Thursday, February 25, 2010

Preservation Intern

After interning at Stratford Hall this past summer, I returned to the University of Vermont in the fall to finish up my masters degree in Historic Preservation. Since graduating, I’ve been on the job hunt and was asked to come back to Stratford for another internship this winter. Working again with Preservation Director Phil Mark, I have experienced a different side of the preservation world during this internship (not to mention more snow than I ever thought possible in the South!). Last time around, my tasks were mainly focused on the hands-on restoration of the estate, providing me with skills in window restoration, painting, plastering, repointing, and investigation of architectural features, among other things. This winter, my efforts have been focused on helping to compile research for the Historic Structures Report which is being created for the Great House by the firm of Mesick, Cohen, Wilson and Baker. Through archival research and physical investigation, the goal of the report is to tell the story of the house and how it has changed, architecturally, over time.

To help facilitate the process of creating this comprehensive report, I have been working in the archives to digitize resources which will be of most help to the firm. I began digitization with the correspondence of preservation architect Fiske Kimball, who worked on the restoration of Stratford Hall in the 1930s. In reading through all of his letters to various members of the board, contractors, and others, I have been able to understand more about the people who undertook the restoration. In those days, historic preservation standards did not exist like they do today; the National Historic Preservation Act was not even on the books until 1966. Consequently, those involved in the restoration tried to do what they thought was right for Stratford, yet had no standard by which to judge their actions. As a student of historic preservation, it has certainly been interesting to see the correspondence regarding certain preservation issues and the process by which certain decisions about the house were made. Though I have only just begun to really delve deep into these boxes and boxes of letters, I feel as though I have learned a great deal about the man behind the restoration of Stratford Hall.

In addition to digitizing the Kimball correspondence, I have assembled a collection of previous reports, paint analyses, drawings, sketches, photographs, etc. for the architectural investigation team so that they can be well-informed about what has already been reported about the Great House. Mark Wenger, of Mesick, Cohen, Wilson and Baker, recently visited to begin researching Stratford Hall. Along with archival research, he looked for places in the house where it would be advantageous for the team to set up probes to determine architectural history of certain rooms in question. The probes consist of removing plaster or trim work in order to see what is occurring in the wall underneath. Ghost marks, which are remnants of past architectural or structural features, can tell a lot about the history of the house. Wenger and the investigation team will be looking for these and other clues to help determine the chronology of the changes made within the house.

Through working with the team from Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker, I anticipate learning a lot more about architectural investigation and the clues that tell important details about a house. The valuable knowledge I gain through this internship will certainly help me as an emerging preservation professional after I leave Stratford Hall and venture forth into the “real world.” Until then, it’s back to learning all that I can while I’m here and, of course, sending out all those resumes and cover letters.

Please note: the photo of Fiske Kimball comes from the following source:

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Archaeology Intern

Material culture, or the artifacts recovered from archaeological excavations, act as windows into the lifeways and mentalities of those who came before us. The act of unearthing something that hasn’t been held in two hundred years is really an indescribable experience and is what I love about archaeology. I hope to bring the same passion that I feel on a dig to my archaeology internship at Stratford Hall.

The main priority of my internship project here at Stratford is to re-house the archaeological artifacts that currently reside in the basement of the Council House. They include artifacts from J. Paul Hudson’s excavations in the Mill Field from 1969 to 1975, and Fraser Neiman’s excavation of the Clifts Plantation in the Mill Field (44WM33) from June 1976 to January 1978, as well as numerous other artifacts that have been found at Stratford over the years. Working with Sarah Holland, the Collections Manager at Stratford, I’ve come up with the proper supplies needed for long-term storage of these artifacts. Thankfully, many of these items were conserved post-excavation. Therefore, despite the amount of time that has passed since their unearthing, most are still in a fairly stable condition, and will remain so with proper storage conditions.

Another goal of my internship is to catalog each and every artifact that is recovered from the Council House basement in as much detail as possible, with the expectation that the information will someday be expanded upon and entered into the
Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (or DAACS). This database, based in the Department of Archaeology at Monticello, is an invaluable resource for the interpretation of the slave-based society that developed in the Chesapeake, Carolinas, and Caribbean throughout the colonial period. It provides the researcher with comprehensive archaeological data from several sites within these regions that were at some point associated with slavery. Stratford Hall actually has one site, ST116, entered into DAACS, but the hope is to contribute more in an effort to further our understanding of the lifeways of enslaved peoples. For more information on ST116, an earthfast slave dwelling excavated by the Mary Washington College Field School, one can view its entry by Dr. Douglas Sanford.

