Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Presidential Suite (of objects!)

Happy Presidents Day!
Presidents de Etats Unis Print Quilt

Quilt detail: Portrait Heads of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams surrounding the eagle

I suppose the theme of this week's post is already clearly evident. What I will say, however, is that one of coolest things about our collection is that we have something for almost every occasion. I've been having a lot of fun discovering interesting objects to share on this blog, and this week is certainly no exception! At the moment, we're celebrating Presidents' Day--thank you, George Washington! Our collection certainly honors multiple presidents, but we've got several things to celebrate President Washington, specifically.

Portrait of George Washington, Oil on Canvas (Artist Unknown), 1870-1889

Folk Art Sculpture of George Washington on Horseback, circa 1785

Can anyone else tell that spring is on the way? Soon there might be loads of cherry trees in bloom. Let's just try not to cut any of them down...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Fashion for Feathers

There’s two things I really love about my job. The first is that every day I get to look very closely at works of art and artifacts. I examine them to determine what they’re made of and how they’re made. That’s important in order to make good decisions about how to repair and care for the collections. The other thing that I love is the incredible diversity of works of art and artifacts that are part of Shelburne Museum’s collection. That diversity means that I sometimes encounter materials or condition issues that I'm less familiar with. When that happens I turn to the ever expanding body of literature devoted to conservation treatment as well as to colleagues with practices more specialized than my own for advice. I’m always learning something new but often building on something that I’ve encountered before in some other context.

Here’s an example.

That was Then: Fine Feathered Furniture?
Interns in the lab and I worked on feather furniture from miniature interiors a while back. In a 1995 article in the magazine Doll Reader, historian John Darcy Noble noted that it wasn’t uncommon in the late eighteenth century to decorate doll houses with furniture made of feathers, and he called these silk upholstered examples from the museum’s DuCane doll house “unusually elegant”.

Maker unknown, feather chairs from the Ducane doll house, c. 1790, 30.1-14

The sides of the feathers were almost entirely cut away from the quills in order to create the chairs’ frames. I cleaned the chairs and repaired the deteriorated silk fabric in preparation for the reinstallation of the Variety Unit building in 2003. Larry Shutts, who interned in the lab as part of his graduate studies in art conservation, cleaned and repaired this suite of nineteenth-century feather furniture. The floor is straw parquetry.

Maker unknown, Dining room with feather furniture, 21-115

Pretty ingenious how the vanes, those interlocked strands of feather material to the sides of the quills, were arranged to emulate woven seats, huh?

This is Now: Feathered Finery
These days I’m preparing garments and clothing accessories that will go in display in the exhibition In Fashion, opening in June, 2011, and some of the women’s wear and accessories are embellished with feathers in remarkable ways.

Maker unknown, Cape, c. 1885, 1982-4.782

Dark downy feathers trim this paisley cape, made about 1885. The feathers’ quills were split so that the feathers could be closely stacked and stitched down to a backing fabric. The fluffy barbs were cut to produce that dense fur-like appearance. What an incredible amount of work went into making that trim! And how many birds?

Unfortunately I can’t tell you what sort of bird those feathers came from, but, thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Forensics Department’s fantastically helpful Feather Atlas and Identification Guide for Eagle Feathers , I can tell you that the feathers on this nineteenth-century folding fan are secondary flight feathers from an immature golden eagle.

Maker unknown, Folding Fan, 2010-72

These are just the tip of the iceberg as far as nineteenth-century feather festooned finery in the collection. There are hats and hand screens embellished with whole birds. Societal reaction turned against this craze for using feathers and taxidermy in women’s fashions at the end of the nineteenth century, giving rise to the Audubon Society and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

There are feathers in other areas of Shelburne Museum's collections, too. I’m looking forward to more feathery fun, in whatever form I find it.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Happy Valentines Day!

Love is in the air...

