Category Archives: museum school

it’s been a long time

Too long, I’m afraid.  I’m about to finish my second gig (the photo curation for the Tacoma Historical Society).  I have finished curating and cataloging over 2200 images, ranging from glass negatives to prints from digital images, and am now in the process of building virtual exhibits, collections of photographs with informative captions, which will be placed online as part of the Society’s website.  I will post the link as soon as it becomes available.  The first two virtual exhibits will be about early Tacoma schools and historic personages of Tacoma, respectively.

I have started a third, curating textiles, beginning with a collection of wedding gowns running the gamut from late 19th century to almost modern, for the Fife Historical Society.  And I am in discussions with yet another local historical society for the creation of another exhibit this fall.  So the freelance museum curator business seems to be keeping me in cotton gloves and acid-free tissue, at any rate.

Today I had the wonderful opportunity to go behind the scenes at the Washington State Historical Society research center, where I attended a workshop about curating baskets and other textiles.  The first part of the workshop was standard lecture/question and answer (and very informative), but the second part was touring several of the textile storage rooms, including one that housed over 1500 Northwest-made Indian baskets, many of which were over 100 years old.  I wish I’d brought my camera.  The baskets ran the gamut from thimble-sized to one I could almost have sat in, and included materials from bark to reed to beads.  I think my personal favorites were the one woven to look just like a china cup and saucer, and the collection of thimble-sized baskets.  I felt about those the way I do about miniature quilts at quilt shows.  Wow, that’s impressive.  Man, they must have been insane…

One other piece of unrelated news:  I am in the process of editing, creating cover art, and formatting my historical with a whiff of fantasy novel for the Kindle and Smashwords.  I hope to have it up and for sale by the end of July, and I will announce it here (and everywhere else I can think of) as soon as it becomes available.

And I’ll try not to disappear into the ether on you again any time soon, too.

rain, rain, go away

We had two partially sunny days last week.  I think they were the only two sunny days we’ve had this Junuary, as the wags on the local news are calling this month, and with good reason.  The average high for this time of year is 70F, although I’m well aware that averages do not equal normals.  We’ve been lucky to crack 60F most days this month, and have yet to hit 75F this year.  This year.  I’m told that’s a record, sadly.

This is what my garden looks like right now, in the slow drip, drip and the gray:

Pathetic, isn’t it?  All flopped over.

I was attending a conference indoors on those two lonely sunny days, of course.  I think it was worth it, although I did come away with a slightly bad taste in my mouth.  If only I hadn’t gone to that one last panel…  But what’s done is done.

The conference was that of the Washington Museum Association.  Which perhaps should be called the Washington History Museum Association.  Or maybe the Washington Small Museum Association, since art and science museums and the larger museums in our fair state were under-represented as compared to the heritage sites and historical societies and so forth and so on.  Since my interest is in smaller historical museums I did not find this a handicap, but if I hadn’t been, I’d have been disappointed.

It was held in beautiful downtown Gig Harbor, in the newly-remodeled building of the Harbor History Museum, due to open in September.  The keynote speaker was Nina Simon, the author of the blog Museum 2.0, where she discusses the concept of participatory museums, where the visitors are part of content creation, like Web 2.0. 

The workshops were fairly varied, and useful.  I was there primarily to network, and was fondly reminded of my first (and only) library conference in Montana, many years ago.  The museum community in Washington state (or at least that subset which comes to Washington Museum Association conferences) is much like the library community in Montana.  Small enough that everyone seems to know everyone else.  Even I knew more people than I expected to.  People from museum school (two of my classmates showed up, as did one of my teachers), people from the museums where I volunteer, and one woman I used to work with at Tacoma Public Library back in the day.  I hadn’t seen her in about ten years.  I’m still not used to the concept of having lived in one place long enough to have people I used to know to run into in the first place, but it’s a pleasant thing.

