Tuesday, August 30, 2016

New Adventures at Old Town Hall

This summer, I spent eight weeks working on an exhibition script at the Delaware Historical Society in Wilmington. The Society will soon be reopening Old Town Hall, a building that served a central role in Wilmington life from its completion in 1799 until the present. The space will feature an exhibition about the building’s history and significance to Wilmington’s past. As part of this effort, I spent my time with the Society researching the space’s history, both as a physical structure and as a civic, social, cultural, and even economic center of the city.

My exploration yielded fascinating stories. The building’s roles in city life went far beyond the functions we associate with a town or city hall today. The building hosted Presidents, inventors, and entertainers. It became a place where its residents gathered in discussion, mourning, and celebration. It acted as a meeting place for several important groups, ranging from local fire companies to the Red Cross. The interesting stories that I discovered far exceed the length of a single blog post, but one of the most interesting themes was the space’s ability to act as both a central place for local activity and a way for the people of Wilmington to engage in national (and at times, international) affairs.

Wilmingtonians came to Old Town Hall to consider regional concerns like the construction of a canal and railroad lines, to purchase stock in local companies, and to organize on behalf of local politicians. Those who ran afoul of the law were placed in the basement's jail cells. Groups like Wilmington’s Community Service met there to address local issues, while other organizations held events like balls and craft expos to raise funds.

At the same time, Old Town Hall became a place where people could look beyond city limits. Anti-slavery and Temperance societies used the space for meetings and events, as did groups in favor of American industrial development and others seeking rights for laborers. People exhibiting the latest inventions, including a miniature steam locomotive, held demonstrations there, while scientists and other intellectuals lectured on their studies. National figures attended receptions, and locals gathered to memorialize the loss of well-known figures like Henry Clay, whose body lay in state at the Hall after his death. Recruitment and meetings of soldiers linked the space to various wars, while Wilmingtonians also gathered to celebrate military triumphs and welcome returning troops.

In addition to housing the Red Cross during World War I, Old Town Hall linked locals to international affairs by becoming an occasional center for discussion about issues affecting other nations, including the demand for the repeal of the legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland. The building was a place that forged connections between Wilmingtonians and local, national, and international happenings.

To uncover the stories behind Old Town Hall’s roles, I took advantage of an array of the Delaware Historical Society’s vast resources. Secondary sources included an architectural study of the space from the renovation during the 1960s, as well as other books about Delaware history that provided leads for further examination. Some of the most helpful primary resources were the extensive newspaper holdings at the Society, which helped to confirm what happened when and document public reactions. The Borough (and later, City) Council Minutes also shed light on how the space was used and controversies about its use. Broadsides announcing meetings supplemented the information, as did photographs and even some objects associated with the space. Occasional letters and other miscellaneous material rounded out my study. It was only through synthesizing information from all of these sources that the story of Old Town Hall could come to light.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

   A Little Bit of Everything: Reflections on an Internship

        I’ve had a productive few months with my internship at the Air Mobility Command Museum. Based in Dover, Delaware, the AMCM is the only museum in the world dedicated to military airlifters and tankers. In plain terms, it tells the story of the cargo planes used by the American military from World War Two to the present day. My jobs at the museum have been varied, but usually involved research and writing projects, museum education, and restoration work.

The Museum's sign and T-33 "Shooting Star" gate guard.
         My research project was to study two interceptor squadrons stationed at Dover Air Force Base during the Cold War, the 98th and 95th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. This project began back in February, but I still managed to find a number of new sources over the summer. The first of these was a set of Official Histories courtesy of the Air Force’s Research Department at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, AL. These consist of quarterly write ups by a member of the squadron, and include things like recent awards, maintenance records, and, especially in the older issues, mortuary notices. Also, two former ground crew members, one from each squadron, were kind enough to provide interviews for the project. These detailed the challenges associated with keeping the fighters in a state of readiness and helped liven up the narrative of dry official histories with human voices.

Squadron patch of the 95th FIS, featuring the 95th's mascot, Mr. Bones.

          From these sources, I wrote a history of each squadron for the museum’s records. Since the 95th is still in service, I sent their history to the historian currently responsible for their records. My research has also produced two articles for the AMCM’s newsletter, one about the aircraft flown by the 98th FIS and another about the 95th’s temporary deployment to Alaska back in the winter of 1969. I was lucky enough to have some lively sources for the latter, namely a newspaper article written by a very disgruntled (and very cold) Information Officer sent on the deployment. Finally, I wrote an advertising piece about the museum that is soon to be bound for Fly Past, a UK based aviation history magazine.
         The education part of my internship consisted of helping with a summer camp for kids at the museum. I gave a quick presentation on the history of flight, led the kids on a pre-flight check of one of the museum’s airplanes, and demonstrated the use of the flameless ration heater used to warm up MREs. Beyond that, my job was to help corral kids and help out my co-teacher in any way that I could.
         Finally, I’ve been helping the restoration team snazz up the cockpits of the museum’s F-101B and F-106. The goal is to display these for the museum’s 30th anniversary in September, during which I plan on acting as a guide for one or both of the aircraft. Reading about airplanes is fun, but going through their maintenance manuals and getting parts of them to work is really something special. The coolest moment so far has been seeing the F-101’s canopy open and close using its still functioning hydraulic system. 

The F-101B with its canopy open. The generator on the left provides power to the aircraft, allowing the canopy to open and close.

            This internship has been an ideal experience. I don’t believe I’ve had two days that are exactly alike, which is beyond fine by me. The only trouble is that it all went by so quickly, although I am planning to keep tabs on the museum so I can pitch in during the semester.  

