Maria Mitchell’s Attic
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!


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 -  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.



Found: A Book of Pressed Flowers

As noted in a previous entry, I have been hard at work cleaning and moving the Special Collection books.  Prior, I worked on cleaning and moving Maria Mitchell’s own library and the books of her family members that we have.  As I was recently working on the Botany Special Collection (SC) books, I came across this very small and unusually bound book.  It is bound with a beautiful wood cover and a lovely detailed ribbon is inserted as an inlay and then varnished over to protect not just the ribbon but the wood as well.  The title reads Jerusalem and what I believe is likely the word Jerusalem in Hebrew is above the English. 

Inside are wonderful combinations of flowers pressed in intricate patterns and wreaths from sites across Israel – each page labeled as to where the flowers supposedly came from.  This is obviously a souvenir that was purchased.  What makes it of even more interest, and also out of place with regular botany SC books, is the fact that in it is written, “Brought from Israel by William Mitchell Kendall.”  He was the nephew of Maria Mitchell, the son of her younger sister Phebe Mitchell Kendall and her husband Joshua Kendall.  William Mitchell Kendall was a senior architect with McKim, Mead, and White and travelled fairly extensively – including taking a trip in his late teens with his parents and his aunt Maria to Europe, including Russia in 1873.  I think he was likely influenced by his aunt’s love of travel and exploration.  Maria Mitchell once said, “The habit of traveling once adopted cannot be easily given up.”

Now, the book will be placed with the family’s collection of Special Collection books where it belongs. What an exciting find!


Special Collection Books at the MMA

I have been spending quite a bit of time working with our Special Collection books here at the MMA.  This collection includes rare and out-of-print books that have been collected since the early 1900s and span the ages from the 1500s to the 20th century.  The collection is made up of botany, natural science, zoology, astronomy, Nantucket, and other books that relate to the work that has been ongoing at the MMA since its founding in 1902.  The collection also includes Maria Mitchell’s personal library – a listing of some of the books can be found here on our website – and the books of her family members, including those of her father.  It is simply an amazing collection. 

My latest task is to clean and move the books to the new climate controlled storage space I was able to create with funding from the M. S. Worthington Foundation.  A climate system and state-of-the-art conservation friendly bookcases were installed over the last few years and now the move is on.  But before I can move the books, each one has to be cleaned.  This involves dusting the cover and spine, as well as the text block of each book; wiping the same areas with a vulcanized rubber sponge; and then finally vacuuming those same parts.  It takes me an hour or more to complete one shelf – which is between ten and twenty books depending on the size of the books.  It’s tedious and long and I have to wear some equipment to protect myself from the dust.  But, oh wow the things I am re-discovering or uncovering for the first time.  My hope is that once I have cleaned and moved them, I can get the catalog of these books online for the public to see what we have and to come and use them – we have some rare ones that are hard to find and historians, scientists, and others (aside from those who use them now) would love to use these.  They are too well-kept of a secret!

For your enjoyment, I have included a few pages from The American Flora Vol. II by A. B. Strong.  1848 was its original publication date.  The hand-colored images are beautiful.  The second is from Orchids: Their Culture and Management by W. Watson.  It was published in London in 1890.  The cover and spine are phenomenal – they certainly don’t make book covers like this anymore!