Thursday, July 30, 2009

Sorting out the Closet

By: Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Collections

What is in your closet? At home I have the usual work and casual items as well as a few old items that perhaps, someday, I will wear again. I have been trying to keep to a 5-year plan, meaning if I don’t wear it at least once in five years off to the Goodwill box it goes.

In our closet, ours being the Fenimore Art Museum, we have articles of clothing that have not been worn in 200 years. My 5-year “use it-or-lose-it” rule does not apply. Here, age and infrequent use are assets and are criteria for keeping. The fun part is when the keeping/collecting becomes an opportunity for displaying.

My colleagues and I are enjoying the pleasure of sifting through the thousands of dresses, skirts, shirts, pants and undies that make up our clothing collection. The goal is to select great examples of 19th century upstate New York fashion for our 2010 exhibit season. Yes, we did have fashion up here in the 19th-century New York “wilderness”, and still do today! So far we have empire waist dresses sewn with silver thread, wedding dresses (not in white), civil war-inspired military-themed day dresses, as well as stunning silk ball gowns. And, there will be kids clothing and some men’s wear and most certainly corsets. (Then, as now, it’s often all about the undergarment!)The question is, what to title the exhibit? The theme is the influence of state and national events on 19th century New York State fashion.
Suggestions so far are:

Connecting Threads: A Century of New York State Fashion

The Empire State’s New Clothes: 19th Century Upstate Fashion

We would love your help. Do you have an idea for a title? If so, send it along as a comment on this blog. Thanks!

Photos above: Consultant Janet Rigby (blue shirt) and Associate Curator of Exhibitions, Chris Rossi (orange shirt) prepare dresses for photography

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Musical Craftsmanship

By: John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections
I have to admit, I rarely escape from my office long enough to blog on something new and exciting that I’ve been up to in and around the museum. But that might be a good thing. Since museums are rarely able to exhibit their entire collection at any given time, I thought it would be fun (and hopefully interesting) to pick an object and write about it, and whatever else I happen to learn about it while preparing to blog.

I hope you’ll enjoy the behind-the-scenes view into the collection!

As a violinist for the past 15 or so years, every time I see a musical instrument, I always stop. If I can, I pick it up and look at it, always trying to find the “garage sale” Stradivarius that I dream about. Like that would ever happen though. Working in a museum that has instruments in the collection, from violins to guitars to several pianos, I could stare at them for hours if I could. And since I work in the collections storage facility, in theory, I could. One object in particular has always caught my eye, a melodeon that the museum was fortunate enough to be given in 2007 by Patricia B. Selch, in memory of Eric Selch.

Made by Amos L. Swan of Cherry Valley, NY, this melodeon is nearly identical to the sketch Swan drew for the US Patent office ca. 1850. In fact, there is even a gold decal on the case that reads “Patented May 7, 1850.” Swan made several improvements in the construction and workings of his melodeon and patented it to protect his new design. Also known as a reed organ, one has to pump the pedal in order to make any sound. It works much like an accordion, which most people are more familiar with, where the air flutters across the reed making a musical note as the bellows are pumped. Even some accordions are referred to as melodeons.

Though we have other melodeons and even violins and pianos that are beautifully constructed, this melodeon is definitely one of my favorite instruments in the collection. The ingenuity of Amos Swan to develop and improve this instrument testifies to the same ingenuity that other 19th-century inventors had during the American Industrial Revolution. It is no wonder that The Farmers’ Museum has such a large collection of patent models.

