Monday, March 26, 2012

Inherent Vice in Downton Abbey

By Erin Doane, Curator

Like many people lately, I’ve become a fan of the PBS series Downton Abbey.  The characters and story are great but what I’ve really fallen in love with is the clothes.  For those unfamiliar, the series follows the lives of an aristocratic English family, the Crawleys, and their servants.  The first season began with the news of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912 and continued through to the outbreak of the First World War on August 4, 1914.  The second season took the household through the war and to the end of the decade.

The fashions of the Crawley women in the first season are what really caught my eye.  I have always been fond of the delicate gowns of the early 1910s.  Opulent is a word commonly used to describe those years before the First World War and the term is very fitting when specifically talking about the fashion.  It was a time of experimentation, with both the cut and drapery of fabric and with materials.  Designers were taking inspiration from the exotic Middle and Far East.  Corsets were loosened or discarded entirely and layers of soft flowing fabrics were decorated with silver and gold stitching, tiny beads and spangles, and all sorts of decorative trims and embroidery. 

All these details made gorgeous gowns but, unfortunately, also made them very fragile.  Over time, the weight of the decorations can pull apart the fine weave of the fabrics.  Trims and beads can catch on each other and careless handling through the years can cause unintended damage.  It is fairly rare to find one of the diaphanous gowns from the early 1910s in pristine condition.  I wonder sometimes if the designers and seamstresses at the time realized that their creations were so ephemeral.  It sort of makes sense that the almost frivolous opulence of such gowns could only last a short time.

Another problem with the long-term preservation of gowns from the 1910s comes from the very nature of their materials.  The natural physical properties of some objects make them deteriorate without any outside influence.  This specific inborn fragility in historic objects is known as inherent vice and has always been the bane of museum professionals and preservationists.  Some fabrics used to make gowns in the 1910s had real silver and gold threads woven into them.  Over time the metal reacts with the silk and causes it to shatter or tear apart.  The same is true for certain types of dyes that weaken the fibers.  Because these vices are part of the nature of the materials there is nothing that can be done to stop the deterioration process.  It can, however, be slowed. 

Careful handling of fragile gowns is essential to their longevity, as is proper storage.  Limiting exposure to light and maintaining an environment with constant, appropriate temperature and humidity levels also helps preserve them for a longer time.  Here at the Museum, we are working to get digital images of our textile collection so that the gowns can remain undisturbed as much as possible.  We may not be able to entirely stop these lovely, intricate, vice-ridden creations from deteriorating but we can slow the process so that future generations can enjoy the beauty of these fashions.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Value of a Museum

Bruce Whitmarsh,  Director

In today’s budget conscious world I have heard more frequently than ever how museums are nice extras to have in a community but not essential. But once you get beyond the most basic food, shelter and clothing, and start thinking about what makes a community, museums are a necessary and integral part of that equation.

Part of our challenge in the non-profit world is that there are no easily and well recognized formulas for measuring our success. For the for profit enterprise we can look at stock price, return on investment or quarterly profit and have some sense about the value of the business. These types of measures do not exist in the non-profit world. We can generate numbers of visitors, employees, objects, etc. but these do not readily translate in to a recognized value like the numbers do in the for profit arena.

I would argue that trying to measure the value of our non-profit institutions using the same criteria we apply to the for-profit world is wrong. You do not try to play baseball following the rules of tennis, nor should we accept the application of for profit measurements on the non-profit world. We do use business tools, operate everyday like any other business, we pay bills, salaries and expenses and have income while producing a product or service. However, this is not done in pursuit of financial gain but to further our core mission.

The value of a museum lies outside of a monetary assessment and lies within those boundaries that prescribe a high quality of life. CCHS is currently working on two exhibits for this year that actively involve collecting stories, one about the community wide experience during devastating flooding in 1972 and the other about the impact and legacy of local artist Talitha Botsford who gladly shared her gifts with many people. People are sharing with us their stories and artifacts about their own past experiences and through the museum these are now becoming part of the community’s past experiences. As the institution that gathers and preserves this collective memory we add an intangible value to the community in general. The shared experiences of the community will be saved in the same way that family histories pass from parent to child. As the bridge between a personal experience and a community experience, the museum adds value by putting all of these together to create a bigger picture and greater understanding.

It is this intangible asset that is the greatest strength of a museum. As the institution that holds the collective experience of a community, museums move that experience from the private to the public realm and protect it for future generations. More importantly, museums share what they have in their collections and make them available to all. Through this dual mandate of preserving and sharing, by being the repository of community knowledge and experience, museums add value to the life of their communities.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Play It Forward: The Great Digital Migration

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Do you have VHS tapes?  Or Beta?  How about some 8mm film?  Now, here’s the tricky question…how many of you can actually play those back? 

Technology marches on.  New formats come, old equipment breaks and we’re left with valuable information trapped on deteriorating mediums that we can’t watch.  So, this year we are embarking on phase 1 of our digitization project.  The ultimate goal of this project is to produce digital versions of all of our videos and films so that we can watch and share them once again.

Here at the Chemung County Historical Society we have a dozen rolls of 16mm film, 30 or so rolls of 8mm film, over 200 video cassettes in various formats, and nearly 400 audio cassette tapes.  Converting these items into digital format costs money, a lot of money, so phase 1 of our digitization project is to establish conversion priorities. 

