Why I Go to Art Museums

On Sunday, Bethany, Patrick and I went out for brunch at the Kitchenette and then made our way to the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art, when I almost got to live one of my childhood fantasies of being Claudia Kincaid in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who runs away from home with her brother Jamie. The two manage to hide themselves away in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and solve a mystery involving a statue possibly carved by Michaelangelo. It involves adventure, museums, and archival research--what's not to like?

As incisive as the Guerrilla Girls may be in their critique of the fine art world's lack of support for women artists, I still think one of the best things about visiting art museums is the women one finds on display. The variety of women's bodies is absolutely stunning in comparison to the visual representations of women in our daily media. Their very multiplicity attests to the volatile nature of standards of beauty throughout history and across the world, from era to era and culture to culture.

For example, on this particular visit I was fascinated to see a 1661 Dutch painting, Visit to the Nursery, which shows a couple presenting their newborn to relatives. The mother holding the infant is dressed, but you can clearly see the gap in the front of her bodice, suggesting she is ready to nurse her child at any moment, despite the formality of the scene.

Another picture I was enchanted by (Mom, this one's especially for you) was this portrait of a "mad" woman, Malle Babbe, which the museum describes as "in the style of Frans Hals." She is posed with an owl on her shoulder, which apparently symbolized foolish or "vulgar" behavior in the seventeenth century. I like the fact that "wise old owls" were once thought to be exactly the opposite.

And finally, in a modern art gallery, I came across this painting (forgive me, but I forgot to note the painter and title; I will remedy that when I have the time) which I have always liked because of the juxtaposition of the very "feminine" colors and floral motifs with the girl's confident pose and forthright stare. On the floor below the painting was a child or about eight, carefully drawing a copy of the portrait in her sketchbook. I hope she pays way more attention to what the art museums have to say about the beauty of the human form than she does to the monotonous version of "femininity" being pedaled by our consumer culture.

You can see all my pictures from the Met at Picasa.


Ceilidh NYC-style!

For those of you who don't know (and why should you?), a "Ceilidh"--pronounced "kay-lee"--is a Scottish dance party, usually featuring great music, food & alcoholic beverages, and traditional Scottish folk dances. This is not performance dance, but participatory dance, like a barn dance or square dance, where everyone can join in--and if they don't volunteer, they are often pressed into service.

My friend Bethany's husband Patrick is a graduate of the University of Glasgow, where he earned his MLitt in Philosophy, and the University was throwing an alumni dinner at the Harvard Hall of the Harvard Club in Manhattan. We went and gawked at the decor and enjoyed the food and wine, got in a few dances, sang "Auld Lang Syne" (obligatory at every ceilidh I've been to) and managed to stumble home not much later than midnight!

You can see all the pictures in my web album at Picasa.


From the Archives

I had my first full week at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) this week. I have a LOT to learn, but it's been generally invigorating and everyone has been very supportive for the newest member of the staff.

One highlight of the week was viewing the actual letter written by Abigail Adams admonishing husband John to "remember the ladies" when writing the Declaration of Independence (he didn't). Another was coming across a letter in the hand of M. Cary Thomas, the formidable first woman to be president of Bryn Mawr (1894-1922), written in 1906 on her presidential stationary!

All of these little brushes with the past made me think it would be fun to institute a regular Friday feature on the FFLA giving you all a sense of the sort of things we work with on a daily basis in the archives field (and more particularly, in manuscript collections such as those housed at the MHS). So here is my first sampling, which comes from the collection of Alice Bache Gould papers that I spent several hours photocopying this week for a researcher who had requested a long list of reproductions. The letter is to Alice from a friend from whom she has solicited a donation for a charitable fund which supported a nursing school in Porto Rico:
My dear Alice,
Your presentation of the case is masterly!
I wish I could give you $500. It is an unpropitious moment for me, as I am forced to turn all my energies just now towards San Francisco, though my cousins are not homeless, they have suffered sufficiently to need a 'boost' . . . My cousin . . . has lost everything at his office, furnishings, instruments, records, and unfortunately much scientific material that cannot be replaced. He writes, 'the work of 26 years.'
I have arranged to send him what instruments he needs, & have taken charge pecuniarily of the daughter who is at boarding school in Germany, so I fear I must forgo the luxury of assisting your most admirable undertaking . . .
(May 12, 1906)*
The writer is, of course, referring to the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake and fires, which devastated the city in April, 1906. I thought it was an appropriate manuscript to highlight, given the current wildfires in southern California, which are similarly causing so much disruption and damage to peoples' lives and property.

