Museum Monday – Most Popular Questions in the Gallery

I’m a museum collections manager. This means I handle project management and long-term preservation for the collections I oversee. While our visitors enjoy the galleries, much of my job takes place behind my computer, in our department’s storerooms, and in the hallways throughout our museum. I probably spend about 1/8 of my time in the galleries, and much of that time is checking that all is in place prior to the arrival of visitors each morning. I check to see that the labels are straight, that the climate is within acceptable range, and so forth.

I wear a badge, so when I am travelling through the galleries during open hours, visitors ask me questions – and I really try not to appear to be stupid. The truth is, I just don’t have the experience answering directional questions that my colleagues in Security do. Here are a sampling of most common questions asked by museum visitors:

“Where is the restroom?” (by far the most popular)
“Where is the exit?”
“Are you a curator?” (nope – good segue into discussing collection care!)
“What are you doing?” (a great question when I’m dusting artwork, allows me to talk about collection care!)
“Can I take your picture?” (this can be cool or not cool, depending on what you are doing)
“Where is ____ [obscure show in a department on the other side of the museum which I forgot to see]?

Museum colleague friends – what are your favorites?

It’s Sunday – Make Whafles!

This eighteenth century spelling of waffles was too good not to share. From Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (1747/1805):

To Make Whafles

One pound of sugar, one pound of flour, one pound of butter, half an ounce of cinnamon, one glass of rose water; make it in balls as big as a nutmeg, and put them in your whafle iron to bake.

The Not So Big Movement

Nearly fifteen years after its publication, Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House has turned into a movement. Visit the website here. I first encountered this volume when it was brand new, sitting in the gift shop of The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. I was attending The George Washington University’s Museum Studies program, and had yet to begin my life of living in smaller and smaller urban apartments. But Susanka’s basic concept: create more meaningful space on less square footage, resonates with me every day. Today, Mr. V and I share 450 square feet. Sometimes stuff gets in the way. But for a Manhattan lifestyle, our idea is to live big, but occupy less space.

Photo: Wikipedia.

The concept rang true with me as a high school friend’s family moved in the mid-1990s from their 1950s home to a huge, vinyl-sided house. The house always seemed empty, with their furniture from their last lives dwarfed by the expanse of the house’s walls. A queen sized bed shrank into dollhouse furniture in the center of a blank wall. It was then that I realized that these engorged houses of the 1990s were disproportionate to humans, and budgets that had purchased the house could hardly keep up with paying for them, let alone furnishing them. Huge houses outstrip our time accounts too: more square footage means more dusting, more bathrooms means more scrubbing, more lawn means more mowing and edging. Is this the American Dream? Is this where the energy of our country is going, the maintenance of undistinguished mass-produced vinyl-sided neighborhoods?

The Not So Big House has turned into a mini-empire. Susanka, an architect, peppered the 2000s with various editions of NSB books on design for interior and exterior spaces, culminating with the philosophical The Not So Big Life in 2007. If you are a joiner, you can join the Not So Big Community. This is where the architecture ends and the meditation and yoga etc. begins.   I fully appreciate the design ideas and the concept of living a more in-tune life. I certainly observe striver-ist lifestyles creating unhappy people around me (I do live in Manhattan). But my bookshelves are noticeably bare of volumes from the self-help category.

Susanka’s biography on her website describes her as a “thought leader.” I find this title a bit hilarious, and am going to search for some thoughts of my own to lead. But let’s live small, and live better. You can follow up your Not So Big reading with some beautiful small designs over at The Small House Society. Also, enjoy the vintage plans on offer over at Small House Living.

Photo: Small House Living. This little bungalow was a Sears kit house. Check out their website for other plans.


Lolita Dresses – WTF?

Cosplay-Japan Expo 2012. Photo by Lomita. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

I was minding my own business on Facebook (hardy har), and all of a sudden – an ad for Lolita dresses popped up. Always a fan of Nabakov and a costume historian (and a healthy interest in the foibles of man), I decided to check out the link. As an aside – what, in my ever waning FB use patterns, indicated that I might be a potential consumer of this clothing? I am well over Lolita x 3 in age.