What are our priorities?  Our first priority is to save information which is in danger of being lost.  Take, for example, a series of oral histories on VHS tape done in the 1990s of Asian immigrants in Chemung County.  VHS is a magnetic film format inside a hard shell with a series of moving parts.  Both the film itself and the mechanical bits that make it play back can be damaged over time making it hard to view the information on the tape.  In the case of the oral histories, some mechanical difficulty makes it so the tape can’t be fully rewound, thus making it a priority for digital conversion.

Once we’ve rescued the information in immediate danger of being lost, our next priority is usefulness.  We have a number of exhibits and projects planned on a range of topics including floods in Chemung County and growing up in Chemung County.  Our second priority, then, is to convert the material associated with those topics so we can use them in our exhibits and programs.

Of course, just converting stuff to digital format doesn’t mean that all the work is done.  After all, technology marches on and DVDs are on their way out while BlueRays are on their way in.  In order to ensure that the information we’ve just paid to have converted lasts, we have to make sure to save the digital information not only on its new DVD, but also on our servers and to keep updating it as new stuff comes along.  It will be a lot of work, but, in the end, it should be worth it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Elmira's Lady of All the Arts

By Kerry Lippincott, Education Coordinator

Mary Cassatt, Grandma Moses, Talitha Botsford.  Perhaps Talitha doesn’t have the same name recognition of Cassatt or Grandma Mosses, but she was a much beloved artist in our community.
In honor of the Festival of Women in the Arts we are hosting Talitha Botsford: Elmira’s Lady of All the Arts.  In addition to personal belongings, the exhibit includes 46 paintings, which were loaned to us by community members.
Talitha Botsford (1901-2002) was the youngest and fourth child of William and Talitha Botsford.  The family lived in Millport until 1907 when William moved the family to Elmira.  Eventually William built a house at 1718 West Church Street, which would be Talitha’s home for the rest of her life.
Music was part of the Botsford household.  Like her siblings Talitha took piano lessons.  Though she would play the piano for the rest of her life she chose “a Gypsy instrument for serious study” - the violin.   Her mother had other plans for her, but according to Talitha “my mother’s idea of a school teacher in the family gradually faded.  A musician seemed to be developing."   As part of Elmira Free Academy’s Class of 1918, Talitha was a member of the school orchestra and wrote the class song.  She received a scholarship to attend the Ithaca Conservatory (now part of Ithaca College).  She graduated in 1922 and after the ceremony, a fellow male student was congratulating her and wished her great success with her teaching.  Teaching,”  Talitha recalled.  I hadn’t even thought of teaching.  Music was to play and enjoy. ‘What else is there for you to do?’ he asked as though there were nothing else for me to do.  He wasn’t going to teach.  He was anticipating a career as a concert violinist for himself and his manner implied certainly I wasn’t in his class.  I certainly wasn’t but I wasn’t going to spend my life teaching if I could manage any other way.”
So she became a traveling musician.   As part of the Vaudeville and Lyceum circuits she played in theaters, school auditoriums and churches; had engagements at hotels and health spas; accompanied silent movies; and played between acts for stock theater companies.  Whether as a duo, trio or multi-piece orchestra, Talitha would play music in 26 states.   She briefly had her own act with five other female musicians and with a tap dance named Phil Porter.  The group was called the Wedding Band (the women wore bridesmaids’ dresses in pastel colors, but I have no idea what Phil wore).

Sunshine Trio at the Mark Twain Hotel (left to right - Ruth Peckham, Talitha Botsford and Kathryn Catlin).

Despite being on the road Talitha found time to compose music.  The Schirmer Music Company would eventually publish five of her compositions, which Talitha called the proudest accomplishments of her life.   Her compositions included Danse de Ballet and On the Village Green.  In 1960 Talitha was elected to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. 

After her father’s death, Talitha gave up traveling far from home to stay with her mother.  She found so much work playing the piano for local establishments (like the Mark Twain Hotel, Hickory House, Langwell Hotel, Strand Theatre and the tea room at Izard’s) that she gave up playing the violin.  For 43 years she weekly accompanied the Elmira Kiwanis and wrote the chapter song.
Talitha never knew when she started writing poetry, but she would eventually write over 1,000 short verse poems.  In January 1964 she even began a weekly column for the Sunday Telegram (a verse accompanied by one of her sketches).  Several of her verses were published in Reader’s Digest. She also published three books of poetry,  Short Stems, In Other Words and Unnoted Quotes. 

Like poetry, art became another hobby for Talitha.  She once said “I don’t know anything about art.  I just do what looks good to me.”  Fond of painting in sets, she went from pen and ink sketches to water colors.  Her sources of inspiration were the people and places of the Southern Tier.  Perhaps she’s most known for her hand-painted postcards.  Talitha never wanted to sell her paintings because she preferred to give them away as gifts.  She was eventually convinced to release her work as prints and postcards.  In fact, Talitha would buy her postcards in lots of 100 and write messages on the other side before sending them.   When the August 1972 issue of Hobbies: The Magazine for Collectors included her in an article about postcards depicting Mark Twain’s life her postcards became collectible. 

Musician. Composer. Poet.  Painter.  When asked what she considered herself, Talitha replied “A musician, first and foremost.”   I think and hope others will agree that Talitha Botsford was truly a lady of all the arts.
A special thank you to Rita Rhodes for coordinating the exhibit.