Happy Valentines Day! Homemade valentines have an especially heartwarming quality, don't you think? To celebrate the most romantic day of the year, we've got a hand-carved creation that is the perfect token of affection. This object is from our folk art collection and it is called a Welsh Love Spoon Carving.

According to our records, Welsh sailors and rustics gave these decorative carvings to their favorite ladies as a prelude to courtship. If the lady accepted the carving, this meant that the couple was officially "spooning." Our example is uniquely elaborate; two unicorns join at the top and small spoon shapes outline the edges of the piece. The dove and heart designs carved into the center panel mean to say "my heart is yours." Wheel shapes signify "I will work for you" and keyhole designs indicate "my house is yours."

Isn't that just what you always wanted for Valentines Day?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Pops Up

Today is Jules Verne's birthday! This coming season, an exhibit at Shelburne Museum features an artist whose work is inspired by the legendary author who brought us 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days.

Here's a sneak peak at the work of Sam Ita, a paper engineer from Brooklyn, New York, whose work is included in the exhibit Paperwork in 3D.
Ita is one of more than 20 artists featured in the exhibit, which opens May 15.

Ita creates extravagant graphic pop-up books inspired by literary classics including Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Paperwork in 3D will not only display Ita's final product, but will also include examples of the creative process. In the preliminary stages, Ita's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is composed of computer animated drawings as well as ink and pencil sketches.

In later stages, the final product comes to life as a meticulously crafted piece of art.

To learn more about Sam Ita, visit his

Monday, February 7, 2011

Art Conservation at Shelburne Museum: the exhibition

Three years ago, we opened a small exhibition on art conservation as practiced here at Shelburne Musem at one end of the Circus Building. It was curated by director of Preservation and Conservation Rick Kerschner, Conservation Fellow Rachel Penniman, and me and funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services as part of a grant to undertake conservation treatment on the decorative panels and organ from the museum’s 1902 Dentzel carousel.

In addition to showing a number of pieces from the carousel in the process of being cleaned and restored, we focused on some of the things that we do in exhibition buildings to prevent the works of art and artifacts from deteriorating, using Circus Building’s environmental control and monitoring systems as an example. Panels in the show explained what kind of training you need to become an art conservator and where you can go on the internet for more information. If you missed it, here are pictures of the installation taken by Daniel Cull, a colleague who visited during the summer of 2009:

We noticed that visitors were quite drawn to one corner of the show where we had a video from WCAX on how Rachel and her fellow Fellow Laura Brill removed a discolored coating from the painted surfaces of the Dentzel carousel's swan chariots.

While the video and exhibition were a good introduction to what we do, there are other aspects of our work that we want to share. We also noticed that some parts of the exhibition worked better than others. Building on that experience, a new version of the exhibition will be on view this season. You’ll be able to examine a painting with condition problems using various lighting techniques, just like we do in the lab, and experience how we characterize various kinds of materials using ultraviolet light.
What questions do you have about art conservation? What would you like to see in an exhibition about the Conservation Department’s work at Shelburne Museum?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Blizzard on the way? Time to stock up...

The ultimate convenience "store."
Merchant's Sleigh (ca. 1910) by maker Fred Brether

This week it seems like most of the country is buried under heavy blankets of snow. I didn't get to make it to the grocery store to stock up on milk and bread before the most recent heavy storm hit, but I'm sure a lot of other people did.

The snow inspired me to look through our collection of sleighs and see if I could find something especially interesting. This one caught my eye--it's a horse-drawn vehicle that sold milk, cheese, eggs, butter, and even "tea, coffee, sausages, all delicacies and farm products." It was pulled by one horse and belonged to the grocer Frederick E. Brether, a German immigrant who lived in Manchester, New Hampshire. Our records state that he sold his own homemade sauerkraut, sausages and dill pickles from this wagon.

I suppose something like this would come in handy for our next big blizzard--no need to get to the grocery store ahead of time because the milk and eggs will come straight to you!