Thursday, February 24, 2011

The John Kidder Civil War Collection

John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

Just before Thanksgiving of 2010, I had the good fortune to meet a descendant of the Civil War soldier, John Kidder, who mustered into service at the rank of Captain, and mustered out as a Lt. Colonel. The donor was bringing letters and other documents to the NYSHA Research Library to be considered as a gift. Because of the connection between Kidder and the 121st Regiment of the New York State Volunteers, a regiment I have been actively researching for well over two years now, I was interested in seeing the papers.

Much to my surprise, the donor brought something else - well, several things actually. In an old gift box were seven ribbons and a sash, all concerning Kidder’s post-war activities related to the encampments, remembrance days or dedications. These were all in absolutely fantastic condition; as you can see below, this particular one was probably still as bright as the day Kidder received it.

Ribbon, ca. 1892, Artist unknown, Silk, W: 2.5” x L: 10”, N0001.2011(06)

Combined with other objects in the collection that relate to the 121st, such as the swords of the Campbell brothers and the papers of Sam Kelley in the NYSHA Library, the ribbons and papers that have been donated the museum are amazingly valuable because we can now begin to understand more of the regiment during and after the Civil War.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Week in the Life of Our Storage Facility

Doug Kendall, Curator of Collections

Those of you who follow this blog already know that winter is anything but a slow time in the Museum, even though we are closed to the public. The curatorial staff is busy preparing the 2011 exhibitions for the April 1 opening and getting ready to send the Thaw Collection traveling exhibition to its next venue at the Dallas Museum of Art, among other activities.

One might imagine that the storage facility for Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum at least would be peaceful; after all, this is where the vast majority of the artifacts not on exhibition are kept. The very word “storage” suggests a lack of activity.

Exterior, Iroquois Storage Facility, February 2011

The storage facility is located in a former thoroughbred horse stable and from the outside it look relatively unchanged. Perhaps because the storage facility is two miles away from the museum campus, even our staff often thinks this is a quiet backwater.

Nothing could be farther from the truth and this week the building was especially busy.

Because we co-sponsor the Cooperstown Graduate Program in museum studies, students spend a lot of time here examining and writing about objects in the collections. In addition, at least two classes are held at the facility every week during the semester, in a classroom that originally served as the stable’s tack room. Because the graduate program emphasizes hands-on study, we move objects into the classroom for each session. On Tuesday of this week, we set up for Wednesday’s Collections Care class for first-year graduate students. Wednesday morning, conservators C.R. and Sue Jones covered the care of historic photographs and paper objects; after a brief break, I talked about care of ceramics and glass in museum collections.

Ready for Furniture class, February 17, 2011

Caring for Photographs, February 16, 2011

While Assistant Curator of Collections, John Hart, and student assistant Amy Drake switched out those objects for the furniture that would be needed for Thursday’s class, Assistant Professor Will Walker held a session of his American Cultures II seminar in the upstairs collections area Wednesday afternoon. Will’s class examined items in the Museum’s Kopp Collection, which consists of advertising and other popular culture images of Native Americans. Thursday, Associate Professor of Material Culture Cindy Falk and the first-years studied wooden furniture in the classroom.

American Cultures class, February 16, 2011

In addition to all of the academic activity in the building, the storage space in the lower level of the building is also being upgraded. New climate control equipment and better shelving is being installed. So while classes have been meeting upstairs, contractors and the Facilities staff have been busy in the basement. The result will be a much better environment for over 60,000 glass plate negatives stored here (including the Smith & Telfer Photographic Collection) as well as other museum and library collections.

Preparing the basement for new shelving, February 15, 2011

Next week, the graduate students have Winter Break, so it won’t be quite so busy. But I trust you get the idea—museum storage is neither quiet nor boring around here!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Art Meets Opera

Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

This summer will see an exciting collaboration between Opera and Art. Glimmerglass Festival, here in Cooperstown, will present Later the same Evening. This 2007 contemporary opera was the result of a joint project of the National Gallery of Art, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, and the University of Maryland School of Music. The opera is inspired by 5 of Edward Hopper's paintings - Room in New York (1932), Hotel Window (1955), Hotel Room (1931), Two on the Aisle (1927), and Automat (1927). It brings the paintings to life and eventually intertwines them on a single night in New York City in 1932.

Characters from five Edward Hopper paintings mingle in the opera “Later the Same Evening” at Manhattan School of Music. The New York Times, online edition, 12/16/08

One of the arias, “Out my One Window,” serves as the inspiration for the title of Fenimore Art Museum’s upcoming Edward Hopper Exhibition, A Window Into Edward Hopper, opening May 28. The exhibition will feature early watercolors, etchings, drawings and oil paintings. These works share the same the sensibility and style that Hopper is known for - an exploration of solitude and the desire for connection.
East Side Interior, 1922
Etching by Edward Hopper, on loan from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

And for my first act...

