Stalking The Wild-Eyed Curator
I realized after I took this “selfie” (oh, what will they think of us in 200 years?), that my eyes were a little wild and crazed looking. Perhaps a bit of stress as I took a look at the 6 remaining shelves of bound and unbound periodicals that date back to the very late 19th century and all the way through the early 21st century! Astronomy, observatories, natural science, birds, plants. You name it, the MMA has subscribed to it or been gifted these periodicals for over 100 years. The Education interns very nicely helped me over the course of perhaps 12 hours, emptying all the outside wall shelves. Now, I have the ones in the middle. Pull from the shelves, box, label, carry up the stairs and carry into the other basement.
Why am I doing all of this? Because the conservation work on the exterior of the Library will begin soon. It is being funded – about $250,000.00 worth – by the Community Preservation Act, a grant I applied for on behalf of the MMA last fall. Happily, the Community Preservation Committee (Thank you, CPC!) funded the entire exterior conservation work and we hope to start with the roof in a few weeks. Then the mason will come and this will require cutting into the building to make the repairs thus, everything has to come out. The Special Collections have all been cleaned and moved to a climate controlled space – also funded by a grant. And now, it’s time for the periodicals or journals as we more commonly refer to them. Once moved, I will spend the winter going through them to make sure there is nothing stuck in them (ephemera) and that people have not written anything (important notes, etc.) in the margins. We will be keeping some, but there are others that will likely find a new home with other institutions. If there are articles in any of them by or about MMA or Nantucket, they will be kept. And the few that date to the nineteenth century, we will keep in the Special Collection as I believe these to be family items.
P.S. Please note that while I am wearing a Vassar t-shirt (in honor of Maria and the MMA-Vassar connections of past and present), I am a proud Mt. Holyoke graduate! I would never be forgiven if I did not note that!
I am often worried about the fact that we are now, for the most part, no longer letter writers or journal keepers. This is even more pronounced for me as I work with Maria Mitchell’s papers and letters or I work with those of other people as I conduct research. What will people know about us? What will they have to read to learn about us? E-mails are deleted, text messages or Tweets are a few words long and deleted as well and with changes in the Internet and computers, what will happen to blogs? None of this is stored in a more stable and permanent way – yes, paper can have its issues with time but still.
I glean so much from a letter, a journal, or even a newspaper clipping. It’s kind of like gardening. I can simply read through a letter or journal page enjoying what I read and not taking notes but just absorbing the “surroundings” much as I might enjoy walking around my garden to see what is blooming at the moment. Or I can take a few notes about things that I might be looking for or something else that is interesting and I was not aware I would find – sort of like picking a bouquet and finding other flowers I did not realize were blooming and adding them into the bouquet or making a new small one. And then there is gleaning or maybe full on harvesting. Where I find exactly what I was looking for and loads of information which will assist me in my research.
But what about now? In the twenty-first century? I sometimes feel like I am one of the last letter writers. I have a few friends who I correspond with by writing real, put them in the mailbox with a stamp, letters. One of those is a friend I have had since I was fourteen years old. Her name is Sonja. She is from Germany and we have been pen pals since we were in junior high school. Now, how many children have pen pals today and how many will continue to write them letters well into adulthood? (It’s about twenty-six years for us.) This experience – writing to one another regularly, sharing information about oneself and one’s family and country and school, and what life is like in that country is an important one.
Someday, if we should be so lucky, maybe our letters will wind up in an archive, and someone will use them to learn about us, our daily life as teenagers (and now adults), our families, and our everyday life and surroundings. I think our correspondence has certainly made an impression on Sonia’s nine year old daughter who travelled with her. You see, Sonja and I have never met face-to-face and we did so just last week for the first time. We already knew one another so well it seemed from twenty-six years of letter writing (and now a little email thrown in – though we still write our letters!), it was almost natural to have her come and stay with us for a few days.
It sounds mundane but you learn a lot from letters or journals. So please, keep a journal, write some letters – you will make the post office happy! – and try sharing more than just a fleeting Tweet. Your descendants and others will thank you for it!
Remember the Days …
Of getting your new textbooks for school? In my public junior high school and high school, we oftentimes had some very old, and very well-loved (or abused) books filled with book graffiti. While cleaning the MMA Special Collection books, I came across this. Now, how many times did you see a, “Turn to page X” only to find a drawing or maybe even something less than polite. Well, obviously children are children no matter the century though this student employed a nice rhyme and then just left her name on page 103.
