Monday, January 28, 2013

Death in the Arctic

by Erin Doane, Curator
The cold, snowy weather lately has gotten me thinking about Ross Gilmore Marvin who was very well-acquainted with this type of weather.  Ross was only 29 years old when he died on the ice as part of Admiral Robert E. Peary’s 1908-1909 expedition to reach the North Pole.  The circumstances surrounding his death are still a mystery.
Ross Gilmore Marvin
Born in 1880, Ross was the youngest of six.  While he was never an outstanding student in grade school, he did earn a scholarship to Cornell University.  On the day he graduated with his degree in engineering, he received a letter from Admiral Peary inviting him on his 1905-1906 Polar expedition.  The team was not successful in reaching the North Pole that time because they ran out of supplies and had to turn back.  Ross returned home with souvenirs from the voyage and he would let the neighborhood children come over and try on his fur coat and mittens.   
Fur Mittens worn by Ross Marvin
Ross joined Admiral Peary’s next expedition to the North Pole in 1908-1909, this time as chief scientist and Peary’s first assistant.  Admiral Peary successfully reached the pole but on April 10, 1909, about 45 miles north of Cape Columbia near the northern tip of Greenland, Ross went through the ice and died.  A telegram reporting his death reached his family on September 12.  It read: “Marvin drowned eighty-six degrees north latitude, April 10th.  Party very sad. Notify mother before press dispatches.”  His mother took the news very hard, even denying its truth for many years.  It is said that following Ross’s death that she existed only in the memory of her son.  Her love for Ross, and her worry for him, was expressed in a poem she wrote during his first expedition.
Poem written by Mary Marvin
Seventeen years after Ross Marvin was lost on the ice, one of his Eskimo guides named Kudlooktoo confessed to killing him.  He said that Ross went crazy and tried to abandon another Eskimo named Harrigan on the ice.  Knowing that Harrigan would die if he was left behind, Kudlooktoo shot Ross.  As the Arctic was a sort of no-man’s land with no laws or governance, Kudlooktoo was never tried for the murder.  Some doubt the man’s stories, including Admiral Peary’s daughter who thought the guide’s confession was “induced by religious hysteria and an attempt to please the white man by having a ‘sin’ to confess.”  Whether Ross’s death was an accident or murder will probably never be known for sure.  James Vinton Stowell tells the story of Ross Marvin in A Tragedy in the Arctic.  The booklet includes transcripts of pages of Ross’s journal from the 1908-1909 expedition. 
Available to purchase at the Museum's Gift Shop

Monday, January 21, 2013

Historic Fashion on Display

by Erin Doane, Curator

Historic textiles are one of the more fragile types of objects to put on display in museums. Special care is needed to support delicate fabrics when they are on exhibit.  I love historic clothing and believe that it is meant to be seen.  Textiles should certainly be kept and preserved by museums for future generations but I also think it is pointless to just pack them away, out of sight forever.  People need to see historic items to appreciate them and want to protect them.  There needs to be a balance between preservation and making these wonderful items available to the public.

Cotton day dress (1880s-1890s), porter’s uniform (1890s), 
suit with morning jacket (1890s), child’s dress (1880s)
Recently, the Arnot Art Museum borrowed some historic clothing from us for an exhibit commemorating its 100th anniversary.  CCHS archivist Rachel Dworkin and I went to the art museum to help them dress the mannequins. The process is fairly simple, but very important to ensure that the clothing is not damaged while on display.  As preparation before going to the museum, we took our standard mannequins and used batting to pad out the forms to the size needed for the clothing.  This ensures that the weight of the clothing is evenly disturbed and there is no undue stress on any part of the garment.  The rest of the actual dressing of the mannequins took place onsite.

Normally a Victorian lady would wear at least six undergarments including a corset to get the right silhouette for her dress (you can read our post from September 24, 2012 for details about the undergarments) but most of those foundation garments are unnecessary on a mannequin.  We did use one petticoat to help shape and support the skirt.  The skirt of the gorgeous late-1880’s two piece dress is rather complicated with draping, lace and interior ties.  It is also somewhat heavy with its train and took two people to carefully set into place on the mannequin.

Padded mannequin --- Mannequin with petticoat --- Mannequin with skirt
Once the skirt was set, the bodice of the dress was placed on the mannequin.  Most museum objects should be handled while wearing white cotton gloves to protect them from damage.  In this case, clean hands are more appropriate because the gloves can actually cause damage by catching on hooks or trim.  Additional batting was added to the shoulders for support then the lace collar and velvet tie were arranged.  Because of the way it had been stored and the type of fabric, this particular dress had very few wrinkles.  We did give the lace and train a light steaming to ease what wrinkles there were.  Steaming, not ironing, is the best way to smooth historic garments.  You must be cautious, however, as some silks are very prone to water damage and should never be steamed.  After finishing the first dress we repeated these steps with the remaining four garments.  The entire process of getting five mannequins properly dressed took just about two hours.  

Adding the bodice                       Finishing touches

Monday, January 14, 2013

That's Entertainment!

by Erin Doane, Curator

Just this past Saturday we held the exhibit opening for That’s Entertainment: the Arts in Chemung County, 1880-1920 here at the Chemung Valley History Museum.  The exhibit, funded by the New York Council for the Humanities, will be on display from now through August.  The arts were an integral part of everyday life in Chemung County around the turn of the century.  Whether it was books read at home or a play at the Opera House, the arts were an important form of entertainment.  No matter one’s economic status people had access to the arts through clubs, public performances and Elmira’s first museum, the Arnot Art Gallery.   In addition to experiencing the arts, locals created their own art through painting, writing and other creative outlets.

the new exhibit
When people think of the arts, many immediately think of paintings and galleries.  According to the city directories, 64 artists lived in Chemung County between 1880 and 1920.  A majority of the artists were women.   Frances Farrar, for instance, painted lantern slides while Elizabeth Banks painted and ran an art supply store.   The three most widely remembered artists are cartoonist Eugene “Zim” Zimmerman (1862-1935) and painters Lars Hoftrup (1874-1954) George Waters (1832-1912).

George Waters in his studio
The arts also include theatrical and musical performances. Elmira’s first theater, the Opera House (later the Lyceum) opened in 1867.  With tickets priced between 50 cents and a dollar, the theater was a regular social event for the wealthy and a special treat for the poor.  It offered operas, plays, lectures, concerts, vaudeville and later movies.  Around 1900, other, cheaper, movie houses began to appear.  At just 10 cents for admission, movies were entertainment for the masses.
the Lyceum Theatre
While galleries, concert halls and theaters offered arts to the public, many people also enjoyed the arts within their own homes.  Wealthy families, in particular, purchased paintings and sculptures to decorate their halls and parlors. People sang or played the piano.  They listened to symphonies on the phonograph and invited musicians into their homes for private recitals.  People also read the writings of the great authors and poets of the time.

Inside the Langdon home