Currently, I am going through the artifacts catalogued by J. Paul Hudson, which include both the artifacts he and the Archaeological Society of Virginia, Williamsburg Chapter, found in the Mill Field and those that had been recovered prior to that (about 7,000 total). Hudson, who at the time was a member of the Executive Board of the Archaeological Society of Virginia, recovered most of his finds from surface collections, though several hundred came from more intensive excavations, which revealed a root cellar (MF-1) and a refuse pit
(RP-1). Though the majority of artifacts in Hudson’s inventory are from the 19th century, they also run the gamut from Native American spear points to 18th century English Buckley earthenware to a 20th-century Stratford Hall souvenir cup (complete with the Stratford squirrel!). So, while I’ve gone through less than half of the artifacts at this point, I’ve already been privy to material culture from all stages of occupation of the area that is now Stratford Hall. 

Being a ceramic fanatic, my favorite find so far has been the Josiah Spode stone china transferware plates in the Temple pattern, manufactured from 1805 to 1830 (see picture). These could have been used by the Lees, who lived at Stratford Hall until 1822. While not as expensive as Chinese porcelain—which this blue and white, chinoiserie style earthenware attempted to emulate—this was by no means an inexpensive tableware, and demonstrates that either the Lees or the Somervilles were purchasing items with a certain amount of social cachet.

Next, I’ll be moving on to the artifacts recovered from Frasier Neiman’s excavations at Mill Field. Neiman, the current Director of Archaeology at Monticello, did much more extensive excavations, which led to the discovery of the Clifts Plantation. The land was owned by the Pope family from 1656 until its sale to Thomas Lee in 1718. Built in 1670, and expanded upon throughout the next 60 years, the Clifts was occupied by tenants until 1730, when it was demolished by Thomas Lee. As I’ve been working mainly with artifacts from the late-18th and 19th centuries, I’m anxious to explore the earlier ones recovered from Neiman’s excavation of the Clifts.

So, for the remainder of my internship, I anticipate a lot more tongue testing (best way to figure out what kind of pottery you have in your hand!) and the rediscovery of some awesome artifacts.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Winter Collections Management Intern

When flood waters hit Iowa in 1993, The Des Moines Center of Art was on ground high enough to protect the art center from immediate danger. However, when the municipal water-purifying plant lost power/was damaged, the streets raging with flood waters were of no help to The Des Moines Center of Art. The museum had to truck in thousands of gallons of water each day to maintain steady relative humidity levels to protect The Des Moines Center of Art collections from irreversible damage.

With the rising snow accumulation levels on everyone’s mind in the Virginia area, we can all relate to the dangers of winter weather. At the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, MD, that danger became reality in February of 2003. The roof of the museum collapsed under the strain of gathering twenty-five inches of snow within a twenty-four hour period. Half of the museum’s Roundhouse roof collapsed on the oldest and most comprehensive collection of American railroad equipment and artifacts. The museum has since estimated that it would take at least six years for the objects and locomotives to be repaired.

Disasters, both natural and man-made, occur on a daily basis. However, not everyone believes a disaster, whether large or small scale, will directly affect them. We are also not able to fathom the destruction and heartache a disaster can cause. The museum field, looked upon by the general public as protectors of our cultural resources, has to not only believe that disasters can happen to their buildings and collections, but prepare and train their staff to help mitigate them. If cultural resource institutions do not prepare for the worst case scenario, they risk damaging not only their most important assets--their collections--but also risk putting visitors and staff in danger and hurting their professional reputations.

For my third internship here at Stratford Hall, I have taken on the task of updating and rewriting the institution’s Disaster Plan. It has proven to be a challenging yet incredibly educational experience, especially for someone who is an aspiring Collection’s Manager. Even as someone who cares for collection objects on a daily basis, it is astounding how many ways pieces in the collection can be harmed and how much responsibility it is to keep them safe. Objects aside, a museum must also plan for the safety of its staff and visitors. Everything from responding to a small injury to reacting to a bomb threat must be considered and carefully planned for. Luckily for me, disaster planning is a big business in the museum world so there is an unlimited amount of resources out there and a very willing staff right here to help.