More from the Special Collections
Always finding great things as I clean the books in our Special Collections. I am currently on “N” as in Nature Studies and this is what I found when I carefully opened the book. I KNEW there would be something good in there just by the cover and the whiff of its age.
The book is A History of the Earth and Animated Nature by Oliver Goldsmith. We have Volumes I and II published in 1857 and then Volume III published in 1856 but with simpler, black and white engravings.
The images are simply beautiful.
Portrait of the Curator as Darth Vader
Maybe the work life of other curators can be glamorous but such is not the way of the world for a historic house museum curator among others. This is me as I appeared on January 22, 2013. What’s that you say? Where are the pearls? The glamorous outfits? The media wanting to know about the recent finds? A camera following me through exhibit halls looking at the latest exhibition of work by some great master? Alas, no. My fine clothes collect dust and moths in my closet.
I wear many hats and glamour girl is not one of them. As many of us in the historic house museum world (and in other venues within the museum world) will attest, we do many things and wear many, many hats. Thus, this is what I am typically wearing – my delightfully snazzy and very flattering 3M Niosh respirator with hot pink filters (the hot pink makes it hard to color coordinate my outfits). You have been spared my white cotton gloves, white Tyvek suit, and safety glasses (though I cannot SEE ANYTHING with them on!)
Why do I dress like this? It is required. I am protecting myself from dirt, dust, and any possible mold that might be on the Special Collection books that I am cleaning. Not much mold thankfully, but unfortunately still lots of dust that has escaped the “wrath” of dusting. But this is something you don’t want to breathe in too much of and if I did not wear this respirator in particular I would find myself with some nice respiratory problem. It’s not like dusting or vacuuming in your home – it’s incredibly concentrated and literally in your face.
I brush the cover, spine, and the text block of the book first with a brush. Then I wipe those same areas with a vulcanized rubber sponge. At all times I am working away from the spine so that I am not depositing dust or other particles into the spine. Then, I vacuum those same areas with a HEPA vacuum that keeps all of those particles inside. I do this for each and every book. Sometimes, I need to tie the book up because the cover or spine is in rough shape. Othertimes, I have to build a small box enclosure with special acid free board or cardboard or encapsulate it in a Tyvek envelope because of the condition of the book or cover. Once I have a box full, I move the books to our new climate-controlled storage area and place the books on special enameled shelves made just for the storage of Special Collection books. No off gassing here – books must be protected as best as we can from all sorts of elements. And then, I return to the Wing and clean more. I do spare my colleagues my mask when I move the books over to the other building – but I do give them a fright when they come in to see me and I am in my mask. Today, I am going for the preppy look – green sweater to go with my hot pink filters!
I say (some of) this in jest. What I am doing is crucial to the preservation of these books. And, being able to handle and look at each book helps me to better understand the extent of our amazing collection and also its condition. And in some cases, as you have seen in the past on this blog, I share some of the amazing finds with you.
A Red Rose from Whittier
William Forster Mitchell, daughter Anne Maria Mitchell, and Charlotte Coffin Mitchell; and the red rose from Whittier.
It used to be that in schools children were asked to memorize significant portions of famous speeches, poems, plays, or other well-known written pieces. It seems that this is not as popular as it once was although I think it helped students on many levels – from memorization skills, to recitation, to public speaking, and more. My great-grandmother, even in her later years, remembered many of the pieces she had memorized, reciting them aloud to my mother to help her fall asleep. My mother remembers many of those herself, in part because of hearing them so often, but also because in high school and college, she also memorized many pieces. An English teacher, my mother always has a poem or a quote at her lips to respond to a situation or a word or phrase someone may mention. It is something of which I am envious – most of my teachers never had us memorize anything. One piece my mother learned from her grandmother is “The Barefoot Boy” (1855) by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1892) so imagine my surprise – on a multitude of levels – when I came across what you see above.
In the MMA’s collection, we have John Greenleaf Whittier’s autograph, as well as letters he wrote to Maria Mitchell. What a surprise then to find this single rose inserted into a book of pressed seaweed created by Charlotte Coffin Mitchell (1823 – 1901), the wife of Maria Mitchell’s younger brother, William Forster Mitchell (1825 – 1892)! A treasure! I was so stunned to see a rose inserted in a book of seaweed and more stunned to see that Whittier gave it to Forster (in August 1880 – Forster’s birth month). Forster was named for the famed English Quaker who visited Nantucket around 1824. Like the Mitchells, Whittier was a Quaker and an ardent slaves’ rights supporter. Forster had for many years worked for the Freedman’s Aid Society, as had other Nantucketers including Anna Gardner (1816 - 1901) who went into the South to establish schools and teach the children of newly freed slaves. Forster also was the superintendent of the Quaker college, Haverford, and once the war was over he helped to establish the Industrial Arts program at Howard College, teaching the craft of tinsmithing which he had learned as an apprentice to his Uncle Peleg Mitchell, Junior.
