Wanderlust Wednesday – Albuquerque

I had been warned that Albuquerque wasn’t much.

What I saw most in Albuquerque: the AIC meeting at the Albuquerque Convention center.

Last week, I attended the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works annual meeting. Much of my time there was observing the southwest-flavored interior of the Albuquerque Convention Center, with a few outings to the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History for a reception and Los Equipales Mexican Seafood Restaurant, where much fun was had with friends from the Textile Specialty Group and the huitlacoche, black bean, and corn tostadas were delicious.

Entry to the KiMo Theater. RL Fifield 2012.



But it’s apparent that urban renewal left a devastating mark on Albuquerque, and the city is a pale shadow of its former self.  While several office towers dot the downtown area, few people are seen walking to them, even during rush hour. Between my hotel and the convention center, a “civic plaza” had been created, but was largely devoid of human activity. A charming main street area lines the historic corridor through Albuquerque created by Route 66, but again, few stores were populated and the sidewalks were empty. Still, I found a great egg and ham sandwich at Nick’s Crossroads Cafe, near the incredibly wondrous Pueblo Deco Kimo Theatre, built 1927.

Alvarado Transportation Center, built in the 2000s in the image of the Alvarado Hotel, demolished 1970. RL Fifield Hipstamatic, 2012.

While I was there, I made my obligatory stop in at the train station, just a few blocks from the convention center. The Alvarado Hotel was a Harvey House establishment, one of nearly 84 elegant rail-side restaurants and hotels established by Fred Harvey and his company during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sadly, the old rail hotel and station, formerly the Alvarado Hotel, were demolished in 1970, only to influence the rebuilding of a facility in its image in the 2000s. The shell of a Santa Fe Railway building sits nearby. Train stations are often places to be for those who have no place else to be. I got a hoot and holler from a leathery man walking by in a red shirt with too much navel showing, and a pair of handcuffs on his belt loop.

Still, I’d rather have real and ailing than posh and contrived. I didn’t make it to Santa Fe.

Museum Monday: Why Museums Don’t Have Pictures of Everything on Their Websites

I hear the occasional grumble. Why is that photo of that object so bad? Why isn’t there an online database? Why are only selected objects online? Why can’t museums get their acts together?

Creating a structure to fit a mid-1770s gown. RL Fifield, 2003.

I worked on a grant project for three years photographing a large chunk of a major art museum’s costume collection. In that time, we photographed 7,000 objects in three years. Pre-Columbian textile fragments. Black socks. Purses. White handkerchiefs. Samplers. Gloves. For four days a week, our team would set out each object for a dedicated photographer. She would photograph the works, while my partner and I would do condition surveys on the objects. Our average rate was 20-30 objects a day.

But dressing works on mannequins takes time. We only dressed 130 ensembles on mannequins – we could generally manage dressing  three objects a day. This isn’t department store window dressing, but we weren’t preparing the object as if it was being displayed in the galleries for three months either.

First we would slide a pair of nylons over the mannequin, to act as foundation for padding to be built upon it. Measurements from the garment would guide any additional padding needed. Layers of polyester batting were then sandwiched and stitched in place between the first and a second layer of nylons. Then period appropriate undergarments are added. This isn’t the same as dressing reenactors in fully authentic garb – the point is to create a proper shape for the historic garment without stressing it. In a pinch, some rolled Photo Tex tissue pinned to the dressing undergarments can make a pretty good bum roll. When you consider that photography of three dressed mannequins takes one day of a conservator’s time, one day of a collections care specialist’s (that would be me) time, and one day of a photographer’s time, the money starts to add up. This is without any conservation time to remove wrinkles; we didn’t photograph those things that needed serious treatment before dressing. In person hours alone, the photography of 3 mannequins cost between $600-1000. Most museums need grant or private funding to accomplish such projects.

A method for photographing baby dresses. The hanger is removed post-production. The corners of the gown were pinned to a fabric covered ethafoam slant board with insect pins.