More on that next time!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Finding Walker Evans

By: Michelle L. Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
I must’ve been in about 6th grade or so when I first learned about Walker Evans and his work for the Farm Security Administration from 1935-1936. I imagine that my classmates and I simply learned that he took pictures of people suffering during the Great Depression – or at least that’s what we had to remember for the exam! But for some reason, Walker Evans and the story of the FSA has stuck with me all these years. By the time I was in college, though, taking an introductory art history class, my classmates and I were debating whether or not Evans’ images were pure propaganda. I don’t recall a lot of discussion about the artistic merits of his FSA photographs during that class. We all agreed that Walker Evans was “important” but we all had different reasons why we thought that.
So, when an old friend of Fenimore Art Museum told us about an innovative Walker Evans exhibition a few years ago, I was very excited. A colleague of mine, Chris Rossi, went to New York to take a peek at the show and came back with nothing but praise. I remember her saying, “Michelle, I’ve seen the picture of Bud Field’s Family thousands of times, but I’ve never noticed the cat under the bed. The detail in the prints is outstanding.”
Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver is organized by John Hill, who taught with Evans at the Yale School of Art and was the executor of his Estate. Hill presents a new perspective on Evans’ work by comparing photographs printed during Evans’ lifetime with contemporary ink-jet prints made from digital files, created from scans of original negatives. The enlarged ink-jet prints reveal intricate details that are less accessible in the earlier versions of the images on view, which include vintage gelatin silver prints, books and magazines.
Next time, we’ll go into even more detail on this fascinating exhibition. Can’t wait for more? Here are a couple of essays you may want to read: John Szarkowski's essay in the Museum of Modern Art catalog of the Evans' 1971 retrospective, and Lincoln Kirstein's afterword for Walker Evans’ American Photographs.

This exhibition is made possible in part by The Lisette Model Foundation and The Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation, Inc.

Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver is on view through December 31, 2009.
Top: Walker Evans, 1937
Center: Bud Field's Family, 1936
Bottom: Installing Walker Evans: Carbon and Silver at Fenimore Art Museum, July 2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Museum's Collection: What Lies Below the Surface?

By: Doug Kendall, Curator of Collections
Did you know that the art and artifacts you see on exhibition represent just the tip of the iceberg of the Fenimore Art Museum’s collections? As I write this post, the Museum has over 900 objects from its own collections on exhibit out of a total of about 23,000. Many exhibitions, such as America's Rome: Artists in the Eternal City, 1800-1900 feature works loaned by other museums and collectors, so there are many more works of art on exhibition this summer. But about 96% of the Museum’s collections are not in the Museum’s galleries right now. This proportion is common among many art and history museums.

Why such a small proportion on exhibit? The Museum and its parent, the New York State Historical Association, have been collecting since 1899. To properly exhibit the entire collection would require a museum building many times the size of the Fenimore Art Museum—which was originally built as a 46-room mansion! Further, many of the objects in the collection are too fragile to be exhibited for long periods of time: textiles, paper and some paintings are particularly susceptible to damage from even relatively low light levels.
Some of the Museum’s objects are on loan to other museums, such as the magnificent portrait of the Revolutionary War general Baron von Steuben painted by Ralph Earl, which can be seen at Mount Vernon from now until January 10, 2010. Others, like the Apache saddlebag, are being prepared for exhibitions organized by our curators that will soon travel to museums around the country. Many are exhibited in the historic buildings of our sister institution, The Farmers’ Museum.

But most of the Museum’s collections are stored and preserved so that curators, researchers, students and the public will be able to access them for years to come. You can see some of these collections on the Museum’s website—check out the Thaw Collection or highlights of the Fine and Folk Art Collections.
As Curator of Collections, I document and care for all of the collections so that they are available to future generations—and so they are ready to be exhibited at the Museum when it’s their turn. In addition, students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program study the collections as part of their training in Museum Studies. The collections may also be seen by appointment and the Collections staff makes that possible. From time to time, I’ll be sharing some of the unique and fascinating objects that aren’t on exhibition through this blog.
Top: Major-General Baron Frederick William August von Steuben,1786 by Ralph Earl (1751-1801). Gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0198.1961. Photography: Richard Walker.
Bottom: Saddlebag, Apache, ca. 1880. Gift of Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw, T0764. Photography: Richard Walker.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Behind the Scenes: What's a Registrar?

