Monthly Archives: September 2014
C2C’s Disaster Preparedness Coordinator, Lyn Triplett, shares her thoughts…
We just got back from attending the American Association for State and Local History conference in Minnesota. Because my background is in Education, FEMA, and the arts this was my first time to attend a national conference with so many historians. I was surrounded by sharp, learned, and interesting people, all of whom had a very high level of expertise in their chosen passion and career. The best part of most professional conferences is being able to immerse yourself with peers who really speak your language and know the ins and outs of the professional world of your career. People were always willing to share information, display new ideas and approaches, chat, vent, problem-solve and cheer each other and their institutions onward and upward.
The best part was learning that stumbling blocks in our area are the same in other areas. Getting small and medium museums to write disaster plans, update inventories, and document artifacts are challenges across the country. Not all ideas at AASLH were met with cheers and confetti. The ideas of gearing education programs to specific styles of learning (traditional schools vs. home schooled), contemporary approaches to media (Zombies and comic books), interactive collaboration between fields of study, and cross categorical implementation of the arts still makes many museum, library and conservation professionals uncomfortable. However, I think that it can be said that we need those folks to make us get out of our ruts, view our sites and collections with a new prism and encourage fresh ideas in order to keep the funding, the audience and, most importantly, the educational enlightenment that arises from attending the state and local history sites and museums at a peak.
The one component that everyone could agree upon was that the local group of dedicated individuals, upon which every historic entity depends, is absolutely paramount to the continued success of preserving history for the future. That unique group of people gives their time and their money to keep the doors open and are the backbone of sustainability for tens of thousands of museums, sites and libraries across the United States.
A friend once told me that every event depending on participation from others was a risk. Whether it was a birthday party, an open house, or a black tie charity ball, in order for the attendees to say “Yes” to that event, they had to say “No” to something else; even if that something else was just getting off the couch and not watching TV. Her point was that we should always appreciate, with genuine and deep gratitude, the people who choose to support us with their hard work and devotion. They could easily choose to do something much more glamorous, fun or relaxing. Thinking of this, I realized that many historical institutions and museums are hanging from a very thin thread. When that connective filament breaks down between the custodians of the sites and artifacts and the local community, the worst disaster possible will occur. The doors will close and the history will be locked away. That will mean no more stories, no more education, and especially, no way to learn lessons from our past to create a better future.
From developing new attendees, to filling the financial coffers, to showing admiration for the work-horse-volunteers, we must do whatever it takes to keep the doors open. If that means dressing up as a super-hero, or learning a new computer system or spending money for a professional consultant, then it simply must be done. It will also mean that I might be a little uncomfortable in the process. But I learned something very important at the AASLH Conference: that history and artifacts do not belong to just one group or individual – we are simply the temporary custodians. It is our responsibility to entreat others and inspire the next group of learners who happen along. And we must make sure that those people are welcome and willing to say “Yes” to history and its importance to our cultural growth.
Rare books frequently turn up in exhibitions in libraries and museums of all types. Instead of displaying the book flat and stressing its fragile spine, or squeezing it into a stand, consider a book cradle to provide appropriate support. The Benchmark catalog is one source for state-of-the-art book mounts. These are visually appealing but at $155 each, typically not budget-friendly for smaller institutions.
By making your own cradle out of acid-free board, however, you can create a preservation-appropriate mount on a small budget. The planned DIY activity at last week’s C2C workshop, Exhibition Basics, was making a book cradle. Andrea Knowlton, who is a conservator for UNC Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library special collections, provided instruction in this useful skill. But if you missed the session and are interested in learning to make this kind of mount, there are also some online instructions that will guide you. During the workshops Knowlton used 3M acid-free double-sided tape, rather than hot glue, to attach pieces of board together for the cradle. For diagrams of various book cradle shapes you can make yourself, click here.
Knowlton also recommends polyethylene strap, an affordable display supply from Benchmark, to secure pages safely on each side of an open book. The Benchmark site includes helpful images and instructions for using poly-strap for this purpose. The poly-strap has softer edges than strips of polyester film (melinex/ mylar)—a preservation advantage. Use a bit of the double-sided tape to attach one end of the strap to the other, keeping the adhesive from touching the book.
At right, another instructor from last week’s workshop, Linda Jacobson, also of UNC-CH, discusses supplies and methods with participant Justin White of Wilson’s Imagination Station. Note two of Knowlton’s completed book cradles in the right foreground.
What mounting-making challenges have you faced? Have you discovered any methods to enhance both an artifact’s display and preservation at the same time?
The fall harvest is upon us in North Carolina. That means cotton and many food crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans. On the North Carolina coast, fall is also a time to harvest from the sea. The Day at the Docks festival in Hatteras will celebrate the seafood harvest later this week, September 18 – 20.
Although coastal fishermen have long been active through the fall season, the festival highlighting their efforts is relatively new. It began as a disaster recovery celebration in the wake of Hurricane Isabel in 2003. It now includes roundtable discussions, a blessing of the fleet ceremony, children’s activities, additional fun entertainment, and of course, seafood. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum has a presence there too, providing an activity for kids and information about volunteer needs.