Documenting collections through photography is one of those collection care tasks that goes unseen by the public. At this week’s American Institute for Conservation‘s conference “Connecting to Conservation: Outreach and Advocacy” there were several great presentations on educating visitors about collection care. Museums neglect to track costs of much collection care that is not attached to grants. But museums should make all conservation and collection care tasks more visible through their websites, gallery talks while collection care is taking place, and other outreach activities. If museum patrons don’t know our needs, how can they know we need funding?


Iro Iro: My Brief Moment as a Japanese Classical Dancer

Kimono? White makeup? Shamisen music? In New York City?

I spent a few years as part of a semi-professional kabuki dance troupe here, as a student. Many westerners might think white makeup when “kabuki” is mentioned, but they might be hard-pressed to describe the dance. It has connections to martial arts, and issues from the kimono-clad dancer’s core, requiring extreme balance and strength. The dancer tells poignant stories by creating a habitat of imagery for goddesses, princes, young women, jesters, and geisha. All parts of the dance are connected: music, movement, and dress.

A performance at Hunter College in 2007. I’m dressed as a young man, including padding to create a male stomach!

I don’t speak Japanese, but I now know a random assortment of Japanese theatre customs, dance terms, stage cosmetics, and visual imagery used on kimono. Saying Ohayu gozaimasu (good morning) to greet each other at all times of the day. Oshiroi, the white makeup worn by stage performers and geisha. Botan, the Japanese word for peony.  I can dress myself in kimono and have a basic understanding of the appropriate fabrics, colors, and motifs for different times of the year. At a cherry blossom festival in Flushing Meadows, a Japanese woman expressed surprise when she learned I dressed myself. I love the aesthetic, the look of effortlessness, the far-away glance of the dancer at an end of a phrase, the artistry of kimono textiles.



Nikki Tilroe as The Mime Lady on Today’s Special. Photo: Wikipedia.


When I began dancing, I was the student of Nikki Tilroe, “The Mime Lady” on the children’s television program Today’s Special, the power behind the Snuggle fabric softener bear, and a Muppet puppeteer on Fraggle Rock.  I started dancing after a few years of collecting kimono and obi (the large sash worn with kimono). After contacting the  Japan Society in Boston looking for a teacher, and a very brief lesson learning ancient court dance called bugaku, I met Nikki-sensei. Tiny and fiery, she indicated that mirrors were not used in Japanese dance classes, but that because we were Western and grew up in a different learning tradition, we would use mirrors. She strew several mirrors around the office space that served as her studio – they looked as if they’d been ripped out of old bars and houses.

At the White Plains Sakura Matsuri in 2005. Note how dancers fold in their thumbs to create elegant-looking hands.

After moving to New York, I joined a group that had been established here by a Japanese-American woman in 1961. The group was in transistion, as their sensei was retiring, leaving the classes in the hands of several advanced natori, or certified dancers who have passed rigorous exams demonstrating their fluency in several dances. Interestingly, few of the women in the group were Japanese American: many of the older students were of Anglo or African American descent, while newcomers were Japanese women living in the US. Teachers of Japanese dance belong to one of many schools in Japan – each has their particular story of origin and particular style. I went headlong into three hour classes on Saturdays. New students would appear, come for a few classes, and then disappear, not ready to make such a commitment. Then I was going on Sundays as well. I was performing at cherry blossom festivals and helping at educational seminars. I met beautiful women who love dance.

After a stage makeup workshop led by Kabuki actors, 2007.

The red makeup used to highlight the corners of the eyes had to be modified for my European features. While I’m not very tall, at 5’6” I towered over most of the other dancers. Kimono are created out of standardized lengths of cloth and most of the width is preserved in the entire garment. In an average-sized kimono, I looked akin to wearing too short pants. I was constantly letting out sleeves to reach down my longer arms. Conversations carried on in Japanese and English. I caught what I could.


Politics are a part of any enterprise – as an American participating in a foreign art form, there were certain obstacles I was not going to be able to overcome.  I had excellent moments when I was able to learn one of my favorite dances from the woman who choreographed it, her father a National Living Treasure. But as in many performance-base arts, it became less about dance lessons, and increasingly about the support of the organization and competition.  It’s not why I joined. But I still have good friends from that experience, and occasionally I put on kimono for practice. Amazingly, my hands still fold, tuck, and tie everything automatically.