Monday, August 8, 2016

Behind the scenes: Winterthur exhibitions

Looking back - the summer of 2015 was a busy one for the exhibitions department at Winterthur.  While most of the museum staff were breathing sighs of relief following The Costumes of Downton Abbey (which closed in early January, after drawing an overwhelming amount visitors), it was crunch time in the exhibitions department.  Winterthur opened two shows the first week in September: Tiffany Glass: Painting with Color and Light, and Tiffany: The Color of Luxury.  
Tiffany Glass will be the flagship show until it closes at the end of the year.  It is a “take” show, or an exhibition curated by an outside institution, primarily using loaned objects.  The team worked closely with Lindsy Parrott, Director/Curator of The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass in Queens, N.Y. (http://www.neustadtcollection.org/), using an object list, images, and text that she provided to design the show.  
As part of my internship, Amy Marks Delaney (Associate Curator of Exhibitions), Nat Caccamo (Chief Preparator), and Raun Townsley (Exhibitions Specialist) allowed me to observe and assist with the preparation and installation of these two exhibits.  
In late July, the objects for Tiffany Glass arrived from New York.

The truck arrives!

Contracts for loan shows can have various restrictions.  I am qualified to handle objects owned by Winterthur, but for insurance purposes, handling of these objects was restricted to permanent staff, so I stood back and observed the process.  

As the truck is unloaded, Associate Registrar Katie Orr makes sure that each crate is accounted for.
The freight elevator loaded up with crates.
Everywhere you looked there were crates . . .
. . . more crates . . .
. . . and more crates still.

The objects needed to acclimate to conditions in the gallery for a couple weeks prior to installation.  We stored them behind a partition in the gallery while the rest of the space was prepared.

I painted display cases to match the wall color.

After the gallery was ready, the crates were moved to their approximate installation locations to save time during installation week.  The second week in August, we met the curator, Lindsy, and the conservator, Susan; they were a great pair to work with, which made the three day process go very smoothly!

The installation game plan.
Since I couldn’t move the crates, I helped direct them to the proper areas.
The wall brackets and risers came on the truck with the objects, and were painted to match the gallery.

After installation, I worked on dry-mounting the graphics and text panels that Amy designed. She printed the panels onto large sheets of special paper, which I then cut out and adhered to some thick board using a special adhesive paper in between.

Fresh off the printer!

In process.
The iron used to activate the adhesive.  It works like a giant panini press!
All of the small labels and panels completed, and ready for installation!

I won’t spoil the final result, so if you want to see how the exhibition turned out, you will have to visit Winterthur in person (through January 3) or online!
Jennifer Briggs  is a May 2016 graduate of the University of Delaware, with her  M.A. in American Material Culture and graduate certificate in Museum Studies.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Idea to Execution: Exhibit Development at the Marshall Steam Museum

This summer I spent my time working with the Friends of Auburn Heights Preserve at the Marshall Steam Museum. The Marshall Steam Museum houses a collection of antique automobiles and the world’s largest operating collection of Stanley Steam Cars. In addition to steam cars the museum also houses a 1914 Ford Model T, a 1916 Rauch and Lang Electric Car, two 1930s Packard’s, and 1/8th size coal fired steam trains that circle the property. 

The museum was preparing for a new exhibit, Letting Off Steam: The Stanley Legacy. Although most of the research and design was done before I started in June, there was one section of the exhibit that still needed to be completed. Thus, I was put in charge of brainstorming, researching, designing, and assembling an interactive activity and wall panel that talked about how to determine the condition of an object and help people understand how cars and other objects age over time. 

In order to make the museum exhibit more engaging we wanted to have interactive activities for children, and adults, to participate in. One such activity is a condition report. The goal of this activity was to allow people to not only see but also touch old objects, starting conversations and deepening understanding of the work that goes into preserving objects for future generations to enjoy.

Looking in the attic a number of objects were found that can be used as teaching tools, objects that the public can touch. In designing the condition report activity I took into consideration the objects available as well as the basic elements that curators and conservators look for when assessing an object. Giving people measuring tapes and magnifying glasses they are encouraged to take a closer look at the objects and try to determine the materials used, the structural condition, and if there is anything they find interesting or unique.

When designing the condition report activity it became clear that some of the questions conservators ask needed more explanation. This led to the development of Agents of Deterioration, a museum panel that describes the most common reasons objects deteriorate.

The first step in developing the exhibit display was to conceptualize and research my idea. My goal was to explain some of the most common agents of deterioration that threaten museum, and personal, collections. After some research I decided to focus on Fire, Water, Humidity, Physical Force, Light, and Pests. 

Once my research was complete, the next step was to design and prototype the display. This was done by printing the display out as a series of tiles that could be taped together. Doing this allowed me to see how the exhibit panel looked and determine what changes needed to be made before assembling the final product. Prototyping was useful because it allowed me see if the text size was readable or if it needed to be bigger. 

Finally, the third, and final, step was to assemble the exhibit display. After final changes were made, the text and pictures were printed, turned into large stickers, and mounted onto PVC. From there, the display elements were attached to the wall panel and put in place for future visitors to enjoy.

Working at the Marshall Steam Museum taught me a lot about exhibit development from idea to execution. In addition to learning about exhibit development I had the chance to see what it is like to work in a small museum and the challenges that small museums face in their day to day operation.

Kathleen Burns is working towards an M.A. in History and graduate certificate in Museum Studies and will graduate in May 2017.