Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Philadelphia Commercial Museum Collection

What happens when a museum decides to deaccession some objects, removing them from the collection? Usually the items are sold to other institutions, where the pieces are a better match for the collection and institutional mandate, or to private individuals. But what about materials that fetch no buyers?

In the case of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, they just gave everything away.

The Philadelphia Commercial Museum was built in 1899 by a University of Pennsylvania botany professor named William Wilson. Wilson was inspired by the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and hoped to create a type of permanent world's fair in the Commercial Museum. With this mandate the museum became the official repository for objects associated with the turn of the century world's fairs. It was a tourist destination and an educational resource for business students.

By the 1920's the US Department of Commerce was flourishing and formal business schools attached to universities had evolved. People also stopped caring about world's fairs (really, they're still happening and nobody cares). So the museum became pretty much irrelevant. The museum eventually closed and the objects of value were taken by local institutions and universities. The remained of the collection was stored by the City of Philadelphia in a warehouse. Until now, when the City decided to give them all away.

People at the Centre made a Thursday morning appointment: we were hoping to find paper, books, photos... things to experiment with, and possibly some cool random stuff as well. When we arrived, there were boxes and tissue paper all over, objects crushed and total chaos. There were thousands of baskets and other ethnographic things. I don't like ethnographic things very much.

Happily, we did find a box of interesting papers. An accompanying label identified it as joss paper or ghost money, faux paper money intended to be burnt for one's ancestors.

I think the dark irregular square shape in the center is silver leaf, but I don't have an XRF to back up this claim. Silver leaf oxidizes over time, turning black. Silver and gold leaf are both common to these types of papers.

This was a much larger sheet of paper, very brightly colored.

Detail of the pattern.

In the category of cool random things, everyone in the group found a few interesting things to keep for themselves (Val took a functional model of a stove). I picked up a strange wooden knife-thing that I intend to turn into a conservation tool. I also got two little pine boxes, probably shipping crates. I have no idea what they say: I'm thinking it is Chinese. Anyway, they are covered in filth (from old coal-fired furnaces and whatnot).

Both have little stickers on the back indicating that they passed through US Customs and were intended for the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A New Hat

The Christmas-present yarn has become a hat.
Thank you snow day!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Day Tomorrow II

The headline at
It's official. The latest snowfall total from the Philadelphia International Airport was 14 inches, bringing the seasonal total to record-setting 70.3. The previous record, 65.5, was set in 1995-96.

(an awesome shot from December's massive snowstorm)

No work tomorrow either. I got a call from the director of conservation around 6:00-ish. Tomorrow's plan: house destruction, the BBC's new Emma, and groundhog cookies all day.

MidWeek Blizzard

Everyone in Chez Headley had off of work today - which meant a day of work on the house. I took a turn shoveling the walk in front of the house, but by the time I finished, I needed to start over again.

Bret's friend Tom, who lives a couple blocks away, turns the corner, coming to help with the house-fixing.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Snow Day Tomorrow

Philly, along with rest of the New York / D.C. corridor, is supposed to have a massive snowstorm tomorrow, beginning as of 8:00 this evening actually. The Philly Inquirer called it something like, "an explosive nor'easter" - which sounds exciting. Around 3:00 the Centre decided that it would be closed, which is great. Especially since I would be able to take SEPTA to work, but that it probably wouldn't be running by the evening. Nobody wants to spend the night at the lab, sleeping under their bench.

Third floor view, circa 10:30 pm.

Groundhog Day!

Tuesday of last week was Groundhog Day. A very important day, especially since I grew up in a little town near Punxsutawney, and often use Punxsy as a landmark to illustrate that I'm from the middle of nowhere, Western Pennsylvania. (It's quite effective).

Groundhog Day means more than just knowing whether or not spring will arrive early. It means Groundhog Cookies. No actual groundhogs are used in the making of these cookies. Do you hear that PETA? Besides, the groundhogs in Punxsy have a awesome life.

On February 1st, Supervisor Mary said something along the lines of, "Oh, tomorrow is Groundhog Day. We should do something special for it."

I said, "Don't worry Mary. I've already got the Groundhog Cookies made."

This lead into a zillion questions about Phil; where he lives, about the secret Groundhog Society, if he is lonely (no, he has Philamina and Barney, along with other unnamed groundhogs), about Punxsy in general, how do I know these things, etc.

Anyway, the big day arrives and I bring the cookies in to work. I made a ton on the Sunday before Groundhog Day: all three cookie cutters were used. They are a huge hit: I have a zillion requests for the recipe. Everyone adores the shapes. Apparently no cookie has had so much approval ever before in the entire history of the Centre.

Everyone kept asking: Where do you get groundhog cookie cutters? To which my response was: from your Mum for Christmas, and she got them in Punxsy.

No cookies made it home from the Centre, so I had to make some more this weekend. Because I love them so. Thanks for the cookie cutters Mum!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Weekend Blizzard II

The East Coast had another massive blizzard over the weekend. Most of the snow fell Friday during the night, so there was not another mid-blizzard walk through the neighborhood.

The view from my window: just like being back in Canada.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Some Japanese Woodblock Prints

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has one of the world's best collections of Japanese woodblock prints. They have a small portion of the collection online, available to view as super-high quality images. All the images below I have borrowed from the MFA Boston.

The prints were to the merchant class of post-feudal Japan as genre paintings were to the merchant class of the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age. They were often of pretty women, notable actors (in the roles for which they had won renown), beautiful landscapes, flowers, and interesting scenes. Such as Japanese soldiers are attacking a Chinese camp (see below). And since they were prints, if one was very popular, many others more could be made.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, Meiji era, 1894

Suzuki Harunobu, Edo period, ~1776-68

The Japanese generally liked prints that captured something transient, like mist, or cherry blossoms, or snow.
Utagawa Hiroshige, Edo period, 1833-34

Katsushika Hokusai, Edo period, 1834

Multiples of prints were often made, but the end result was usually different, with the colors and special effects being more complex toward the beginning of the printing and more simple toward the end. Often dramatically so. Scholars can learn when in a series a particular object was printed by comparing these characteristics. The print below, the red Mount Fuji, is actually one of the later prints, but is considered one of the more beautiful ones from this block.
Katsushika Hokusai, Edo period, ~1830–31

This is ridiculously famous. College kids all over America have this as a poster in their dorm rooms. I've seen it. That and that one van Gogh, the Cafe at Night, or whatever it is called.
Katsushika Hokusai, Edo period, ~1830–31

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop

At the end of January, I was invited to return to Winterthur to participate in a workshop about the materials, techniques, and conservation of Japanese woodblock prints. The paper lab was hosting, and the guest lecturer was one of the former Winterthur paper conservators and one of my old professors, Betty! My fellow Winterthur grads at the Centre were also invited: one of the perks of being local WUDPAC alumni.

Betty's specialty, and her favorite things, are Japanese prints. (She did laugh and say that Old Master drawings were pretty nice as well...) She studied for some years in Japan, working with a Japanese paper conservator, examining multitudes of prints, and learning all about Asian art on paper.

Like all good conservation workshops, it involved some hands-on learning. Betty in action.

Woo! Very different than Western paper!

Betty washes a woodblock book page.

Do not try this at home. There is a reason for the advanced degree.

Joan, the Winterthur paper conservator, tinkering with her camera, while the current WUDPAC students work.