Several coastal museums have active oral history programs, recording the fall rhythms of herring and mullet and their upriver spawning runs as well as the menhaden migrations southward to Carteret County and the impressive industry that developed around their harvest. The Federal Point History Center has collected a remarkable oral history on the late November mullet run. Read Howard Hewett’s lively account of fishing for mullet during the 1940s here. Hewett writes that mullet roe [eggs] was a delicacy and that salted mullet from one fall catch could feed a family (or several) throughout the winter. Shad [menhaden] roe has also been a regional delicacy, as folklorist and historian David Cecelski describes. Fall was the peak time for menhaden fishing and the Core Sound Museum has put together a wealth of oral history resources on the menhaden, or “pogy” way of life. More images and information are also available in Our State magazine’s recent article, “The Fish that Built Beaufort.”
Herring is yet another species that was once a dietary staple, especially in Northeastern NC, and harvested commercially during their early fall spawning runs. At left is an image from the 1930s, marked “herring boat at plant of Perry-Belch Commercial Fisheries.” Fall fishing was so abundant that in September of 1861 Harpers’ Weekly printed a coastal scene to showcase these activities. The view of “The Fisheries of Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, North Carolina,” pictured both shad and herring boats. Like menhaden, herring fishing is no longer what it once was along the NC coast.
Kudos to NC’s cultural heritage collections and their community partners for preserving the stories and artifacts that relate to fishing traditions, which once defined the fall season for coastal communities.
Recently a colleague forwarded to me a string of emails about a potential danger lurking in museum collections, fire grenades. These items were sold from the 1870s until the 1950s and were used to put out a small fire in an enclosed area quickly. The idea was to throw the glass bottle at the base of the fire, where it would shatter and the contents would smother the fire. Early versions were filled with salt water, and later the chemical of choice was carbon tetrachloride.
I was familiar with these beauties; in fact I think I put the number on the bottom of the red one years ago during processing. We knew at the time that the contents of the grenade were still intact, but we did not know what they were. As it turns out, carbon tetrachloride is not a nice chemical to have around. According to the EPA:
The primary effects of carbon tetrachloride in humans are on the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system (CNS). Human symptoms of acute (short-term) inhalation and oral exposures to carbon tetrachloride include headache, weakness, lethargy, nausea, and vomiting. Acute exposures to higher levels and chronic (long-term) inhalation or oral exposure to carbon tetrachloride produces liver and kidney damage in humans.
At the NC Museum of History, we decided that we would deaccession these items from our collection because we did not have the proper facilities to store them. Several people have suggested trying to remove the contents in order to keep the glass bottles in the collection, but that is not a good idea. Even if you are successful in not breaking the fragile glass, how would you safely handle and dispose of the dangerous carbon tetrachloride? Our best advice is to seek out someone qualified to handle hazardous materials, like your county waste disposal director and see what options you have.
You can find additional information in these articles and more images of different types.
The good news is that new 3-D printing technologies may allow museums to tell this interesting story without the threat of dangerous chemicals.
A few months ago we blogged here about the now-prominent view among historic preservation experts to shutter historic house museums with low visitation and/or revenue and shift them to private ownership with protective easements. Last month, in an article entitled, “The Great Historic House Museum Debate,” a Boston Globe journalist introduced these arguments to a broad audience and highlighted the contrary ideas of William Hosley, a New England-based museum professional. Hosley offers important cautions about privatization that add to our own about limiting access to the wealthy.
Hosley discusses small historic houses as grass-roots community history institutions. He argues that historic houses should be valued as specimens of cultural diversity in the same way that our society seeks to protect endangered species for the sake of biodiversity. Moreover, old buildings and the artifact collections they present work to preserve the distinctiveness of locales and express the idea that history-creation is a basic civic right. As other public history leaders have discussed, history-creating activities (although not a specific reference in the Bill of Rights) strongly relate to the 1st Amendment’s call for freedom of expression and the right to assemble. Telling stories of the past is an essential function in human society, and gathering places and objects enliven and enrich these histories.
Although most of the well attended and well funded house museums reflect the history of the elites, grass-roots organizations continue to found and struggle to sustain vestiges of humble circumstances. Two highlights from different parts of North Carolina are notable. In the Charlotte area, the Belmont Historical Association has restored a 1920s house inhabited by mill workers from Parkdale Mills. Like Belmont, a committed group of volunteers keeps the Penderlea Homestead Museum open one afternoon each weekend in Burgaw, north of Wilmington. Penderlea is a restored Depression-era farmstead, which the federal government made available to poor farmers who passed an approval process. Both sites stand as testaments to the trials and tribulations of the past. The volunteer staff opens their doors to help interested visitors learn more. No, they don’t have the same dazzling effect and popular following as the Biltmore, but they do offer insights into 20th-century textile mills and farm life.
An impressive group of folks from each of these communities has invested its time, passion, and often money to preserve these buildings, artifacts, and local history. If we subscribe to the view that “America does not need another house museum,” then we limit the possibilities of future lifestyle interpretation. Some of these micro-museums may not ever undertake the capacity-building initiatives that allow them to professionalize. Others have hired some professional staff but then cannot sustain activities that meet professional standards. The energy and support levels of the governing boards combine with market forces to determine which house museums will grow, stabilize, or falter. Leaders should regularly consider alternatives to current operations, but remaining a micro-museum may be the best possible service for some localities.
Read about another potential historic house in Tryon here. After the purchase of African-American singer, Nina Simone’s, modest childhood home, the buyer worked to restore it and turn it into a house museum. Costs have escalated beyond his means, however, and he’s hoping to sell the property with a subsequent buyer’s commitment to somehow continue efforts to preserve Simone’s history.
It’s worth pondering whether our communities would be the same without these tangible lessons in cultural heritage. Does having a space open to the public as a museum make the preserved past more meaningful than restoring a structure for private ownership?