*Alice Bache Gould Collection, Ms. No. 1309 Box 15, Folder 20.


More Pics from the DCR

I had my camera with me at the Department of Conservation and Recreation yesterday (see previous post), so here's another batch of pictures of the various cool map details I came across. I took these mostly 'cause Dad's so interested in the cartography (and then I get interested too . . .). At least get a look at the compass rose that, I swear, was done by a drafter on LSD!


(click on the image to view the album)


Barnes & Noble Memorial Post: Teen Reads

Today was my last day at Barnes & Noble, and I thought I'd celebrate by highlighting some of the great books I read this year from the Barnes & Noble's teen section, which is where I find some of the most interesting and enjoyable books. So here is a lightly annotated list of some of my favorite young adult reads from the past 17 months.

  • Tithe, by Holly Black. This gritty urban fantasy is about a girl who discovers she's a changeling, and finds herself struggling to save herself and her friends from the violence of an amoral faery world that is all too real. And it's the first in a series: c'mon Holly, write a fourth!
  • Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan. A girl and a guy both on the rebound from problematic relationships meet at a concert and spend the night wandering Manhattan (and possibly falling in love).
  • S.E.X.: The all-you-need-to-know progressive sexuality guide to get you through high school and college, by Heather Corinna. Okay, it's not fiction, but it's a great read all the same. In my dream world, every school system in the country would be using this for their sex ed program.
  • Wicked Lovely, by Melisa Marr. Another modern fairytale about a girl who discovers she is gifted (or cursed) with the magical power to heal the world of faery . . . but at what personal cost?
  • Actually, anything by David Levithan, though my favorite (aside from Nick & Norah) is The Realm of Possibility, a series of interconnected narrative poems about a group of friends at a high school and their network of relationships, romantic, platonic, and every shade in between.
  • This is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn, by Aiden Chambers. I thought the end of this novel was a cop-out, but the rest is a voluble, maddening, tender and fascinating account of a young woman's coming of age and her maturing relationships.
  • Runaways, by Brian K. Vaughn, et. al. Teenage superheros/heroines come into their powers and discover their parents are plotting to take over the world. Fun graphic novels that play confidently with the genre (and have some kick-ass young women as characters).
  • The Mislaid Magician; or, Ten Years After: Being the Private Correspondence Between Two Prominent Families Regarding a Scandal Touching the Highest Levels of Government and the Security of the Realm, by Patricia C. Wrede & Carolyn Stevermere. Besides deserving an award for Longest Title Ever, this third book in the Sorcery & Cecelia series provided me with one of the best quotes of last year: "The most unsettling result of this adventure is that we find ourselves in possession of a superfluous child."
  • The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak. A story about a foster child, an accordian player, a Jew in hiding, some stolen books, Germany in the midst of the Second World War, and the way human beings respond to overwhelming crises--all narrated by the compelling character of Death. It's hard to describe, so I just tell people to read the first paragraph and see if they can resist being hooked.
(images all snagged from Powell's online store)


Vicarious Boston Cream Pie

My friend Megan, the fabulous baker, wrote and asked when I first got to Boston if I had had Boston Cream Pie yet, what exactly it is, and was it any good? I had to answer "no" to the first question, and thus had no idea about the answers to questions 2 and 3. I promised to hunt some up, try it, and report back.