A Disaster Plan addresses the prevention and response to natural disasters and risks an organization is most likely to face. Most plans cover disaster: mitigation and prevention; preparedness; response; and recovery. Disaster mitigation and prevention attempts to eliminate or reduce the probability and effects of disasters by making large-scale improvements like:

  • building structures to withstand earthquakes or floods;
  • removing trees that are close to buildings; and
  • installing security and fire suppression systems

or things as small as:

  • keeping gutters clean;
  • periodically testing generators;
  • regularly servicing equipment; and
  • performing routine building inspections.

Disaster preparedness is simply being as organized and equipped as possible to immediately respond to a disaster in order to save lives, minimize damage, and facilitate the recovery stage. A few examples of disaster preparedness include:

  • providing training for staff;
  • performing practice drills; and
  • having procedures in place for saving high-priority assets to the organization.

Disaster response provides temporary care and relief to victims and ensures avoidable casualties and property damage does not occur. Examples include:

  • following evacuation procedures;
  • having easy access to disaster packs with emergency supplies and instructions; and
  • using clear communication and a quick response time for getting emergency responders on the scene.

Finally, disaster recovery includes those tasks which return life and daily operation of the organization to normal or at least to an improved level. Some important examples include:

  • salvaging and conserving the collection objects;
  • receiving relief from grants, donations, and government funds
  • restoring the buildings; and
  • reinstalling the objects and reopening the exhibits to the public.

Too many cultural institutions do not have Disaster Plans in place, be it due to the lack of staff, time, or money, or pure naïveté and denial. However, even if you do have a plan, you cannot always account for all the possibilities or grasp the potential damage that could occur. Below are a few more examples of museum and historic structure disasters.

  • The Buckingham Palace has caught on fire not once, but twice. In 1992 a fire broke out that damaged more than 100 rooms and numerous items from the Royal Collection. The fire started because of a spotlight shining on a curtain in the Queen’s Private Chapel. Then in 2002 a smaller fire broke out but luckily spared artwork and historic treasures.

  • Just last year the Historic Archives of Cologne, Germany suddenly collapsed due to subway construction beneath the building. One of the only collections in Germany to survive World War II completely intact, the collection spanned more than a thousand years worth of documents, maps, drawings, photographs, books, and artifacts.

  • In June of 2008 the University of Iowa Museum of Art had flood damages of $5.5 million to the museum building and $500,000 to its contents. Due to a well conceived and implemented flood plan, the museum was able to evacuate 80% of their collections in less than four hours – that’s over 10,000 objects!! And fortunately, there was no lasting damage to the rest of the collection.

- Kathryn “Kat” Marshall, Collections Management Intern

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Behind the scenes: the curator in winter

What does a museum curator do in the depths of winter when her museum galleries and historic house rooms are closed to the public? Research and writing, of course! The quiet of these weeks since the new year have allowed me to focus on some major tasks that often fall by the wayside during our busy seasons.

One of my winter projects has been the detailed planning for the room settings in the upcoming Southwest outbuilding (you may have seen a
Facebook video talking about the building, and read more about the project here and here). I've been planning for object conservation, reproduction objects like trunks and a bed, working with a private collector who will be lending a table for the chamber, and discussing textile options with an historic textile scholar. 


I've also been working on an object list and furnishing details for the Northwest Stair Passage in the house (which Phil Mark, our Director of Preservation, has touched upon quite a bit in his blog posts). There's not much floor space in this stair passage, but a few key objects will be on display: a clothespress (for linen storage), a folding bed (for overnight guests or servants), and a close stool (a toilet for, well, personal hygiene).

Another of my goals this winter has been to catalog a backlog of objects that have been sitting waiting for a little bit of research. We had two pistols, for instance, that were found by our accounting staff in a vault in our administration building. 18th-century pistols, I should clarify. Were they accepted for the historic collection and just never transferred over? I've been working with a firearms dealer to help with the identification of the pistols, researching their makers and the marks on them.