Thomas Bewick, Newcastle Wood Engraver (1753-1828)

Oil painting on canvas, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). Cherryburn, Northumberland, National Trust. NT 530359.

Oil painting on canvas, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). Cherryburn, Northumberland, National Trust. NT 530359.

In digging through the British Museum online collection database this week for a project, I tripped over the wood engravings of Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). Operating mostly in Newcastle for his entire career, Bewick’s rural upbringing led to an interest in natural history. Bewick used metal engraving tools to carve end-grain boxwood blocks, resulting in wood cuts of exceptional durability and detail.[1] Interestingly, when having his bust made, Bewick insisted on being depicted not in a toga, but in his everyday dress and with smallpox scars depicted. Bewick’s tooled blocks were so intricate they challenged printers in their correct use, so rendering himself accurately was of great importance.



Book illustration from Oliver Goldsmith's 'Mother Goose's Melody' (London: 1781, p.37). Trustees of the British Museum. Accession Number 1882,0311.3817.

If this image had sound, it would be “weeee!” Book illustration from Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘Mother Goose’s Melody’ (London: 1781, p.37). Trustees of the British Museum. Accession Number 1882,0311.3817.The image that drew me into Bewick’s work was the realistic depiction of a woman swinging a child by the hands, suggesting squeals of laughter.

You can search the over 3,000 prints made by Bewick and family in the collection of the British Museum online. A 2013 publication, Thomas Bewick: Graphic Worlds by Nigel Tattersall, focuses on the work Bewick produced for hire, such as book illustrations, trade cards, bills, and medals. The book is readily available online.  Tattersall also produced a three-volume catalog of Bewick’s work in 2011, The Complete Illustrative Work of Thomas Bewick with 1,200 black and white illustrations.

Book illustration from Isaac Watts' 'A Choice Collection of Hymns, and Moral Songs' (Newcastle upon Tyne: 1781, p.11). Trustees of the British Museum. 1882,0311.3923.

This image struck a chord with my Methodist upbringing. Enjoy the variety of ways the women wear wear their bonnets with their cloaks: on their hoods, under their hoods, and without their hoods. Book illustration from Isaac Watts’ ‘A Choice Collection of Hymns, and Moral Songs’ (Newcastle upon Tyne: 1781, p.11). Trustees of the British Museum. 1882,0311.3923.

Another tender image from Oliver Goldsmith's 'Mother Goose's Melody' (London: 1781, p.30. Bewick was the father of 3 girls and a son, who followed him into the printing business. His daughters wrote his memoir. Trustees of the British Museum. 1882,0311.3822

Another tender image from Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘Mother Goose’s Melody’ (London: 1781), p.30. Bewick was the father of 3 girls and a son, who followed him into the printing business. His daughters wrote his memoir. Trustees of the British Museum. 1882,0311.3822

Nice kitchen interior and garters in this illustration from Fable of The Countryman and the Snake from 'Select Fables' (Newcastle: 1784). Trustees of the British Museum. 1882,0311.2682

Nice kitchen interior and garters in this illustration from Fable of The Countryman and the Snake from ‘Select Fables’ (Newcastle: 1784). Trustees of the British Museum. 1882,0311.2682


[1] Hugh Dixon. 2010. “Thomas Bewick and the North-Eastern Landscape”, in Northern Landscapes: Representations and Realities of North-East England, editors Thomas Faulkner, Helen Berry, and Jeremy Gregory. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. p. 266

Conservation: We Can Be The Culture of Yes

When it comes to risk in a museum, library, or archive, what is worth it? What isn’t? How do we assess and mitigate collection risks and outreach strategies so that the institution’s stakeholders may benefit from access to collections in new ways? And when is the party just out of control?

Menachem Wecker, a freelance writer for The Washington Post, explored this in his 22 August 2015 article, “Earthquake? No damage. But what about loud music?” (I’m quoted in the article). As preservation professionals, we have targeted most our risk radars toward classic exhibition- and storage-related risks. Will the object fade under those lights? Will this display case provide adequate protection against pest infestation? Risks come and risks go. Staff used to smoke in their offices. Now, special events directed toward new (read: younger) audiences have turned up the volume, which as Mr. Wecker observed, caused sculptures at the Freer and Sackler galleries to vibrate.

Conservators have built a professional brand around protecting and preserving, but over time, we’ve been branded as promoting culture of “no”. That perception has often led to cutting conservators out of the conversation. We are about preservation – and access. Access is why we preserve. Preservation professionals (conservators, collection managers, registrars, others) manage the balance of collection use and care through our work. What has changed is the audiences our institutions are pursuing and they ways we look to engage with those audiences. The concept of “behind the scenes” no longer exists. Audiences want to know about how we store collections, how we care for collection spaces, how we plan storerooms, how we prepare for emergencies, how we dust large sculptures. Collections are no longer just for academics. All audiences are curious about new ways to connect with the holdings of cultural organizations.

Preservation professionals need to get in the game by presenting themselves as strategic partners: we should be seen as the arbiters of outreach, not the roadblock. As in emergency response, we want to be involved in the planning, not just the response when something happens. We are the classic problem solvers.

Don’t have a seat at the planning table? Influence strategies from management theory can provide tools to build trust. Who are your allies to support your views? What are the needs of the project stakeholders? What other information or knowledge building can you facilitate among your target decision-makers? It often takes multiple attempts to build trust with other staff and to promote conservation as facilitating long-term outreach potential for collections. Work with education and special events to grasp the needs of their audiences and outreach goals so you can partner in facilitating the preservation and access balance.

