digital graphs that may be more easily analyzed. Still, a lot of conservators like hygrothermographs for their instant visual information and ease of calibration.