Today, I finally got around to doing just that at the Omni Parker House hotel, which is credited with actually creating the "pie" back in the 19th century. The dessert is actually a vanilla sponge cake cut in two layers with a vanilla custard between and some sort of chocolate glaze over top. Apparently there are endless variations. The one I had today included almond shavings, whipped cream, and strawberries, and looked more like this version (right) than the one above. Unfortunately, I neglected to take my camera, so don't have a genuine "Anna's Boston Cream Pie" visual.

(images from What's Cooking America and Rosie's Bakery)


Friday Night in Grad School

Well, I just finished my third job for the day--this morning I worked at Barnes & Noble from 7-11am; then I had my first shift at the Massachusetts Historical Society from 1-4:45pm; then I finished up a batch of carrier additions for Lean Logistics after supper. Hopefully this will be the only day I put in that many shifts! I will be finishing up next week at Barnes & Noble, and start my regular schedule at the MHS on October 22nd. Everyone has been wonderful, and I am so excited to start in earnest (but grateful I will not be doing double-duty until then)!

I thought I would take a moment, before finishing the final draft of my Evaluation of Information Services evaluation proposal, to sit down and write a little bulletin about what I have been doing this week in library school (I am still on the fence about the whole am-I-an-archivist/am-I-a-librarian divide; I'm glad my new job title is "Library Assistant.").

I knew I had arrived in library science school when I went out to Blick art supplies and purchased a dozen soft lead pencils and a pencil case this week. I need to take notes at my internship, and other various places where pens are highly discouraged, and I was always finding myself without the proper tools. I am very pleased, and may soon (my archivist-historian friends assure me) find myself preferring pencils above all other writing implements. I have not taken the next step, which would be to start taking "notes" using a laptop and digital camera.

I also know I am in grad school because I have become extremely forgetful. Since being offered the MHS job last week I have locked myself out of my room once, left my wallet at work, forgotten my T-pass for the subway, and (the crowning achievement) left my mobile phone in a cab on my way home from Barnes & Noble Sunday night . . . in my defense, it was 2am following music inventory, but still . . . the cab driver was kind enough to return it unscathed the following day on his rounds through the neighborhood.

This week in classes:
  • In Evaluation of Information Services, we were testing our "evaluation tools" (social-science speak for surveys and data-collection exercises) designed to evaluate how well the library science school website works (verdict=not-so-well). After posting this, I have to go do the final draft of my group's evaluation proposal, with the appended "tools" and bibliography.
  • Introduction to Archives is tackling "arrangement & description," which are the fancy technical terms for the order in which items are put in their boxes and how they are written up in the "finding aid" (another fancy term, which I think of as the archival equivalent of a detailed card catalog record plus book index: it helps researchers decide what--if anything--they want to see from a given collection, and where it's located). We have been divided up into groups to write practice finding aids; my group got a collection of personal papers from the Simmons archive about an alumna who served as an Army dietitian during WWII.
  • For History Methods this week, we were technically talking about archives (and since the class is full of future archivists, there were a lot of people personally invested in the subject). I personally became side-tracked by theoretical issues of space and gender through our reading assignment from Bonnie Smith's The Gender of History, which is about the professionalization of history in the 19th century and how it was explicitly coded as the realm of men. "Truth was where women were not," Smith writes, "[truth was] some invisible and free territory purged of error by historical work" (which was done, of course, by male scholars). My weekly response paper was about how the physical sources of history and physical bodies (such as, ahem, the bodies of women) have the potential to disrupt our grand and tidy narratives of historical, universal "truth."

In other news, the course offerings for Spring 2008 were hot off the press yesterday, at least in the History department. I find myself torn between "9/11 Narratives," taught by an Islamic World historian with a frightening amount of energy, and "Lives of Faith: Early American Religious Biography & Autobiography." In library science, I will most likely be taking Oral History and Cataloging.