Then there was that last panel.  I’m not going to badmouth it.  It’s not a good idea, and I’m not sure it would accomplish anything.  What I am going to say, having worked for tax-funded public libraries for lo these many years, is that the workshop made me earworm this quote from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, my favorite fictional character:  “What a joy, Miles thought, to be a military ship captain—just bill it all to the Emperor. They must feel like a courtesan with a charge card. Not like us poor working girls.”  Call me naïve, but I guess I just never thought of there being a wealth threshold for welcoming someone who wants to help a museum be successful financially.  It bothers me.  Greatly.  I’m not sure how I can make that work with my egalitarian librarian beliefs.

It’s something I’m really going to have to think about.  Which, I suppose, is another reason I went to the conference in the first place, to be given new things to think about.  I would love some advice for dealing with this on a personal level if you’ve got it, though.  I really would.

starting again

Now that I’m back from Yellowstone, and my last day of classes in the museum studies program is this coming Saturday, it’s time to start some new projects.
First, I am now officially job-hunting in the museum field.  My resumé is here, and if you know of any openings for anything in the museum world within commuting distance of Tacoma, Washington, I would be grateful if you’d comment here.  Or email me.  Or phone me.  Or send me a carrier pigeon [g].  I am primarily looking for a position where I can work with collections, but I know since I’m being choosy geographically that I’ll be lucky to find a position in the museum world, period.  I’m also M.M. Justus on LinkedIn, although I haven’t done much with that yet.  Another thing to work on.

On a completely different note, I am this close to done with the half of the True Gold that takes place in the Klondike.  When I finish it, hopefully by the end of June, I will be starting on the other half of the book, which takes place back in Yellowstone and Helena, Montana, the settings of Repeating History, with a completely different point of view character.  When I have finished that half, I will be putting the two stories together in alternating chapters, and weaving them together at the end.  It’s going to be complicated.  Wish me luck.

And on one last again completely different note, I have finally started piecing the new quilt that’s been in the planning stages for a very long time.  It is a Storm at Sea pattern, but I am doing it in flame colors, and with an unusual color arrangement, mostly to avoid needing “light red,” otherwise known as pink, which is not a flame color.  This is what, with any luck, it will look like someday:

As of today, these are the nine blocks I’ve got pieced, but not sewn to each other yet:
Everything about this quilt so far has been a challenge.  Flame colors are completely outside my normal fabric palette.  Working around the pink issue brought me to a halt for quite some time.  The color configuration makes me think I’ve lost my mind (there are over twenty colorways of each of the three blocks in this quilt).  So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that figuring out how to piece it has been a challenge, to say the least.  I had my brain set on doing it in a way that does not work (geometry and I have been known to have knockdown dragout fights occasionally), and I had to convince myself that, yes, I can still do templates as opposed to rotary cutting, and be taught by some ladies on one of my online quilt communities that plenty of starch will help keep bias edges from stretching (I hate bias edges with a purple passion).  All of which I have done.  Now, at last, I’m on my way.  I’ve got a long way to go, but that’s okay, too.
So, what new beginnings have you got going these days?

sewing and photographing and my other museum

I have gone through all the hats at the Meeker Mansion, and written up a catalog sheet for each one with description and my best attempt at assigning a date.  All 148 of them.  It took me about 30 hours, all told.  45 of the hats had accession numbers and were recorded in the museum’s catalog.  103 of them did not.  So yesterday I assigned accession numbers to each of the 103 hats, and I am now in the process of marking each hat with its number, photographing it for the museum’s catalog, wrapping it in acid-free tissue paper and putting it, in roughly chronological order (by decade or so), in its permanent box.  This is a time-consuming project, to put it lightly.  I made it through 15 hats yesterday.  The labels have to be hand-sewn into the inside of the hats, for one thing.  Not that I don’t know how to sew, but it’s a lot like trying to sew something to the inside of a sleeve without being able to turn the sleeve wrong side out.  Still, I shall persevere, and once I’m done, at least I’ll be able to point to the Meeker Mansion’s hat collection and say, “I did that!”  The hats will be much more accessible for exhibits and so forth in the future, which is a very good thing.