The ludicrous requests will come. Build on your successes. Learn from the failures. Foster those relationships. Promote the preservation big picture, time and again.

George Sappington Bowman, Strongman. c. 1900.

Strongman, George Sappington Bowman, c. 1900.

Preservation and Access in Oklahoma

Early this week found me in Edmond, Oklahoma. Located along US Route 66, the texture of the town is trains, traffic, bungalows, and mid-century roadside architecture. UCO was founded as a land grant college in 1890, right after the Land Run of 1889. An assortment of mostly 20th century buildings exhibit mid-century campus quirk. I spent most of my time speaking to graduate students within the 1960s Liberal Arts building on the eastern edge of campus. Black felt pressboards fitted with white plastic letters called out professors’ offices. I know eventually this authenticity will be lost under an “upgrade”, but I enjoyed its forthright old campus feel. Staff puts around the campus in Club Cars, labeled with their department. I enjoyed walking the campus, thinking it no larger than a few city blocks, though much prettier.

For two days, I lectured students on 18th and 19th century dress history, researching primary sources, how to vet secondary sources, sourcing materials to recreate historic dress, and program management. The historical interests of the students were varied, representing ancient cultures, medieval art, and World War II. Much of the museum culture in the area involves the Oklahoma City Federal Building Memorial, the historical society, and also the Laboratory Museum on UCO’s campus, which began quite early for a collection of this type, in 1915.

Interestingly, there was little sewing or textile knowledge in the room. I was prepared for that, and incorporated a lecture on textile manufacture (the very basics on fiber harvesting, preparation, weaving, spinning, dyeing, printing, etc). We did some exercises in identifying personas and suggesting research sources, and management scenarios: the “Reenact-tourists” wreaking havoc at the museum and the “40-Year Volunteer” quite pleased with her t-shirt and long pink calico skirt.

I enjoyed being in the classroom again. We talked about printing, and working with extant garments, and how to spell Lewis Walpole and Garthwaite, assessing how elements of clothing change with fashion. I shared advertisements of embroiderers living in Elfreth’s Alley and consternation expressed over how women’s hoops in the 1850s concealed the fine strong figures of their male companions.

Those of us who delight in the painstaking details of historic dress cannot forget its purpose: audience. The collections and interpreters exist not for purity of form in a vacuum; they must be tightly tied to mission and delivery of that mission to institutional audiences. I highlighted communicating their vision for authentic clothing to administration and supporters with a vision for an authentic clothing program, building specific, measureable, achievable, relevant, time-sensitive (SMART) goals for implementing a program, and using training and incentives to help make those changes. Bevin Lynn’s recent article “Starting a Historically Accurate Clothing Program at your Historic Site” in the ALFHAM Bulletin provides invaluable insight to managing historic dress programs.

I treated myself to dinner at Ludivine in Oklahoma City last night to unwind from 10 hours of lectures. Had a nice chat with Chef Jonathan Stranger. His new venture, R&J Lounge and Supper Club, is a throwback spot serving Genesse Cream Ale and relish trays. The inspiration for food and feel? He and Chef Russ Johnson visited the menu collection at the New York Public Library. That was a nice way to seal the trip, watching preservation and access to collections in action. It was delicious, even if the verjuice and house made ginger beer brought tears to my eyes.

Cheese. Ludivine. OKC. RL Fifield photo.

Cheese. Ludivine. OKC. RL Fifield photo.

Museum Monday: Off to Miami! American Institute for Conservation’s Annual Meeting

I’m headed to Miami for the American Institute for Conservation’s Annual Meeting. I look forward to seeing friends and hearing about the hard work they have been doing in preserving our cultural heritage. I’ll be seeing a lot of the inside of a modern meeting space, but will see more of Miami at AIC conference events at HistoryMiami and when I finally break free of the building for dinner. My schedule is full and varied; here are some highlights:

  • Influencing for Impact: Leadership Strategies for Collection Care Professionals. This workshop, led by Bob Norris, with myself and Courtney von Stein as mid-career and entry level preservation professionals, will explore the relationship, communication, and leadership strategies for those who champion collection care. Not only is Bob a recognized management consultant, he’s the husband of Debbie Hess Norris, so he is very familiar with conservation! One takeaway I’ve had in planning the workshop so far: what do you want your leadership legacy to be? While “capable” was the first word at the top of my list, immediately after that was making sure that all on my team know that their role is integral and valued. Preservation is built on systems that must endure over time. The greatest resource is the people who make it happen.
  • STASH Flash II! Wednesday, 4:30pm. A rapid fire ideas session for object storage supports, hosted by the minds behind the Storage Techniques for Art, Science, and History collections website.
  • Collection Care Network Session, Thursday afternoon. The CCN formed in 2012 to further preventive conservation, network with allied professions, and support all preservation professionals who contribute to it. This year, we will have presentations on microclimates, preservation self-assessment tools, food and drink policies, the Connecting 2 Collection Care program, exhibition case design, and considerations on conservation as a prevention of harms or a social good.
  • The Heritage Health Information survey lunch on Friday, the kick-off session for the 2015 version of the state of preservation in American collections. I think that many share my sadness at the closure of Heritage Preservation, long the mind and energy behind very important preservation and emergency preparedness resources and projects. I look forward to hearing the initial results of this project, and celebrating the move of so many important HP projects under AIC’s wing.

Please make sure to stop me and say hello in Miami!

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

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

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.

When 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. 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.

There are numerous explanations as to what lunacy gripped Salem Village ) 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: a period of postpartum depression 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.

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.