Monday, December 27, 2010

Vote for your favorite posts for an upcoming exhibition!

Fenimore Art Museum is organizing its second blog-curated exhibition scheduled to open in the Spring of 2011. The content of this exhibition will be determined by you, the blog readers. You have the opportunity to vote for your favorite post, and the posts that get the most votes will be included in the exhibition along with the object most closely representing the content and, of course, the wording from the actual post as it appears in this blog.

In preparation for the actual voting, which will take place in January, we are testing the Blogger polling gadget this week to see if it will work for this purpose. It appears at the right. Please note that we have included the dates of these posts so you can go back and reread them.

So please go ahead and vote for your favorite, but remember, it doesn’t count for real yet. We’ll let you know when the real voting begins. In the meantime, we’ll at least know that the gadget works and that you all are interested enough to vote in large numbers. You can vote for up to three posts if you’d like.

Thanks for voting! And drop us a comment if you have better ideas on how to do this.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Raising, Conserving & Preserving the Past

John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

Underwater archeology has always been interesting to me and even though I don’t live anywhere near a body of water that has underwater shipwrecks, I’m still fascinated. When Dr. Robert Ballard discovered the RMS Titanic in 1985 I was barely two years old, but as soon as I was old enough to understand what an important discovery he’d made, I was hooked on shipwrecks.

However, this blog isn’t about Dr. Ballard or the Titanic (but this one was, in a way); it’s about the USS Monitor, the first ironclad ship in the US Navy during the Civil War. The Monitor, with its famous central gun turret, was lost on December 31, 1862 in rough seas, only a few months after its most famous battle at Hampton Roads. Sixteen men were lost when she sank.

While searching for something else entirely (which is often the case when I find interesting objects around here) I discovered a partial model of the Monitor and her Hampton Roads foe, the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimac, which is probably another blog in it’s own right). Below are pictures of the model, and since it’s only a cross-section, you can see it’s pretty detailed. Also below is an image of the famous turret and the two eleven-inch guns that made this ship a formidable presence on the water. The Monitor Center at The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia, has a wonderful site dedicated to the efforts being made to conserve the turret, the two eleven-inch guns, and its engine, which were raised by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association and the US Navy between 2001 and 2002. The chemistry behind the conservation process is complicated, but fascinating all the same. Most recently, the tank of chemicals holding the engine was emptied and conservators began hammering away (ever-so-carefully, I promise) at the sediment that had accumulated during its 139 years underwater. You can see part of that process here.

USS Monitor (Cross-section model, above. Detail, below), Wood, metal and wax, H 11.25” x W 20.75” x D 13”, N0100.1973 New York State Historical Association/Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0100.1973

Thanks to the efforts of The Mariner’s Museum, a dedicated team of conservators, and I’m sure hundreds of others, an amazing part of the history of the United States Navy is being preserved for the future. And that’s what museums do, preserve the past for the future.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Trim a Tree

John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

My family has many traditions, many of which I follow even though I live so far away from home. One of my favorite traditions from childhood was putting up the Christmas tree and hanging the ornaments, especially my grandmother’s that had been passed down to my mom. Grandma Bain died long before I was born so I never got to meet her, but my mom always made sure we remembered her when we put her ornaments on the tree or set up her crèche with many of the figures having come from Italy, where my great grandparents emigrated from in the early 20th century.

I still put up a tree in my apartment every year, but my grandma’s ornaments stay safely at my mom’s to go on her tree. I often see similar ornaments in other places, mostly antique shops, but the feeling I get when I look at them just isn’t the same. Oddly enough though, someone must have had the same type of feeling towards those old ornaments as me, because in the collection we have several dozen, many of which are nearly identical to my grandma’s.

Christmas Ornaments
Painted glass and metal
Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y., N0049.1978 and N0060.1978

From pinecones to bells, grandma had a pretty wide assortment and the two ornaments above, from our collection, are pretty similar, but painted a different color. I think ours are pink. In any event, they always find their way onto the tree…even if that means multiple ornaments on one branch.

Just like the a lot of things from our parents or grandparents, ornaments mean something different to everyone, but at least with ornaments, putting them on the tree is one way to remember loved ones that may no longer be with us.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

To Drive the Cold Winter Away

By Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

The view from my house this morning.