Digging Up My Ancestors – Smithsonian Edition

Click here for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Gibb Archaeological Consulting Crew, Cole Cemetery site, Aberdeen, MD, 2010. GAC photo.

And then, my family members went on vacation. Like many families, they visited the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. But unlike your average Washington, D.C. tourist, the Coles stayed several months.

Thanks to Doug Owsley, Forensic Anthropologist and member of the Department of Anthropology, I learned more about my ancestors than documentary evidence could ever tell us.

Doug has been researching how we physically became American for decades. He can tell whether a 17th century skeleton belonged to a person who was born in Europe and died in Europe, or was born in the American Colonies and died in the American Colonies, or if that person was born in Europe and died in the American Colonies. Our bones’ composition changes depending on our diets. The events of our lives are recorded within our skeletons, which is the subject of Owsley’s excellent exhibition Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake (visit this link for a video and educational materials in relation to this exhibition). In the show, Doug and his team tell the story of 17th-Century people through the stresses and signs left on their skeletons at the end of their lives. The exhibition closes on January 6, 2013.

Declaration of Surviving Soldier for Pension for James Cole.

My 19th century farmer relatives provide a different set of data for his project. By studying the isotopes in the bones of my great great great great grandparents, he was able to indicate that James Cole ate more wheat products, than his wife Elizabeth Gilbert, who preferred corn. James had also suffered an injury to his rib-cage, after which his torso was tightly bound, causing the knitting ribs to grow downward. While he was a War of 1812 Veteran, nothing in his pension papers indicates that he was wounded during his service. But has a farmer, there were plenty of opportunities for serious injury.




Doug Owsley and RL Fifield, 2011.

We met with Doug Owsley and members of his team when we went to pick up the family remains in October of 2011. Doug spent two hours telling us about each person. Unfortunately, it was hard to know much of the other four people. The infant had no remains; only the rootmat that had grown where the infant had laid indicated its existence. The eleven-year-old was identified by a single tooth that remained. The six-year old girl left only enough to indicate her gender. The adult woman left only a partial skull.

Rather than lose their identities completely, it was important to me to gain as much information as we could before reburial. I felt in my mind it was a way to compensate for the relocation. They are now buried at Baker United Methodist Church’s cemetery outside Aberdeen, Maryland. James and Elizabeth’s children and grandchildren are buried nearby.

Road Trip – A Snapshot from the Lincoln Highway in Illinois

Preserved original stretch of the Lincoln Highway, between Rochelle and Geneva, Illinois. RL Fifield, 2005.

First designated in 1913, the Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental highway across the United States, stretching from Times Square in New York City to Golden Gate Park and the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco. In 2005, I drove the section from Dixon, Illinois to Philadelphia. I had no plans except to follow the road, and to sleep and eat when the time seemed right. I ran into a number of formerly known landmarks, whose meaning is now obscure.

Riverbank Laboratories, RL Fifield, 2005.

Consider the Riverbank Laboratories in Geneva, Illinois, home of a lot of codebreaking activity in World War I and acoustical research afterward. I drove up to it, thinking it looked like a neat house. My interest was piqued when I found the word “SCIENCE” chiseled in stone over a window, so I went home and looked it up.

RL Fifield, 2005.


Here are some road notes from that day:

5/22/2005 – Geneva IL

South Bend, Ye Old Colonial Pancake House for breakfast of sausage gravy and biscuit. Horrified Lizzie, titillated her father. Good 60s sign. Indiana Toll Road jammed with light pick-up carfire annihilation. Skimmed across Indiana into Illinois. We were an hour away from the Iowa border but enough farms and flat lands. Onto 26 North to Dixon. Swinging west definitely worth it. Just enough taste of the Lincoln west of Chicago. Dixon Arch and lunch (late) at Alley Loop. Good bar with everyone looking at you when you walk in. Roast beef and swiss with mustard on rye and a Bud. Shooting back east following Lincoln Highway signs pulling us across at-grade rail crossings (yikes as I saw the light of one train, ack!) Little turns through towns, driving through great dust storms. Hope the pics turn out. Mexican dinner in Geneva after shooting some fun architecture.  Tonight at the somewhat worn Geneva Motel.