While I’m solidly rooted in the creation of authentic historic reproductions of dress, I appreciate theatrical costuming as well. The role dictates the clothes; the clothes make the role. I’m also well aware of the adoption of “Lolita” to refer to anything seedy and sexual with a youthful bent. I’m not the first to comment on this – check out The Fashion Culturist‘s “Lolita vs. Lolita” post for a comment on the Japanese Lolita “kawaii” (cute) phenom and Pink Chocolate’s Break on the different types of Japanese street fashion.

Huh? Gothic Lolita fashion, Tokyo, 2013. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.


But the clothing is hilarious. Lolita’s rather hum-drum small-town New Hampshire upbringing pales in comparison to her new identity: goth-French-maid-sheep-herder-sailor-wild-West-madam-cocktail-waitress.

One of the first times Humbert sees Lolita, from the bathroom window of the Haze house, he describes her appearance:

Thursday. Very warm day. From a vantage point (bathroom window) saw Dolores taking things off a clothesline in the apple-green light behind the house. Strolled out. She wore a plaid shirt, blue jeans and sneakers.” (41)

Poor Lo hardly lives up to her tribute.

Check out this Wiki-how on how to “Become a Lifestyle Lolita.” I love number 10.

Photo: Pink Chocolate Break

10. Have good hygiene. Remember to always be clean: run a comb through your hair, keep your nails dirt-free and neat, brush your teeth and bathe/shower. When spraying perfume, be sure to use just enough, but not too much. Excessive use of perfume isn’t attractive and does not improve your hygiene, despite popular belief. Being clean is important; being grubby isn’t lifestyle lolita at all, and isn’t pleasing. Never have greasy hair. It is gross and very ita-lolita.

Humbert Humbert himself notes “Although I do love that intoxicating brown fragrance of hers, I really think she should wash her hair once in a while.” (43)

All this would leave Dolores Haze scratching her head.


Wanderlust Wednesday – What I Did with Spare Time in Ohio

Last Tuesday, I was somewhere in eastern Ohio. I had access to a car, and nothing to do for eight hours. You got it – it was Lincoln Highway time.

An early restored Texaco Station, now housing a Bail Bonds establishment. RL Fifield, 2012.

When I last traveled this portion of the Lincoln in 2005, the road wasn’t as well marked as it is today. I was travelling east bound on the northern 1913 route. (as a side note, gas was .99 the last time I did the LH, Tuesday it was 3.52) Today, I turned differently, and travelled west from Massillon, Dalton, and Wooster through Reedsville, Jeromesville, Haysville, and Mifflin to Crestfield, just past Mansfield. When the Lincoln Highway Association was in operation during the teens and twenties, many realignments of the road occurred as towns bickered and fought for the Lincoln Highway to pass through their town, bringing commerce. The southern route alternates farm fields with dairy bars, industry with town parks, interlaced with abandoned alignments and railroad tracks.

Stoves for sale at Lehmans, Kidron, OH.

I stopped off in Kidron, Ohio to visit Lehman’s, vendor of country goods and distributor of off-the-grid appliances to the Amish. One huge room offered a stunning selection of oil lamps and shades. Another offered Victorian era-informed wood cooking stoves that the general population probably stopped using by 1930. Huge fermentation crocks for making sauerkraut sat in one section of their huge kitchen and dishware section – they looked just like my great-grandmother’s. Their offering of small brand sodas from around the country was stunning: everything from Abita Root Beer to Sweet Corn Soda. I really enjoyed stopping here, and wish I could have put their offerings to more extensive use. Alas, there isn’t much space in a Manhattan apartment for gardening, storing the fruits of canning, and fermenting cabbage. Still, I salute you.

Photo: Vermillion Institute

One place I wished I stopped is the Vermillion Institute in Haysville. Opened in 1846, the Institute offered some of the first higher education opportunities in the area, serving both men and women. Recently purchased by Steve McQuillan, the Vermillion Institute is being restored and will offer historic preservation studies.





Carousel in Mansfield, OH. RL Fifield 2012.


Really, small town Ohio is what I did with my day off? I find it fascinating. I saw everything from a woman in her 40s gardening in her nightie at 2pm, a horrific hailstorm outside of Dalton (I sheltered under a canopy at a “Dutch” restaurant), an atheist billboard in Mansfield, to a man ambling into an Adult Video store in the middle of nowhere (I shouted “enjoy!”). Argue against conservative politicians and Fox-watching automatons that whitewash the middle of the country into a homogeneous pap. No matter where you travel in this country, we are all very different.