By: Stephen Loughman, Preparator

As previous blogs have mentioned, during this time of year there is great change here at the Fenimore Art Museum. Right after New Years we start dismantling the previous year’s exhibitions and for awhile our walls are bare as they get painted and patched up. It’s a very odd time to be working in the museum because it feels so empty! Yet once everyone in their offices starts to hear me with my hammer and drill the excitement that our walls will no longer be bare seems to get everyone excited for the upcoming year. Here is a sneak peak of the progress so far.

The first exhibit that was hung this year was a group of paintings from our own collection that depict scenes of Otsego Lake, which is literally in our backyard.

This exhibit also includes one of our recent acquisitions from last year’s exhibition, Watermark: Michele Harvey and Glimmerglass. The painting depicts a local landmark, Fairy Spring.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Out with the old, in with the new

By: Christine Olsen, Registrar

Many people ask me if this time of year is slow at the Fenimore Art Museum. It would seem as though it would be given that we are closed to the public from December 31st through April 1st and Cooperstown itself is seemingly quiet with its snowy streets and sleepy downtown. Ironically, this is actually the busiest time of year for us. As soon as January 1st hits, we are off the ground running, taking down exhibitions from last year and preparing for the exhibitions to come.

Our loaned shows from last season such as Watermark: Michele Harvey and Glimmerglass and John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Praise of Women, as well as those containing our own collections such as Empire Waists, Bustles and Lace: A Century of New York Fashion, are deinstalled simultaneously during the month of January and February. Everything has to be returned to lenders or put back in our storage vaults quickly so that we have time to repaint galleries and begin layout of the Spring exhibits; it can get pretty hectic around here!

I began return shipping plans for loans from the John Singer Sargent exhibit back in November and December; trucks book quickly since most other museums are changing out exhibitions at this time of year, too, so an early start is imperative. The Sargent show also had loans that required couriers; I have to make their travel plans as well as coordinate the deinstallation and shipping of their loan for a time convenient to them as well as our exhibitions team. This year was especially challenging, as two large snowstorms threatened courier and shipping schedules; my colleagues will agree that I am often heard proclaiming with distress “why do we always get a blizzard when I have a shipment”!? In the end it all worked out and everyone and everything made it home safe and sound.

While I was overseeing the departure of Sargent loans, I was simultaneously getting ready for our upcoming spring shows; exhibition and loan agreements are now officially signed for A Window Into Edward Hopper, Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray, and Prendergast to Pollack: American Modernism from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. Edward Hopper has loans from many individual lenders, each requiring the exchange of agreements and discussions about crating and shipping – the details of which always take us right up to opening day! Frida Kahlo and Prendergast to Pollack are travelling shows sponsored by other institutions; I really like these kinds of shows as they are one stop shopping, with one lender and one shipment – so much easier for me!

Finally, in the midst of all of this, we received a full size tractor-trailer full of crates from our American Indian travelling exhibition returning from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. On a day of record snowfall, of course! It had a very successful run there, and will stay here at the museum in storage until April when it is leaving for the Dallas Museum of Art. What a whirlwind!

We hope to see you on April 1st when the weather warms and our doors open once again to the public with new and exciting exhibitions. Until then, stay tuned for more behind the scenes reports from the registrar’s office!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Our flag horse mask on view at the Brooklyn Museum

By: Eva Fognell, Curator of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art

Fully Beaded Hose Mask, Teton Sioux, ca 1900 hide, glass beads. T70

Fenimore Art Museum’s beautiful fully-beaded horse mask is part of the new Brooklyn Museum exhibition Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains. The exhibition “focuses on the tipi as the center of Plains culture and social, religious, and creative traditions from the early nineteenth century to the present.” The show is opening at BM on February 18 and will be there until May 15. After its stint at the Brooklyn Museum the show will travel to the Autry National Center, in Los Angels and then to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. So even if you don’t live on the east coast you will have a chance to see the show. I am going down to the opening at the Brooklyn Museum later this month and will share with you a few images of the exhibition. In the meantime you can see when they installed the tipi and read about the show by following the link above. There is also a catalogue accompanying this exhibition, and our horse mask is featured in it.

To protect a horse’s vulnerable head Spanish caballeros sometimes made their horses wear a metal face guard called a chanfron. It would probably not have taken very long for resourceful Indian warriors to employ the same tactic to protect their horses both physically and spiritually. Here is an excerpt from the earliest written description of Indian use of horse masks. It was written by Alexander Henry, an agent for the Northwest Company, in July of 1806. “We did not advance far before we met a small party … on horse back…Their horses were most beautiful, spirited beasts; some were masked in a very singular manner, to imitate the head of buffalo, red deer, or cabbrie [pronghorn antelope] with horns, the mouth and nostrils – even the eyes – trimmed with red cloth. This ornamentation gave them a very fierce appearance(*) ” In our ledger drawing (below) you can see a horse wearing a mask. The drawing is titled The Thunder Deity with his Masked Horse. In this drawing the spiritual aspect of the hose and his mask is emphasized.

