Tuesday, July 29, 2014

 Delphi, Decoys, and Day Baskets...Oh, My!

My internship for the summer started with two weeks of classes as part of the University of Delaware’s DelPHI program. During the two weeks the DelPHI participants are taught how to make their research projects more accessible to the public. We went through classes that taught us how to compose press releases, how to give TV interviews, and how to utilize social media to spread information about our projects and ourselves. 

            After the DelPHI institute I began my internship work at the Upper Bay Museum in North East, MD. I am filming oral histories with the current decoy carvers who volunteer at the museum, and hope to make the interviews into a short documentary that can be shown at the museum. Conducting the interviews has been a good experience, and it has been wonderful to learn about the craft and lives of the men at the museum. Editing the footage has proven a bit more of a challenge since I really have no experience with the IMovie editing program and also have a lot of footage to whittle down.

 I am also in the process of putting together a new exhibit in the museum that will showcase hand made baskets from the Day Basket Company that is located in North East. The board members at Upper Bay were trying to find a different type of object to display other than decoys and hunting gear, and asked if I would be willing to help plan the basket exhibit. It has been wonderful so far, I had the opportunity to go out to the shop and meet with Karen Jackson who now owns the factory with her husband. She was able to provide a good amount of information about the history of the Day Basket Factory, as well as, photographs from the 1940’s and 1950’s of people working in the shop. She also loaned the museum some of the raw basket making materials that will hopefully be worked into the exhibit. 

Along with the new exhibit an opportunity has also been given to the museum and I to utilize the atrium space at the museum studies building at 77 E. Main St. in Newark, DE. The exhibit is still being discussed, with the possibility of bringing in old hunting boat as part of the display if logistics can be figured out. If the exhibit comes to fruition I hope to have completed by the fall.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Inside the Decoy Shop: The Period Room at the Upper Bay Museum

Standing inside the Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum in North East, Maryland, in late January, I could not decide where to start our Museum Studies SWAT team Decoy Shop project.

Where would you begin?

Should we work from top to bottom, or should we tackle one corner at a time? At the suggestion of one of my colleagues, we carefully plucked a wooden duck decoy from a worktable and started with artifacts displayed on that surface. Our eight day project to inventory, clean, photograph, and catalogue the period room--or a museum exhibit room created to evoke a specific time and place--at the Upper Bay Museum had begun. (Other SWAT team members catalogued the other collections displayed throughout the Museum.)

What can we learn from the Upper Bay Museum Decoy Shop period room?

University of Delaware Museum Studies Director Kasey Grier examines
decoys at the Upper Bay Museum prior to the begin in of the SWAT project

The Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum is an installation curated by Upper Chesapeake Bay residents who make decoys, or imitations of ducks or other animals hunters have used to lure their prey at least since 400 BC, and who hunt and fish in the region known as the Susquehanna Flats in the Upper Chesapeake Bay.

The Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum in North East, MD

Unlike many period rooms, though, the Shop interior was not copied directly from archival documentation or taken in its entirety from an original shop. Rather, the shop is a conglomeration of decoy-making related objects from several makers. Museum curators likely drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including twentieth-century interior photographs of other decoy shops in the region as well as the personal experiences Museum curators and local practitioners have had with decoy carving.

Steve and Lem Ward inside a decoy carving shop around 1918
(From Joe Engers, ed., The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys, 2000)

Upper Bay Museum curators arranged the artifacts to evoke the interior of a working mid twentieth-century decoy maker’s shop on the Upper Chesapeake at the tale end the height of market duck hunting but during the continuation of sport duck hunting. This interpretive choice offers a different type of historical authenticity than do other methods of creating period rooms (no single method of which I find "right" or "wrong"--all are all fascinating and informative).

Tyler catalogues one of over 25 shotguns made and used
between 1850 and 1950

The Decoy Shop is unique in that it is one of only a handful of workshop period rooms in American museums. (In contrast, countless domestic period rooms championed in the early twentieth century by institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York--fill museums throughout the country today.) Others workshop period rooms include a Decoy Shop exhibit at the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, the Dominy Shops (furniture and clockmaking) at the Winterthur Museum, and the Wright Cycle Shop at Greenfield Village. European examples include a recreation of a sixteenth-century jeweler's workshop, based on a 1576 engraving, on display in the Museum of London's show about the Cheapside Hoard.

The Museum of London Jeweler's Period, as reported by the Associated Press

The Upper Bay Museum and its collections embody rich interpretative value relating to the interconnectedness of the region’s cultural and environmental history. To that end, the Museum’s Decoy Shop period room plays a unique didactic role that could not be achieved by a traditional gallery display featuring rows of workbenches and tools. Instead, by furnishing the Decoy Shop with a variety of objects associated with the craft and related industries, the period room display provides visitors with an opportunity to explore the relationships between decoy-making tools, decoy parts, the spaces and places where decoys were made, and the people who made them, as determined by Upper Chesapeake individuals with ties to the profession and hobby of decoy carving and duck hunting.

