Thursday, May 20, 2010

Setting up house

It is wedding season and I've been looking at a lot of wedding registries lately for a few friends who are getting married.  Most couples today register for "fancy" goods like china and expensive wine glasses, but also for "practical" goods like a dish drainer or trash can.  It got me thinking...when Thomas and Hannah Lee set up house at Stratford in the late 1730s/early 1740s, what did they need?  Granted, at that point they had young children and a household already, but I bet they needed new furniture and other items when they moved into the new digs.

Looking at the inventory taken after Thomas Lee's death in 1750 (excerpt above - click to zoom), you definitely see a mixture of fancy and practical.  A clock worth 10 pounds and a "Chandeleer" worth 21 pounds are listed along with "a Parcell of Cannisters," a coffee roaster, and "4 Water Glasses and other things" worth less than a pound combined.

Recently I've been trying to fill in our collection with the small, everyday sorts of things that I know would have been needed by residents of Stratford in their daily lives.  One of my most recent acquisitions for the collection is a small looking glass that would have been useful in a family bedchamber or upper servant's chamber.  We see low-cost looking glasses in the Stratford household inventory, like in the Blue Room inventory in 1775, where appraisers found "1 small glass" valued at 3 shillings.  Not every room in the Lee household would have had fancy, gilded and carved looking glasses (although some would have!).  Like our own homes, the rooms at Stratford would have been decorated in a hierarchy - the fancy public rooms with expensive furniture, the more intimate family rooms that you used on a daily basis, and the private service rooms that only the staff or family would see.

Now I just need to decide which way to go with my wedding gifts...

Looking glass image courtesy Pook and Pook.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words..."

...but sometimes doesn't tell the whole story. This week several members of Stratford Hall's staff, including me, participated in a Virginia Association of Museums (VAM) workshop on planning digital projects. One particular project that we want to pursue is the digitization of our historic images so we could easily share them--or at least a good number of them--with on-line visitors (via our web site, e-newsletter, Flickr, and social networking sites) as well as having them available for our collection catalog, exhibits, publications and research.

Hall's collection of visual images contains thousands of photographs and slides just waiting to be organized digitally into a searchable database. Although many of them are interesting images in their own right, even without an additional layer of history attached, just a short caption makes them much more meaningful. We want to catalog our images in a database that will also capture background information. For example, a 1930s black-and-white image of a setter with pups is charming; however, the fact that Stratford Hall's Resident Superintendent, Gen. B. F. Cheatham, sold the offspring of his cherished Irish Setter Shirley (pictured) to raise money for reconstructing the springhouse is a much more compelling story.

Historic images of the Great House at Stratford have the additional importance of documenting changes in the structure. This circa 1908 cyanotype [this process used predominantly between 1880 and 1920 and identified by its blue tint], taken by Edward A. Preble and given to Stratford by his daughter Marjorie Preble Thorne, shows a small porch at the east end of the house, straight front steps, outside window shutters, and a painted five-board fence bordering the lawn.

Digitizing our images will allow us to make more of our collection accessible to the public and will prevent needless handling of precious originals, helping to preserve them for future generations. The project is a challenging one, but we've already begun "brainstorming" about logistics and plan to have a digital strategy developed within the next new months. Check back with us for updates and more shared images.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Collections Manager in her element

Many people in and out of the museum world wonder what a Collections Manager really does on a day-to-day basis. My job description is long and filled with specific language targeted for people knowledgeable in Collections Management. I receive questions ranging from “So you handle the money right?” to “What is there to manage?” As the staff of Stratford Hall recently completed the restoration and reinterpretation of the Southwest Outbuilding and Northwest Stair Passage, this is a prime opportunity to explain what my job entails at a Historic House Museum.

The Southwest Outbuilding, with its reinterpretation of a workshop and servants chamber, has a mixture of both period correct reproductions as well as pieces from Stratford Hall’s decorative arts collection. The workshop, filled with close to one hundred tools from the M-WTCA and other donors, needed to be individually cataloged, their condition evaluated, photographed, measured, and labeled with accession numbers using museum appropriate materials. Once this information is collected, I input the data into our collections management database, Rediscovery, as well as create and maintain paper files with photographs, invoices, and other pertinent information regarding the objects. Even objects that are considered non-accessioned (which means they are not part of the permanent collection) receive the same treatment as accessioned objects. They are labeled, cataloged, photographed, and measured so that future employees at Stratford Hall do not pick up a pillowcase on the newly crafted field bed and wonder if it is part of the permanent collection. Even the hands-on activity was numbered to prevent future confusion!

This information assists members of the Stratford Hall Collections department with one of their most important tasks in managing the collection – inventory. Images, measurements, and accurate locations for pieces in the collections enable us to know where everything is on the estate. An accurate inventory helps with insurance values, donor and lender communications, and relationships with other departments within our organization.

Even though the areas are now open to the public, there is still much to do, including securing loan pieces to be displayed in these areas (which include working with insurance companies and fine art shippers), monitoring the building environment, adjusting cleaning routines, inventorying the pieces from the Architectural collection used in the Northwest Stair Passage, and other tasks as they arise. So please, come and see the reinterpreted spaces at Stratford Hall – who knows, you might see me in the back of a room - crawling on the floor – inventorying! J