 Thunder Deity with his Masked Horse, Black Hawk Ledger Book, Black Hawk (1832? – 1890?) Sans Arc Lakota, ca. 1880-1881, paper, ink and pencil. T614

The mask that is traveling to Brooklyn was made after the wars on the Plains had ended so its use would not have been for war but as parade regalia. The beaded American flags that adorn the mask are an indication that it may have been used in 4th of July parades.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the Brooklyn Museum has interpreted the mask. I’m sure it will be a stunning display.

(*) Cowdrey, Mike, Ned and Joni Martin. American Indian Horse Masks. Hawk Hill Press, 2006. pg 4.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Chinese Wall Gun in Central New York

By: John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

As I walked upstairs to the second level of Fenimore Art Museum's storage facility for the very first time, turning the corner the first words out of my mouth were something to the effect of “What the heck is that?” Resting against a shelving unit, reaching nearly 9’ in the air was something I had never once thought would be in the collection of a historical society in the middle of New York State, let alone in Cooperstown. That was the winter of 2006 when I interviewed as a candidate for the Cooperstown Graduate Program; the thing that astonished me: a Taiqiang, or in its anglicized spelling, a jingal, commonly called a Chinese Wall Gun.

Hearsay at the museum led me to believe the gun was probably used to hunt waterfowl from a boat or at least a similar use. For years I never bought that explanation. Sure, something that big could certainly take down geese or ducks or even a small tree for that matter, but so could a shotgun; this thing needed two people to manage it!

I finally decided to do a bit of digging around and turned to my best friend in situations like this: Google. What I learned was actually pretty interesting. These types of weapons are unique to China and were in use around the time of the Opium War (since there were two I’m guessing it’s probably the earlier of them, ca. 1839). They could be used in a variety of different ways, from two people holding it and firing it from the shoulder, to using a stand to stabilize it for one person, and of course, firing from a wall-mounted position. This website shows the first two ways the Taiqiang was used.

Even the history of our object is strange. Brigadier General Morris Foote is listed in the provenance, which is interesting given the other objects I’ve found over the past two years related to the Foote family, but that’s another story. This particular Foote served in the Civil War and later served in Asia, where he no doubt acquired this wall gun and somehow managed to bring it back to the United States with him. It’s certainly a well-traveled object!

Even if the folklore of the wall gun might be a little far-fetched, it has certainly seen its fair share of action, though I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the receiving end of what came out.

All images: Chinese Wall Gun, ca. 1900, Artist Unknown, Metal and Wood, H: 8 ½” x
L: 106" x W: 3. N0296.1963. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, NY. N0296.1963

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Quick Change Artists

By: Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

Although Fenimore Art Museum is closed to the public until April 1, the galleries are in flux right now. As with the snow-covered landscape outside, it would be easy for those in the outside world to think that we are mimicking the local wildlife and are snug in our burrows waiting for the spring thaw. But there is life under the snow and there is plenty of life in our seemingly dormant museum. We are doing our big seasonal swap, which translates into taking down last year’s exhibits, bidding a fond farewell to paintings and objects that came on loan to us, and launching new exhibits for the 2011 season.

Truth be told, doing this strenuous work while we are closed is a logistical pleasure. Right now there is a lot of open gallery space to work with and no worries about making sure the public has room to navigate safely through our mess. Once we open on April 1, it becomes more of a challenge. Keeping that in mind we try to design galleries that are “change friendly.” One of this year’s big quick-change areas will be our Great Hall. We start the season with The Spirit of Land and Tradition, which is comprised of objects from our Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art. Later in the spring we switch to Prendergast to Pollock: American Modernism from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute* (opens May 28), and then back to the The Spirit of Land and Tradition in the fall (opens October 1), all while open to the public.

One way will we manage the changes is by using color and design elements in the gallery to imply change without involving dramatic physical change. The perimeter walls will stay the same color for the entire year. Freestanding walls will be added for Prendergast to Pollock in different colors to transform the space. The aim is to make the transitions go as smoothly as possible and keep the maximum amount of gallery space open and accessible to our visitors.

Design view of Great Hall for The Spirit of Land and Tradition

Design view of Great Hall for Prendergast to Pollock

*This traveling exhibition was organized by the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Museum of Art, Utica, New York. The national tour sponsor for the exhibition is the MetLife Foundation. The Henry Luce Foundation provided funding for the conservation of artworks in the exhibition.

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