Today was my afternoon to docent at my other museum, the Job Carr Cabin Museum.  Since I am not allowed to share the pictures of the hats I took yesterday, here are some pictures I took today at the cabin.  Please forgive the slight blurriness of the inside pictures.  The lighting is rather dim in the cabin, and they ask that people not use flash photography. 

The cabin, located in a small city park in Old Town Tacoma.  The original was built in 1865 by Job Carr, all by himself.  I have often wondered about the kind of strength it must have taken to roll those logs up skids to create the walls and the ceiling joists.  This replica was built in 2000, using the photos Job’s son took of the original as a guide, and a crane.
The next four pictures are taken clockwise around the room from just inside the door.
The blurry gentleman above the fireplace is Job Carr.  I should have taken a close-up of him and I will next time I’m there.  The fireplace is electrified, so those aren’t real flames.  But it is built of real stone.
The doorway leads back to the bedroom.  The furniture is mostly period, with a few reproductions.
The display cases.  The left wall case currently houses a display about a shipwreck that killed one of Job’s daughters and her son, the right wall case holds a display of antique postal equipment — Job was Tacoma’s first postmaster and the cabin was Tacoma’s first post office.  The freestanding case holds diaries and photos of the Carr family (Job’s adult children followed him west shortly after Job arrived here), taken by Job’s son Anthony, who was a photographer.
The Job mannequin.  When he is turned on, so to speak, he speaks at random intervals that have been known to scare small children and unwary docents.  The camera to the left is one similar to the one his son used in his photography business.  The antique log cabin quilt that is no longer on the bed is up on the ledge in the corner, safely out of reach of schoolchildren and errant careless adults, with muslin between it and the acid wood.  Oh, and I sewed the room divider curtain at the right of the picture and another one just out of the photo to the left last summer.
The bedroom.  The quilt will look familiar to those who’ve been reading this blog.  The bed is tiny, barely over five feet long, especially when you consider that Job was a fairly tall man.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of my other museum!

Different worlds

So.  I was in Texas last week.  My elderly mother lives there, and I make the trek every year (preferably in the spring before it gets too hot or in the fall after it has cooled off) to visit her. 

And my last quarter of museum school started up again the day after I got back.

Which plunged me into two different worlds for a time.

I love my mother, don’t get me wrong, and I am glad to see her when I go visit, but I do not understand Texas.  It is beautiful in her part of the state (east of Dallas in the piney woods) this time of year, with the redbud and the dogwood and azaleas and all the wildflowers, and the wisteria escaping fifty feet up into the trees, and the warmth and sun after a long gray Northwest winter are quite intoxicating.  But western Washington state is pretty much the antithesis of Texas philosophically, and I have become a Washingtonian to the core in the last seventeen years.  There’s so much about Texas I simply can’t understand anymore, and I feel like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, except I have the sneaking suspicion that I live in Oz, rather than Kansas.  From the discussion of country music, homophobia, and religion that took place behind me on the commuter flight, to the Baptist churches that are more common than espresso stands are here (and the names — Blackjack Baptist and Green Acres Baptist are two of my favorites), to the frightening editorials in her local newspaper, I simply cannot understand Texas.  It’s not the same country I live in.

The fact that I never lived there — my parents moved there after my dad retired, and he died shortly thereafter — may have something to do with it, but only a very small part.  I should add as well, I have met some nice people in Texas, and I have friends who live in Texas.  This isn’t meant as a condemnation, although some of the beliefs I run into there do bother me greatly, just a post on culture shock.

Then I came back to Washington on Friday, and got up at the crack of dawn the next morning (you’d think still being on Texas time would have helped with that, but it didn’t) for my first museum school class of spring quarter, and discovered there’s a whole new world here, too.  Another one that baffled me.  I have one class this quarter, plus the practicum.  The class is called “Building Audience and Engaging Community,” and the first lecture was all about how museums have recently (in the last few decades) gone from ivory tower research institutions to becoming part of their communities.  You have to understand, I was a public library reference librarian for a decade and a half.  The idea that public institutions like museums and libraries are supposed to be engaged with the public is not a new idea to me.  But the professor treated it like it was.  It gave me a mild case of mental whiplash.