Preserved Standard Oil Gas Station in Rochelle, IL. RL Fifield, 2005.

Transit Tuesday – How I would have loved to take the train to Albuquerque…

But instead, all I got was this tiny seat on a tin-can of an airplane.

I investigated the details of how I would possibly get to Albuquerque by train. In the adventure category, it puts plane travel to shame. But we’ve gotten used to departing and arriving the same day for most points on the globe. It’s hard to look at the two to three trains, fifty-some hours over three days (not counting layover time) with a straight face. Long distance train travel is primarily about the trip, with the destination coming in as a solid second. Otherwise, you would fly.

Southwest Chief, The Capitol Limited, The Lakeshore Limited – you can’t deny there’s more glamour in those route names than in a small bag of peanuts.

The Replacement: Alvarado reconstruction of Albequerque’s train station, demolished in the 1970s. RL Fifield, 2012.

Museum Monday – Off to Albuquerque for the AIC Annual Meeting!

This week I’m off to the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) annual meeting, this year in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It will be the first time I’ve visited New Mexico, so I’m looking forward to seeing friends and eating some good grub while I’m there. I understand if I want both red and green sauces, it’s called “Christmas.”

Of particular note, this will be the inaugural meeting for the AIC Collection Care Network (CCN). The CCN is a network centered around preventive conservation. It will bring allied preservation professionals together through the sharing of resources, development of tools, and creation of language, data, and information to support collections care professionals who are not conservators. Much of the work of preventive conservation is undertaken by those who are not conservators.

RL Fifield cleaning artworks, 2008.

As a Collection Manager, I have long sought a professional organization to which I can belong. Some would say “join the Registrar’s Committee of the American Association of Museums!” RC-AAM does great work, but their aims are very focused on the work of registrars, which I deal with infrequently. Even if I worked in a smaller museum, there are questions I need answered that require conservation input.  Also, offerings at AAM’s annual meeting rarely offer enough for a collection manager to justify attendance. I work most closely with my department’s conservators, so I have thrown my hat into the ring at AIC, and the Collection Care Network will be a place for collection managers to collaborate and contribute to the field.

Who’s with me? Full disclosure: I’m the first Vice Chair of the CCN. See you in Albuquerque.

Rational Chit Chat About Birth Control, from 1855

Reproductive Control. View the whole text at the U.S. National Library of Medicine website. http://collections.nlm.nih.gov/muradora/objectView.action?pid=nlm:nlmuid-67120190R-bk

Daniel Winder wrote and published Reproductive control, or, A rational guide to matrimonial happiness: the right and duty of parents to limit the number of their offspring according to their circumstances demonstrated : a brief account of all known modes of preventing conception, with their physical and social effects : the only preventive in harmony with nature, requiring no sacrifice of enjoyment, of money, of health, or of moral feelings : reproductive control the only antidote to the early decay of American women, and the increase of poverty in – wait for it – 1855. That is one hundred fifty-seven years ago. You can read it online at the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Winder, both minister and physician, noted that many pamphlets had come before, that misled couples with erroneous knowledge, ineffective birth control methods, “self-abuse,” and vague discussions of venereal diseases. While God is mentioned quite a bit in this little pamphlet, he does note that birth control is not in conflict with religion. Winder chides “Should the reader’s religious prejudices be crossed by any proposition made in my book, I beg him to muster up his moral courage, assert his independence, dignity, and manhood, and follow me through, before he makes up his final decision.”(9) Succinctly: man up. Interestingly, in this sentence alone, Winder outlines his intended audience as husbands, rather than women seeking birth control themselves. The all-male birth control review panel in the House of Representatives further demonstrates how many of our lawmakers are from 1855. Progress?