While more research needs to be completed to understand the Whittier-William Forster connection, I think the rose itself illustrates a close connection. There was a great deal of overlap in whom Whittier knew and worked with and whom Forster and the Mitchell family knew and worked with. The Quaker connection is a step but also the anti-slavery connection. Nantucket also serves as a connection since Whittier, a descendant of Nantucket Coffins, wrote at least one poem about the island – “The Exiles” in 1841. Another research project to add to the list!
The Fascinating World of Research
I came across this fantastic short clip that advertises the use of the New York Public Library for genealogical research through its Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy. A lot of effort went into this one – and it shows how relevant such archives still are – and will always be. Research is fun and exciting – it’s a mystery and a process of digging and uncovering all sorts of interesting tidbits. And when you find what you are looking for or make a connection that no one else has or uncover some new and exciting information – it is like you are Indiana Jones or Sam Spade – just without the whip or the rod! Your weapons to slosh through the materials are instead a pencil, your brain, and paper. Other libraries within the system have made films – quite clever – but this one is my favorite. History is fun – and the people who are there to help you along the way are knowledgeable, friendly, and very willing to help – not cranky people who have never seen the light of day! Enjoy!
Maria Mitchell in Her Own Words
From time to time, I will post Maria Mitchell’s own thoughts from her journals, notes, and letters which are a part of the Maria Mitchell Association’s Archives and Special Collections. I will try and make sure that the month she has written in coincides with our present month.
From Maria Mitchell’s Journals:
March 21 [1855 Nantucket] … The world is sadder to me than before. I feel as if I must be lonesome, but I thank God that my home circle is still whole. It has been a winter, which I cannot soon forget, for I have lost three friends whom I valued. I feel as if I must cling more closely to those who are left, for how, at my age, can one form new attachments. I have held the tears just behind my eyelids for a month, not being able to cry because of the danger of affecting mother and being ready to do so, at every moment.
Maria Mitchell lost three of her closest friends in 1855 and this during what became a long, and extended illness of her mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell, which would take life her in July 1861.
My Winter Garden
As I continue to clean each book in the MMA Special Collections, I also leaf through the books to see what is in them – ephemera such as letters, photographs, notes, or sometimes pressed plants and flowers – who gave the book and/or owned it, and anything else I might come across. In My Winter Garden, published in 1900 and written by Maurice Thompson, the owner (who was not recorded and neither was the donor), I came across the most beautiful pencil drawings of birds, a landscape, a mountain goat, snakes … Take a look at these – they are absolutely beautiful! (And along the vein of my last post, would you find these in an iBook?!)
The Power of Books
A week or so ago, I received an email from a professional organization with a link to an animated short film that was nominated for an Academy Award (and now has won for Best Animated Short Film!). I found it compelling and appropriate to share here based on my work in a historic house museum and in archives and special collections. It also calls to me because I lived in New Orleans for several years before Hurricane Katrina and I have had several professional acquaintances who have gone to the city since the storm to assist with historic preservation. The film is called “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.” Gee, do you think his last name has some meaning?
Take a look at it - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Adzywe9xeIU. It’s uplifting and sad, it made me cry and it gave me the chills. I am obviously “pro books” – I work with Special Collections and Archives too in addition to my work as a historic house museum curator. You cannot smell the pages of an iBook or on your computer. You cannot wonder where the iBook has been or who has touched it. There aren’t notations on the pages from previous readers or flowers or notes tucked into the pages from years, decades, or centuries ago. Oh, and does an iBook have hand-painted plates?
Books are alive – they come alive as you read, as you turn from page to page. This is illustrated in the film when Mr. Lessmore repair a book – he extends the lives of the books and protects them. In his sharing of books with others – it brings the people back to life, lifts their spirits and imaginations, it gives them a friend. And most importantly, the film underscores the fact that we are just the caregivers – whether it be a book, an artifact, a historic house – we are not the owners. These things, these books, will live on long beyond us and someone new will come to take our place and care for these objects so that others might learn from them. I think this film, in just a very short twelve minutes or so, sums up the importance of books in our lives and their importance for the future.