By: Christine Olsen, Registrar
The job of a museum registrar is one that is often the least understood, and the registrar’s office the least visited or seen by the public and even other museum staff. This is because registrars are inherently concerned with the care and security of the collection and its files, and work in areas of the museum that have high security access. Although a registrar’s work is mostly behind the scenes, their job is extremely important.

Registrars typically have cross-disciplinary education and training and work closely with the Collections, Exhibitions and Security staff at the museum. Because there aren’t many formal classes for registration as a profession, one often learns how to be a registrar by working under a mentor. Many people become museum registrars unintentionally, finding over the course of their studies or career that their skills and interests make them perfect for the position. You must like detail oriented work and have great multitasking and organizational skills to be a successful registrar!
What exactly does a registrar do, you ask? Well, the registrar really wears many hats. Among other things, the registrar is responsible for overseeing the institution’s collections files and database, managing incoming and outgoing exhibitions loans, coordinating and updating insurance coverage, processing new acquisitions, overseeing rights and reproductions requests, and ensuring the security and care of collections and loaned objects and constantly monitoring their location and condition.
Museum registrars often spearhead the design and installation of exhibitions. As compared to some smaller institutions, the Fenimore Art Museum has an entire exhibitions team that takes on this responsibility. This allows me much needed time to manage the logistics of paperwork, shipping, condition reporting and insurance for the many incoming loans. For example, our current exhibit America’s Rome has 24 lenders and 134 objects that the Registrar must oversee!
Next time you wonder how the artwork you see in a gallery at Fenimore Art Museum made it there or how it is cared for, think of me. You may not see me but I’m happily working hard behind the scenes to make it all happen.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kopp Collection: Part I

By: Eva Fognell, Curator of American Indian Art
The first project I worked on when I started here at the Fenimore Art Museum was cataloging a collection of about 1000 recently-acquired objects, mostly ephemeral material, that illustrated the use of American Indian images on advertising products (often with absolutely nothing to do with Native peoples). One of the most famous images that many of you may be familiar with is the Pontiac car dealership sign.

Advertising is a very powerful media. We are constantly bombarded by images that shape the way we feel and think about things, as well as the way we think about other people. Early advertising was often more informative than promotional. For example in the 18th century a flyer might say: “Have just received a large shipment of hats and buttons - come quick and get the best selection.” It was with mass production and the development of national markets - the idea that you could transport oranges from California to New York on the railroads for example - that advertising began to look more like what we know today.
In 1877, a pioneer citrus grower sent an entire load of fruit to St. Louis. You can imagine the stir at the train station and at the market that day, from the smell of the oranges to the word “California” which implied a Promised Land in the west. As more and more western produce growers shipped their products to markets in the east they had to find a way to make THEIR product stand out when stacked in big warehouses full of crates piled 10 feet high. So they needed labels that were eye-catching, arresting, memorable and that fought for attention. Stereotypes of Indian maidens and warbonnet-festooned warriors became common conventions on labels in the years prior to WWII. And in the 1880s, San Francisco became a center for lithography.

Advertising very often stereotypes people so it is important to look at the advertising material with a critical eye and think about the often false impression we get of people and places from advertising. In the next few posts I will show you some other things that were sold and advertised using images of Native American people.

Beacon Trading Company. Chief Seattle Apples, n.d. Gift of Joel and Kate Kopp, Fenimore Art Museum, N0007.2001(023)
H.S. Denison & Co. Redman Brand Apples, n.d. Gift of Joel and Kate Kopp, Fenimore Art Museum, N0007.2001(001)
Bradford Bros., Inc. Pala Brave Valencias, n.d. Gift of Joel and Kate Kopp, Fenimore Art Museum, N0007.2001(003)
Pontiac Service Sign n.d. Gift of Joel and Kate Kopp, Fenimore Art Museum N0007.2001(606)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Early Photography Meets 20th-Century Sleuthing