Prior to very effective methods developed in the second half of the twentieth century, there were a range of fallible and dangerous methods that women used to prevent pregnancy, which you may examine in a slideshow on the history of birth control from Newsweek/Daily Beast. Dr. Winder discusses the failing of many of these methods, finally promoting cold water douche as the only safe and effective method available in the mid-nineteenth century. Douching is not even recognized as a method of birth control today, as it is shown 1) to not be effective, and 2) not good for you.

But the most plaintive request from this document is this: let’s decrease the early decay of our women brought on by excessive childbearing, and prevent poverty. This has not changed. Women were making choices to limit the size of their families as soon as reliable methods were available. Within my own family, the number of children born by my four great grandmothers (2-3 children, with one bearing 5) was significantly lower than those born by my eight great great grandmothers (one bearing two prior to widowhood, the rest averaging 5 children, with one bearing 10 children, and another 14). Birth control allows women to lead the lives they want, and families to shape their quality of life. Ignorance of the history of why unfettered access to birth control is so critical is a luxury that we cannot afford.

As Widner noted, “The desire to understand how to exercise this control and prevent contraception at pleasure, is universal, and seems to be innate in mankind.”(5)

The Act of Research – London Metropolitan Archives Edition

The National Archives, the DAR Library in Washington, the Maryland State Archives, the Pennsylvania Historical Society, the London Metropolitan Archives, Library of Congress, and so forth. I love the click of the microfilm drawer, the smell of old paper, the knowledge of whatever system in that particular archive that will get you the information you seek.

A swatch preserved in the billet books at the London Metropolitan Archives. Thomas Coram Foundation for Children. Foundling number 12250, admitted April 2, 1759.


In January of 2010, I arrived in London six hours late due to abnormal ice and snow conditions. One cancelled flight, one airport switch, and a six hour delay got me to the London Metropolitan Archives at 3pm. London was a mess – a shortage of snowmelt salt (which is a sickening pink) made all the sidewalks treacherous.   I was lucky that it was a Thursday and the LMA was open until 7pm.

My particular target on this trip was to work with fabric swatches preserved in the admission books from the London Foundling Hospital, a refuge for abandoned children which opened 1741. I had worked with the collection for about a year, and added extra time onto a business trip to mine the collection. Archives are good places to make new friends over old documents –  on a previous trip, John Styles, author of The Dress of the People and curator of Threads of Feeling, and I got shushed by fellow researchers for chattering excitedly about the swatches. We were debating fiber content, playing with his digital pocket microscope, and looking up relevant material in my American runaway servant clothing database.

For the hardcore researchers, there’s a chomp at the bit, lining up at the door to sign in and get to work as soon as the archive opens. Researchers work ahead as much as possible; on this trip, I had used online resources to get the numbers of volumes I wanted to see before I arrived, so all I had to do was fill out my call slips, last gasps of comforting carbon copy forms.

I was headed for the rare book room, separated from the microfilm readers by a glass wall and electronic door. There’s a great big window at one end; flash photography is not allowed, so these seats by the window always fill up first.  While I waited for my volumes to be retrieved, I set up my computer and camera and gathered book weights and foam wedges that reduce the stress on aging bindings. Researchers are there for different purposes. Lawyers, historians, genealogists. After the organization is done, you fidget until your books arrive.

Then the countdown begins. Hours so quickly go, and then you start bargaining with yourself. What else in this day can you let slide in order to work longer? How can you absorb the information any faster? Which files will yield your greatest return? Methodical documentation turns into rapid fire photography. The 30-minute, then 15-minute warnings to closure sound and the work becomes a frenzy. The view of the playground outside has gone dark with night and you must relent. I soothed myself with a visit to Fergus Henderson’s St. John restaurant in Clerkenwell, a short ten-minute walk from LMA.

And I apologize, as I left a warm pasty in my locker for lunch that day, so I have a feeling that everyone’s personal belongings smelled like steak by lunchtime. Not that lunch ever lasts more than five minutes when you are working against the clock.