Two days later I was driving on the interstate for ten hours, and I couldn’t have been more bored.

Train in Crestline, OH. RL Fifield 2012.

Museum Monday: Collection Care Speaks – The Knole House Conservation Team Blog

How to cover a 400 year old mattress? Comparing dusts vacuumed from a chair every three years to tell if it is deteriorating? Condition survey of a stone floor, tile by tile? A mummified rat from the attic? That’s a quick romp through the preventive conservation blog of the Conservation Team at Knole House, a UK National Trust property.

Knole House Blog, UK National Trust.

Knole House is doing the important work of making preventive conservation visible. Often, museum administrations are hesitant to make visible what has long been seen as “behind the scenes” work. Housekeeping, integrated pest management, art handling, and support making were seen as uninteresting. But little by little, museums are bringing their daily preservation activities to light. It is important we emphasize that traditional ideas about conservation, namely heroic, invasive treatment to repair damage, will never restore authenticity; we will only accomplish this through the routine activities of preventive conservation.

Hats off to the Knole Conservation Team! Check out their blog here.

Patterns of Thought in Early America

In three short chapters, the small gem of a book Circles and Lines; The Shape of Life in Early America (2004) explores the shift from a traditional, circular path of thought to the evolution of a linear experience brought on by the modern world. John Demos, Samuel Knight Professor of History Emeritus at Yale, explores the personal letters, court cases, and autobiographies of early Americans to find language expressing the changing world view of its writers. He collects small details that might otherwise be ignored to advance understanding how life was changing around the time of the American Revolution.

I don’t intend to write a full-blown book review, but just wish to draw attention to this volume. Simple revelations allow the reader to delve into the evolving early American mind. In one instance, Demos outlines the meaning of nighttime to assist in explaining the traditionally cyclical view:

“the main thing about daytime and nighttime was discontinuity – and not just discontinuity in what they could or couldn’t do, but also in the very boundaries of experience. When night fell, the boundaries contracted enormously, so as to enclose, in the typical case, just a single household at a time. The neighbors – all the folk with whom, in the daytime, on had worked or bartered or gossiped – were now, and throughout the period of darkness to come, set apart.” (4)

In another example, Demos shows the shift in tone within memoirs, from the 17th century, during which “things happened to me” and the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the tone changed to “I made these things happen.” The earlier memoirs demonstrated a reliance on God and “providences,” or signs, but the early modern autobiography displayed an eagerness of individuals to tell their personal stories.  Indeed, Demos notes “it’s evident overall how much these people, these autobiographers, were writing for their own benefit; they rather enjoyed the sound of their own voices (or at least the look of their own prose).” (64)

Demos writes beautifully, and Circles and Lines is worth more than one read.


Mid-Atlantic Material Culture: McKee Crab Baking Dishes

An orange not seen in nature.

These 1950s McKee Glass Company “Glasbake” crab baking dishes were intended for deviled crab. Interestingly, in my go-to historic Maryland cookbook Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen, deviled crab is nothing more than crabmeat slipped back into its shell with butter and breadcrumbs. The recipe warns not to leave the stuffed shells in the oven too long as the lime from the shells would begin to leach into the crabmeat.

Hence the “Distinction, Sanitation, Satisfaction.” The pamphlet elaborates inside: “Sanitation Without A Fault / Service in a Glasbake Crabshell will give a tastier-looking deviled crab and eliminate the hazard of uncleanliness.”


McKee operated in Jeanette, PA (known as “Glass City”) from 1853 until 1961, when they sold all holdings to the Jeanette Glass Company. Jeanette Glass closed its doors in 1983.

Here’s the Deviled Crab recipe from the pamphlet:

Recipe for Deviled Crabs

1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 cup milk
2 hard boiled eggs, minced
1 lb. crabmeat
4 tablesppons butter
3 tablsppons flour
1 tablespoon mince dparsley
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 cup bread or cracker crumbs

Melt butter in sauce pan, add flour, stir until smooth; add parsley, mustard, lemon juice, salt, pepper, milk and stir until smooth. Add crabmeat and eggs, and sitr until well mixed. Remove from heat, and when cool enough to handle, place mixture in six Crabshell Baking Dishes. Sprinkle with Bread crumbs, and bake in hot oven until brown on top, or if preferred they may be broiled under very low flame. If you wish them to be extra rich in flavor, dot each crab with butter.