One of the reasons I liked being a librarian so much (I loved being a librarian — I did not like working in the large, hidebound bureaucracies that are modern suburban public libraries) was because I got to learn new things every day.  But you know?  There’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.

And I think I reached my limit last week [g].

Have you ever done that?

We’re all doing it wrong, and that’s okay.

Or maybe we’re not.  I wish I knew how to say this better than Ursula V. does, but I don’t. 

And so this is going to be one of the shortest posts of my blogging career.  Because she said it so much better than I ever could.

On the other hand, I could tell you about the last day of winter quarter of museum school on Saturday, where I learned more about exhibits from a curator’s point of view in the morning, and got to see what everyone else’s exhibits projects were about in the afternoon.  Everything from the history of perfume to ancient ships rescued from the bottom of Davy Jones’s locker.  Fascinating stuff, and I wanted to see them all as real exhibits, not just words, diagrams, and pictures in notebooks. 

Or I could tell you about how I spent four hours today continuing to unwrap and reconnoiter hats.  Six boxes worth today, twenty-odd hats — and some of them were very odd indeed.  I was especially enamored of the little straw newsboy cap with the feather/ribbon hybrid accent.  And the ~110-year-old top hat.  Then there was the bright red sort of turban with the clusters of inch-long wooden cherries strewn all over the brim (turbans don’t have brims, but, well).  And the black velvet toque with what looked like beaded bulls-eyes scattered over it.  

People wore some very strange things on their heads in the olden days.

I am very close to halfway on the Klondike half of the rough draft of what I hope will become the sequel to Repeating History (the book, not the blog).  Half the book takes place in the Yukon.  The other half takes place back in Yellowstone.  No, this structure is not what I would have preferred.  It seems to be working, however.

Oh, and here, have a view of my front garden.  It’s actually beginning to look like spring.  The snail’s name is Alistair.

And so now maybe this post isn’t quite a short as I thought it was going to be.

So we are doing it right.  Go read Ursula’s post, anyway.

antique millinery

I’m going to be cataloging hats! 

I suppose that needs some explanation.  Part of the museum studies certificate program I am currently working on is a practicum, a minimum of 30-40 hours total working in an actual museum doing actual museum work.  It’s mostly left up to us as individual students to find a museum and arrange for this to happen. 

So today I went to the Meeker Mansion, the historic house built by Ezra Meeker, an Oregon Trail pioneer and one of the first settlers and driving forces in the Puyallup Valley, and met with the curator to see if they could use me in their collections department, because that’s the part of museum work I’m most interested in. 

I love the Meeker Mansion.  It reminds me of nothing so much as a frontier version of the Mark Twain House, all Victorian gingerbread and stained glass and antiques.  One of the museum’s larger collections is of textiles, antique quilts and clothing and linens.  Part of this collection is about 80-100 women’s hats, ranging from before the turn of the 20th century into its middle.  They’ve never been accessioned, or cataloged, or labeled, or photographed.  Or researched, for that matter.  I start next week, two days a week for about four hours a day.

I’m going to be cataloging hats!  

Writing on baby food jars and drawing floor plans and other exercises in frustration

It’s not easy to write on glass. Or plastic, or fabric, or wooden dowels. Or safety pins, for that matter. Especially in a way that makes it both so that it won’t come off unless you deliberately take it off, and yet will come off easily without leaving traces if you do want to remove it. But I learned how on Saturday, in an accession number marking workshop in my collections class.

Oddly enough, the plastic is the most difficult item to write on while meeting those requirements. There are dozens, probably hundreds, of plastic formulations, and every single one of them reacts differently to inks and paints. So we cheated on that one, putting our prescription bottles into ziploc bags and writing the accession number on the bag. The safety pins are a cheat, too. Make a label out of acid-free paper and tie it to the tiny brass safety pin with teflon dental floss (did you know there was such a thing? I didn’t) and write on the label.