It’s been snowing for three days straight out here in the snow belt, and my attempts to make it to work have been frustrated by whiteouts and squalls. My trusty steed, a 2004 Saturn Ion, is snugged into what part of the driveway I could manage. Looking down the snow-filled valley I think of the families who lived here before me, in particular the Swartwout sisters, Ann and Sarah.

These gals had a great sense of style and married into the well-to-do Green family of Hubbardsville and Utica. The Greens prospered at hop growing and banking. We are very fortunate to have some of Ann and Sarah’s costumes here on display at Fenimore Art Museum in our Empire Waists, Bustles and Lace: A Century of New York Fashion exhibition. In addition to the two lovely dresses shown we have more items tucked away in our collection.

While I am out trying to dig out the car in my high-tech winter boots, jacket and snow pants I can’t help but contrast it to what Ann and Sarah would have been wearing. During the 1890s ladies did not wear pants (nor did they shovel out vehicles!). Winter clothing for women included layers of flannel and wool petticoats piled under skirts. A warm jacket made of wool or fur would top that off, with hat and gloves to match, and perhaps a muffler tucked in around the neck and chest for good measure. Let’s not forget a muff to finish the picture – a warm fur roll to keep hands warm.

Plate from Peterson’s Magazine showing fashionable French Winter fashions for women in the USA
From Claremont College Digital Library

The trusty steed would be hitched to a cutter. Horse-drawn sleds were the way to get around during a central New York winter. Roads were often rolled flat to allow for passage. Thanks to a friend I now have a heated seat warmer that plugs into my car. Sara and Ann would have used ember-filled foot warmers and fur rugs to stay toasty during winter visits.

American Homestead in Winter by Currier and Ives
Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY, N0036.1964

The romance of a horse drawn sleigh ride does have its allure. But, it’s not the easiest way to make the slog to Cooperstown. I’ll leave that to the Swartwout sisters and be content to use my car, once they get my road plowed out...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Early Photography, Meet 21st Century Technology

By John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

It seems like not a day goes by that I’m not working on something that involves a camera. When you have upwards of 150,000 objects to manage, it’s no wonder that when you work with something, you photograph it, upload the image into the collections database and add a few details about the object here and there. The image saves the next person time and acts as a record of the object's condition when the photograph was taken. But what about photographs themselves? What more can they tell us about a particular time period? The short answer is plenty, if you know what you’re looking at. Many historians will tell you that photographs provide a wealth of knowledge and always tell a story.

The first photographs are nothing like today’s photographs, and they involved far more time and patience than a simple point-and-shoot camera of today. Imagine sitting in front of a camera for several minutes while trying to hold a pose so as not to alter the final image.

The first form of commercially available photography developed around 1839 and was called a daguerreotype, after the inventor of the process, Louis Daguerre. The photograph above is a great example of an early daguerreotype (ca. 1850) and if you look closely at her ears, neck and her index finger, you can see that this image was embellished with a bit of gold to enhance the jewelry. This embellishment, common on daguerreotypes, is echoed in the image below, as well.

The embellishments didn’t stop there. Many daguerreotypes, and later tintypes and ambrotypes, were hand tinted to emulate a color image. Cheeks could be made rosy red, a Civil War soldier’s pants could be tinted blue, and the list goes on.

Since most of the processes for early photography are easily identified, researchers, curators, and historians can easily find a date range for an image. The best example I found for this is in the image below.

It’s probably hard to see, but at the base of this image, on the metal framework, there are two crossed cannons, one with a mark of “76” and the other of “61.” It seems likely these refer to 1776 and 1861, the start of the American Revolution and the beginning of the United States Civil War. At the top and bottom are the Union shield, American flags and “Union” arched over the image. This image therefore likely dates somewhere between 1861 and 1865 (give or take a few months). It may have been carried by a Union soldier to remind him of his children back home, but that’s just a guess. Because of its date, and from evidence on the image itself, this is a tintype, a photographic process that began around 1855 and was popular up until the 1930s.

Unfortunately we don’t know too much about the individuals in these images, but the photographs provide a wealth of knowledge, from dress, to jewelry, to national events.
Even today photography is used to document events and everyday life, but like the images of the 19th and early 20th centuries, they are so much more.

Images, from top to bottom:
Daguerreotype, ca. 1850, Photographer unknown. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY. N0087.1945(01)
Daguerreotype, ca. 1850, Photographer unknown. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY. N0149.1976(01)
Tintype, ca. 1861-1865, Photographer unknown. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY. N0266.1976(07)
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