Cataloguing decoys at the Upper Bay Museum

Visitors view the Shop interior from one vantage point behind a door or from behind the Shop’s two windows. There is plenty to see. The shop is filled with hundreds of objects associated with decoy carving as well as with hunting, fishing, and boating in the upper Chesapeake more generally. The objects are displayed on shelves, on the walls, and on the floor. Objects range from workbenches to piles of nails. Primary object groups include: large pieces of work furniture; containers filled with supplies and tools; hand tools such as files and spoke shaves; completed decoys as well as decoys in various states of completion; a few items associated with the H. L. Harvey Company (active from about 1880 to the mid twentieth century); and miscellaneous items associated with fishing and hunting such as a life preservers and boat parts. In addition, the Shop "complex" also includes two workbenches installed just outside the shop.

Museum Studies Staff Assistant Tracy Jentzsch vacuuming an early twentieth-century life vest at the Upper Bay Museum
(Learn how your museum can borrow the vac and other supplies!)

In the process or leading the group that documented and catalogued the shop contents, it occurred to me that, even though we carefully removed and replaced each artifact, the Shop looked slightly different--a bit more tidy and spruced-up--when we were through with our work (before photo at left; after photo at right). We did, after all, dust every object and display surface; vacuum using a HEPA vac; sweep; wash the windows; secure objects using cotton twill tape where there had been duct tape...and more (all of which will help ensure the longer-term preservation of the objects). Even these slight, non-interpretative changes made the shop look different. What are the effects of more evasive interpretation changes on period rooms? How does one strike an appropriate balance of preservation and work-room-like authenticity?


In the case of the Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum, authenticity derives from workshop dirt, the objects' provenance (or history of ownership and use), and the identities of those who put them there. The Shop contents were made and used by several Upper Bay decoy carvers, a layered history that highlights continuities and change over time as it relates to decoy carving in this region. Some upper Bay decoy carvers represented here include Standley Evans (1887-1979; active 1919-1933) (used the decoy horse inside the shop); Horace D. Graham (1893-1982; active 1955-1978) (used the auto-sander inside the shop and shaving bench outside the shop as well as the many miscellaneous workshop contents distributed throughout the shop), and Paul Gibson (1902-1985; active 1915-1985) (used the painting table and paint brushes on display).

Nicole Belolan cataloguing Paul Gibson's painting worktable inside the Decoy Shop

Despite the fact that hunting waterfowl in the Upper Chesapeake was limited to sport (rather than market hunting) after 1918, decoy carvers—such as those represented inside this Shop—continued to provide decoys for sportsmen into the mid-twentieth century. Some of the decoy carvers represented inside the Shop were hobbyists; others made decoys for a living. All of them used store-bought tools in combination with handmade tools made using a mix of reused and new materials, suggesting the fact that many decoy carvers engaged with (and continue to engage with) their craft as skilled do-it-yourself artisans or tinkerers. For example, the Horace Graham auto-sander was made with used wood and a washing machine motor:

His shaving bench features repurposed moldings:

Many of the supply containers were made from recycled mid-twentieth-century food containers, examples of which can be seen lining the Shop shelves in the photograph below. Anyone who has ventured inside a contemporary workshop has probably seen similar examples of reuse.

And of course, there are the decoys. The unfinished duck decoy parts, some of which are displayed inside this basket, were made by the following individuals, several of whom are still living: Mike Laird, J.E. Gonce, Bill Streaker, Jeff Muller, Vernon S. Bryant, Joey Jacobs[?], James Frey, and Bobby Simons:

Hardly a static exhibit meant to evoke one time period, the Decoy Shop at the Upper Bay Museum embodies the continued local interest in and practice of the craft of decoy making.

What could be more authentic than that?

To learn more about how your museum can apply to the UD Museum Studies SWAT project, visit our web site.

In preparing for my work at the Upper Bay Museum, I found that C. John Sullivan's Waterfowling on the Chesapeake, 1819-1936 (2003) provides readers with the best historical context for duck decoy use. Those with a theoretical bent might enjoy Marjolein Efting Dijkstra's The Animal Substitute: An Ethnological Perspective on the Origin of Image-Making and Art (2010).

Nicole Belolan is a Ph.D. Candiate in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware. She is also a graduate assistant for Sustaining Places, an IMLS-funded initiative that is dedicated to providing hands-on, practical resources for small museums.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Come for the Quilts, Stay for the History

When you think of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, what do you think of? Quilts, Shoofly pie, horse and buggies, farmland, etc...? No worries, I would be more so surprised if you didn't! The stereotypical, tourist view of Lancaster really overshadows smaller offerings of the county though still sometimes draws them in the door.

This summer, I've been interning at LancasterHistory.org. While, yes, it is a website, it is also the name of the Lancaster County Historical Society and President Buchanan's Wheatland. Recently gifted with a beautiful addition to their original building by a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant, the historical society has really leaped forward in today's age with a green building and many technological improvements such as better cases for displaying quilts and touchscreens so visitors can learn more about individual objects on display.
The exterior of the new building.
Working in such a new and extremely organized building has been an utter joy. Brand spanking new facilities draws in crowds not only for the history, but to see what the new building is. People are inherently curious, you know.