I had an unexpected leg up on the fabric labeling, which consisted of writing the accession number on a piece of twill tape with a Pigma pen (a permanent-ink pen I was familiar with from using it to write labels for quilts) then loosely stitching the tape to the piece of fabric. I was quite amazed at how many of my classmates had a hard time with this exercise – doesn’t everyone sew? I guess not.

The paper items (a book, a menu, and a photograph) were relatively simple. Number 2 pencil. The main catch for those was making sure the numbers were written in the correctly consistent places and not pressing too hard.

Then came the wooden dowel and the baby food jar, and frustration finally hit. First a layer of a special kind of clear lacquer, then the number, again written with the Pigma pen, then another layer of lacquer over the top. The lacquer makes the number removable with acetone, and it takes forever to dry.  It also gets gloppy in the bottle as it dries, and it dries much faster in the bottle than on the item (trust me). The ink is slow-drying on the non-porous lacquer, too. Oh, and did I mention that I’m lefthanded? And write using the typical leftie’s hand position crooked over the pen? If there’s one thing I learned about writing on three-dimensional objects Saturday, it’s that I need something of the same height to rest my wrist on in order to write legibly. Also, it’s a good thing accession numbers are short (less than ten digits), because otherwise I’d have lacquer and/or ink all over the side of my hand. It was challenging, I’ll give them that.

So, why were we writing on all these objects? Because, the way all library books have call numbers (even fiction, although fiction “call numbers” aren’t actually numbers), all objects in a museum have accession numbers. Actually, library books have accession numbers, too, but we won’t get into that (sorry, you can take the girl out of the library, but you can’t take the library out of the girl). An accession number is how you connect an item’s documentation to the item itself. In other words, it’s how you hang onto the important details. And details, as we all know, are very important [g] .

As are the details in a floor plan when you’re designing an exhibit. Which is why I spent about an hour yesterday afternoon measuring a real, physical room (the auditorium at our local senior center) for the hypothetical exhibit which will become the final project for my exhibits class.  I know where every light switch, fire extinguisher and electric outlet is in that room. Now I just need to come up with the subject of said exhibit.

Anyone have any ideas?

Back to museum school

Yesterday was the first day of winter quarter at museum school.  Fall quarter ended in early December, so getting myself together and making the hour-long drive to Seattle – most importantly, getting up early enough that said hour-long drive to Seattle didn’t make me late for my first class – was something I’d gotten out of the habit of doing. Leaving in the dark and coming home in the dark.

But museum school is very much worth far more than that relatively trivial effort. My classes this quarter are collections in the morning, and exhibits in the afternoon, both held at the Nordic Heritage Museum.

I have been looking forward to collections class since last summer when I first signed up for the program, and all the way through last fall’s introductory and educational programming classes. I was a librarian for many years. This part of museum work is the part of librarian work that I didn’t get to do enough of. I enjoyed the educational programming class, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve always been more interested in the materials/artifacts themselves, in collecting and caring for them to meet a library/museum’s criteria, and what they mean and what their significance is and how they can be used. Because there aren’t that many public library cataloging and collection development jobs anymore, at least not in comparison to direct educational/reference jobs, I’ve not been able to satisfy my desire to work in that end of the business the way I hope to now.

And even today’s focus on collection policies and procedures didn’t daunt me. Perversely enough, I found it fascinating. Next session we get to start handling some real artifacts. I can hardly wait.

Exhibits class in the afternoon was almost as interesting. A general introductory lecture on the components of an exhibit and the division of labor and the process involved in creating one.

At the end of the class the instructor handed each of us an artifact, bits of unrelated flotsam he’d collected for use in the exercise – I received a lime green swizzle stick from a place called the Shelter Bay Resort. He then broke us up into groups and gave us five minutes to come up with an exhibit title and theme based on our artifacts. My group’s artifacts, which also included a bamboo tea whisk and an animal vertebrae, became an exhibit on drinking accessories from around the world (the vertebrae, of course, was from some stone-age tribe, and was to be carved into a cup).

Sounds like a silly party game, but it made us think, which is a good thing as the final class project is for each of us to plan and design an exhibit of our own. I have the feeling I’m going to need to come up with a very good idea…