Note: as a tidewater Marylander by descent – we never ate deviled crab!

Asparagus – Time to Pickle

Photo: Box of

Asparagus season is drawing to a close, depending where you live. If you’ve reached your limit of fresh asparagus, and can’t possibly make any more asparagus soup, try Hannah Glasse’s recipe for pickled asparagus.

From The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (first published in 1747):

Take the largest asparagus you can get, cut off the white ends, and wash the green ends in spring water, then put them in another clean water, and let them lie two or three hours in it; then have a large broad stew pan full of spring water with a good large handful of salt; set it on the fire, and when it boils put in the asparagus, not tied up but loose, and not too many at a time, for fear you break the heads. – Just scald them, and no more, take them out with a broad skimmer and lay them on a cloth to cool. – Then for your pickle take a gallon, or more according to your quantity of asparagus, of white wine vinegar, and one ounce of bay-salt, boil it, and put your asparagus in your jar; to a gallon of pickle, two nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of mace, the same of whole white pepper, and pour the pickle hot over them. Cover them with a linen cloth, three or four times double, let them stand a week longer, boil the pickle again, and pour it on hot as before. When they are cold, cover them close with a bladder and leather.


Wanderlust Wednesday – Rotterdam

Rotterdam Harbor. RL Fifield, 2009.

When you mention Rotterdam to so many Europeans, they sigh. Ms. A’s Dutch friend remarked “Well, Rotterdam isn’t a very nice city.” But I don’t agree. The streets are full of people at most hours, it’s lively, the trams and museums are full, the restaurants busy, and the kids in the pub across the street from my hotel kept me up most nights. Something utterly destroyed has a choice: rebuild, or let go. Poor Rotterdam? I don’t see it.


Rotterdam, post-blitz, 1945. ARC Identifier: 535916; U.S. Defense Visual Information Center photo HD-SN-99-02993 [1]

Sure, the tangible history of the city was nearly obliterated, and needlessly – the German Luftwaffe missed communications that the Dutch government had capitulated, and instead, leveled the city on 14 May 1940. Rotterdam was home to medieval architecture, of which little remains.

Museum Boijmans von Beuningen courtyard. RL Fifield, 2009.



Sometimes my work takes me to places one wouldn’t pick automatically for vacation. I found Rotterdam vibrant and its streets full of diversity. Sure, much of its current architecture dates from the 1950s. But the waterfront is beautiful. Art that speaks to peace can be found in unexpected places. The Museum Boijmans von Beuningen restores the senses. The trams remind you that you are in Europe – even if I never quite figured Rotterdam’s brand of stripkart validation.

A memorial to old Rotterdam and peace. While walking through Rotterdam. RL Fifield, 2009.

But you do look at the town with somewhat of a different eye? Is this building a survivor? Was it built after the war? Pedestrian malls which took the US by storm in the 1950s and 1960s thrive here in Rotterdam, where in the US they caused adjacent businesses to wither (perhaps this is a statement of American attachment to automobiles). You are impressed by the city’s endurance.

And of course, there was a Dutch grocery store next to my modern and streamlined hotel. The Dutch have the best grocery stores; they in themselves serve as a cultural heritage center. Besides, they have stroopwafels and other sweet delights.


From my travel journal:

The running joke in Netherlands seems to be “Where’s the Post Office?” Nobody seems to know where it is. Or they throw up their hands, and say that they’ve been closed and replaced with other things. I spent 1.5 hours trudging around central Rotterdam, looking for a post office. I even approached an old building that read “Het Posthuis.” At least I think this is Dutch for Post Office. I asked a mail carrier where there might be a post office (he didn’t know). Some girls at the supermarket were going to sell me some postcard stamps, but finding they had none, didn’t know where to procure any more either. It is a nation without stamps or mail, for that matter. Finally, the woman at the Pathe movie theater directed me back to the Hilton (where I started my foray into Rotterdam) and they directed me to TNT, which is the Netherlands post office. Lo and behold, there’s one about 1 block from my hotel in the opposite direction. That and the girlie bars (Girls. Shows. Relax. Friends.), the Turkish kebab houses, the Asian groceries, and who knows what, all in charming 19th century canal houses.

Hotel Bazaar restaurant, Rotterdam. RL Fifield, 2009.