The interior of the new building.

So what have I been up to here? As I described to Pauline Eversmann, our Museum Studies internship director, ... pretty much everything and the kitchen sink! My biggest task was to develop an interpretive plan for the site. My supervisor, Barry Rauhauser, expressed interest in developing one so as to keep the organization on a mission statement driven path and find new areas to better explore and develop, while not getting distracted by events and objects that, despite that they'll bring people in the door, have no relevance to the story the museum is trying to tell. For a couple weeks, myself and another intern worked on this interpretive plan and we recently produced a successful draft for the society to work with.

Another activity I've been involved in has been object research. You need to know about an object so that you can develop a label, a story? I'm your gal! I've done many labels for the society including ones for portraits, coverlets, and furniture. A portion of my research is available for you to read in narrative form on my blog, Learning, Living, Lancaster.

My first blog post featured this beauty -- a flute from the 1800s!

Each week I post once or twice about objects in the collection that intrigue me. I give you not only the information about the object specifically but try to develop a context around it so that you can truly appreciate its significance in the scheme of things. If you'd like to read my blog, please check it out! I'd always love more readers!

Speaking of pictures, I've some photography for the exhibit. While the original gallery was photographed by a photographer using professional grade equipment, I still tried my hand at capturing interesting aspects of two pieces, a Fordney flintlock rifle and a spinning wheel.

Up close and personal with a flintlock.

The "guts" of a spinning wheel.
Not too shabby, I'd like to think! If you visit LancasterHistory.org and check out the touchscreens in the gallery, you can see my photos!

I've helped with other aspects of the institution such as working as a gallery guide, aiding with storage and conservation of items, transcriptions, and inventory. I've truly received a well rounded, curatorial experience, and I am extremely grateful.

One crazy, awesome aspect of the new space is the introduction of an open storage space in the bottom/ground floor of the society. With a grant from the Richard Von Hess Foundation, the Decorative Arts Center is an open storage facility. We all know that museums only display a small, small percentage of their actual collection, right? Well, the open storage area allows visitors to peer through windows to the collection as it rests in storage. You can view items set out for display or gaze at the neatly stacked archival boxes and the rows of wrapped up portraits resting in the back. It is truly revolutionary and something I wish all museums would have! It is like an I Spy and so magical to those who like to hunt for objects and ponder curiously about them. (I would post a photograph, but I don't have one! You'll just have to visit to see it for yourself....)

I have really learned a lot from this experience, and I'm really sad to leave in a week or two. The staff and volunteers at the site have been extremely patient, friendly, and accommodating as I trail at their heels, looking for tasks to do. The experience has definitely helped me determine that the museum field is where I want to be, and I don't mind the hard work that comes with it. It's worth it when you help people and they catch your enthusiasm for the things you so desperately want to save and display (and often times, you catch their enthusiasm too!).

I definitely recommend you all come up to see the site! You can tour the gallery, use the research library, or tour Wheatland, President Buchanan's home (where, seriously, the furniture inside is 70 - 80% original to the home... awesome!).

Thank you so much for reading! If you have any questions or such, please email me at emmiller@udel.edu. (No spam, please!) Have a lovely evening!


Thursday, April 4, 2013

Journeying West: Distinctive Firearms from the Smithsonian Institution

By Ashley Lynn Hlebinsky
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History recently loaned 64 firearms from the National Firearms Collection to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a Smithsonian Affiliate, in Cody Wyoming for a special display. This loan is the culmination of the efforts of many individuals from the east and west. Without the vision of Cody Firearms Museum Curator, Warren Newman, and the dedication of NMAH Associate Curator of firearms, David Miller, and the team at Smithsonian Affiliations, this exhibition might not have occurred.
Miquelet Lock Musket given to President Thomas Jefferson in 1805. Photo Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Washington, DC.

Over the past two years, I have worked as the liaison between the two organizations, selecting firearms, writing text panels and labels, and aiding Newman with the design of the overall exhibition. Among these artifacts are numerous patent models documenting innovations in the field, international imagination, and historic distinction.

Included in this exhibition is a seven-foot-long gold Miquelet lock musket that was given to President Thomas Jefferson in 1805 by the Bey of Tunisia after the Tripolitan Wars. Another selected firearm is an embellished Jaeger rifle that belonged to Catherine the Great of Russia (1729 – 1796). A velvet cheek piece added to this firearm ensured her comfort while shooting.  

Jaeger Rifle owned by Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. Photo Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Washington, DC

This loan joins the Smithsonian Institution and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West together in an exhibition opening on May 4, 2013 titled Journeying West: Distinctive Firearms from the Smithsonian Institution. It has been an honor to be a part of this project, which brought a part of the Smithsonian Institution to a new audience.

Hlebinsky has been working as a firearms researcher and assistant between the National Museum of American History and the Cody Firearms Museum for the past few years. She is also completing her Masters Degree in American History and Museum Studies at the University of Delaware this May 2013.

For more information on this exhibition please visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West's webpage.