By:John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections
When I started working for The Farmers’ Museum and The New York State Historical Association less than 10 months ago, I knew that several projects would be coming my way and that over time I’d find more on my own. One of those projects involved a “mystery” box that had been tentatively identified as being a case for a camera. Simple enough, I thought. Then my curiosity got the better of me and as I looked at this box, I noticed little dimples and hinges in strategic locations. I already had figured out that the case probably opened somehow and an old box camera probably fit into it; never did I realize what I would find when I pushed this button and swung the hinges down.
This camera instantly became one of my favorite pieces in the NYSHA collection, not only for its sheer beauty and simplicity, but for what I learned as I researched the maker, model, and shutter. What I found was that this camera was built by the Rochester Optical Company around 1886 and that the shutter mechanism that is now attached was not the original shutter. The new owner must have had a fair bit of knowledge of photography because they married an Athlete Shutter made by the Prosch Manufacturing Company, a top-of-the-line model in its day, to the camera, allowing it to take clearer and sharper images.

For me, this camera represents not only precious craftsmanship that is rarely seen today, but something that someone in the late 19th and early 20th centuries used to preserve their memories, much like the photographers have done at the Fenimore Art Museum’s American Photography: Recent Acquisitions. NYSHA not only collects historic photographs, but contemporary ones as well, which brings the number of photographs in our collection to nearly 150,000 including a large collection from the photographers Washington G. Smith and Arthur Telfer. Technology has come a long way since this camera and Smith-Telfer’s time, but you have to admit, there’s just something about an object like this that makes you stop, slow down, and admire a somewhat simpler time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Designing the campagana, or, notes from an antediluvian blogger

By: Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions
When working on graphics for upcoming exhibits I am often reminded of where I come from. When you grew up using a slide rule rather than a calculator, some things (like blogging!) just don’t seem to come naturally. Not to say we didn’t make it to calculators, it was just that my first one was a huge beige model that my high school classmates dubbed the DeSoto.

Again, like the DeSoto, my first foray into computer graphic design was on a General Electric machine that was the size of a small refrigerator. The crude shapes that acted as design elements reminded me of my childhood Colorforms. The only slot my roommate and I could get for lab time was 3 am. We slept out in our studio and chugged coffee at 2:45 am. It was hot stuff.
Technology is still hot stuff. In fact now I do all my design work on a machine that often seems to know more than I do. America’s Rome: Artists in the Eternal City, 1800-1900, our feature exhibit at Fenimore this year, was laid out on a computer; graphics and design elements all composed on the same Mac G5. Now I am working on a map of the Roman Campagna and am impressed at how the Mac and Photoshop seem to be holding out on me – holding back on some secrets that will make this the map that will unlock the glories of the Roman Campagna to our visitors and link the paintings to those romantic names – Tivoli, Frascati, Nettuno, to name a few. The green and yellow ochre fields, Roman ruins, peasants, and waterfalls that the 19th-century painters found so intriguing. How to connect the names and images in a way that will make them easily accessible to the visitor is always the big design challenge. Sometimes the tools are more sophisticated than their driver and we all have to play a little catch-up.
In the end, the results will exceed what was created with the slide rule, or the DeSoto, or the GE. The new technology can lead to amazing ends. Who knows where it may take the map and I.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Let’s go out to the lobby…or maybe into it, because of the rain!

By: Kate Betz, Manager of Public Programs
Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting our first ever (at least in the memory of everyone I have asked) outdoor movie on the back lawn of the Fenimore Art Museum. For the next three weeks, we will be hosting movies every Wednesday night. I have to send huge thanks to everyone who came out for their patience with our new format and most especially with the weather. We had a rain plan in place just in case, and it’s a good thing we did. Just as Princess Ann’s royal parents were sending incognito spies to track her down, rain drops began to fall. We had to pause the movie, bring everyone inside, and get set up in our auditorium. Luckily, we managed to get inside before the real rain started. This year’s outdoor series is titled “Americans Abroad.” All of the movies offer a different perspective on Americans traveling to foreign countries—from news reporter to comedic swindler. Each evening features lawn games (watch out, I’m a bocce champion!) and snacks as well as one of the most spectacular views of Otsego Lake in town. Check our website for the complete schedule. I hope to see you there!

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