. . . and then I stopped by the public library on my lunch hour today to return a few books, and somehow left with a few more: Pushed: The Painful Truth about Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care; Emma Bull's War for the Oaks; and The Secret History of the Pink Carnation (I'm reading the series in reverse order). If I find any time to actually read any of these titles, you'll hear about it here . . .


Breaking News: New Job!

This week, the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) offered me a job as a library assistant--and of course I accepted! I had a lovely interview with the staff there on Monday, a tour of their gorgeous library, and am looking forward to learning a lot on the job.

The MHS is the oldest historical society in the United States, established in 1791 (yes, really!). They have an expansive manuscript collection from families prominent in Massachusetts and national history, and they host a substantial number of scholarly events throughout the year. Mostly, to be honest, I covet their floor-to-ceiling bookcases . . .

My first day is the 12th and I will not begin my full schedule there until after I have finished out my commitments at Barnes & Noble, toward the end of October.


Inside the Internship

I spent the morning today at the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), my internship site for the Intro to Archives class I am taking this fall. I am working for the plans archivist at the DCR organizing and indexing a series of approximately 300 land plans (maps) which record the acquisition of lands by the Metropolitan Parks Commission in the late 1890s. Many of these plans originate from the firm of Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot, the famous landscape architects.
Here is a detail from one of the maps I worked with today:

The plans, most over 100 years old, have seen heavy use and are fragile. Their edges have been torn and taped with scotch and masking tape, or repaired with bits of paper and other materials. My supervisor, Judy, is hoping to assess what we have and what the preservation needs are so that the department can apply for grant money to fund conservation work for the plans (which, she tells me, runs something like $500/sheet). Meanwhile, to make the plans accessible and to ensure that a minimal amount of damage is done as they are handled in the future, I am putting them in folders and creating a digital index in Excel.

The hand-drawn detail is full of fascinating variety. For example, compare these three directional markers, which appear on the maps to denote North:

While I have not had the time to do any background research on the individuals involved in the surveying and execution of these plans, I did find this little tidbit when I compared the maps with the accession records (which give information about when the archive acquired which plans). One 1901 duplicate of an original survey map was done by an I.C. Rogers:

In the accession book, the entry notes that the plan was made by "Miss Rogers." So apparently, I.C. Rogers was a woman (and the only identification of that kind I have run across; all others are noted in the records simply by last name). This I may have to pursue . . .

You can see larger versions of these photos, and more, in the DCR album at Picasa.


A Day on the Harbor Islands

Since I have an interview with the Massachusetts Historical Society for an assistant librarian position tomorrow, I took my "day off" today and spent it, well, reading literature on archival appraisal theory . . . but at least I did it in a national park! I took the Harbor Islands Ferry from Long Wharf in downtown Boston and stopped at both Georges Island and Spectacle Island, where I wandered around taking pictures and intermittently doing my assigned reading.

Georges Island is the home of Fort Warren, built just prior to the American Civil War and active as a military base until after WWII. I find abandoned military forts creepy, haunting, and strangely compelling. There's something satisfying about the fact that they are no longer in use and that the earth is showing signs of reclaiming sites that witnessed a lot of human violence and suffering. But turning these fortresses into parks where people picnic and play is also a bit disturbing--a way of domesticating architecture that was built for much more chilling purposes.

Aptly, I spent my time there reading historian Nell Painter's essay on the psychological ravages of institutional slavery on slaves and owners alike.

From Georges you have a clear view of Boston Light, the first lighthouse to be established in North America, it was lit in 1716 and today is the last remaining American lighthouse to be occupied by an actual lighthouse keeper.

From there, I took the ferry to Spectacle Island, which affords views of Logan Airport, the Boston skyline, and lots of oceangoing traffic. It was strange to see sailboats moving back and forth beneath low-flying jets coming in for a landing.

Harbor Islands

(click on the photograph for the complete album)