Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Vacuum Vexations and Victories while conserving a large hanging textile

How many times does it take to safely vacuum an 18' x 18' projection screen?  That was the question we asked ourselves on Tuesday while working on-site at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, NJ.

Thomas Edison's Laboratory, textile conservation of lab coat and projection screen
Thomas Edison Laboratory, view of original archway and water tower.

Thomas Edison Laboratory, Library exterior

Projection screen conserved by textile conservator, Spicer Art Conservation projects
The screen while rolled.  (It is the cylindric tube spanning
across the top of the clock and upper windows.)
We arrived Monday, December 10th for a four-day stay in New Jersey for the primary purpose of cleaning and repairing the two-story high projection screen located in Edison's library.  The library itself is three floors high and houses remarkable documents attesting to Edison's various certifications and honorary awards, along with numerous volumes dating back to the late 1800's, as well as the screen where Edison would show films to those who visited his laboratory complex.  Needless to say, I found myself overwhelmed and consumed by sheer excitement about the pieces of history surrounding me as I walked around the library to take various photos of the screen, as seen to the left and below.

Art conservation of Edison's laboratory projection screen, historic sites, textile repair and restoration
The screen fully unrolled
The beginning of the treatment process was very simple.  Using the vacuum we brought from the studio, I systematically cleaned the front and back of the bottom portion of the screen while Gwen followed behind with the soot sponge to further loosen any embedded particulates.  The bottom portion of the screen is considerably darker, as seen in the picture above, which we determined was purposefully stained either as a protective coating or as a visual countermeasure to the shadows cast by viewers' heads.  This is only speculation, due to the fact that we do not have an original photo of the screen.  Of course we did not wish to remove this discoloration, only the dirt and dust caked on the surface.  To the knowledge of current park employees, it had been 15-20 years since the last time the screen was unrolled.

Working along, I proceeded to vacuum ever higher with the assumption that when I reached a certain point I would be able to safely proceed with the screen's treatment.  However, such was not exactly the case.  Within the last year or so the site had discarded their backpack vacuum, as well as their scissor lift.  We were then told that it was possible to set up scaffolding behind the screen that would allow me to reach the very top of this immense canvas.  But of course, the scaffolding was not available for our use, and no one had a clue where it was.

Taped attachment

Now here was the predicament: how do I stand on a ladder while holding a small, but still weighty, piece of equipment for an extended period without risking my life in the process?  Holly, one of the park employees, was so kind to find a potential solution to my predicament.  She brought a 3M vacuum, which I could swing over my shoulder.  However, the 3M vacuum unsurprisingly no longer had any of its original brush attachments or a wand extension.  So what did Gwen and I do?  We improvised!  Holly Marino, who works at the Edison site, brought us a wand attachment from another machine which we taped to the hose, then we taped our brush attachment to the wand!

Example of 3M vacuum with only crevice tool

I proceeded to climb up our little step ladder and extend the wand in order to vacuum the backside of the screen as far as I could reach.  It was not long before I started to notice significant cramping in my arm and the strap cutting into my left shoulder, not to mention how awkward it was to maneuver with this huge black box swinging freely around my hips catching on everything.

In addition, I could not control the suction power, which not only resulted in an almost deafening noise, but was also not ideal for the artifact.  After cleaning what I could reach on three of the six canvas panels, I got down and said, "there has to be a better way to do this!"

"the contraption"
On to improvisation part 2.  We removed the wand from the now dubbed black box of misery and attempted to attach it to our vacuum, but only to find that the inner ridge on the wand prevented us from simply connecting the two parts.  We taped the two together, but it was clear that the contraption was nowhere near strong enough.  I indicated to Gwen that I needed a splint of some sort to fix the issue.  She looked around our tools and offered first the small 1/8" thick sticks we use for swabbing, then metal micro-spatulas, both of which I rejected as insufficient support for the task saying, "I need more reinforcement than that!"  After a few seconds Gwen returned with a small chip brush that I taped to the wand and hose as she held it in place.  At this point both of us are giddy with amusement at the lengths we have had to go to so far to come up with a solution.  But that was just the beginning.
Vacuum splint 
Now that the issue of extending my reach was solved, we had to next figure out how to rig the body of the vacuum to the ladder to free my hands for the task.  Gwen had brought small bungee-cord-like elastic bands that I used to hook the vacuum to the step ladder, which worked as I finished doing what I could of the last three panels.  However, I still had over nine feet above me that I still could not reach.  Now it was time for a taller ladder.  With the assistance of another park employee, Walter Baginski, I retrieved a 10' ladder, brought it into the library and slid it under the tables supporting the bottom of the screen and stood it up successfully behind the screen.  The problem arose again of how to keep the vacuum up there with me.  With some clever thought on my part (not to pat myself on the back or anything...wink, wink),  I removed the support strap from the bulky black 3M box and strung it through our machine's handle.  Carrying it up the full height of the ladder, I was able to secure it to the top with the strap, as well as, some of the elastic ties from before.  Gwen handed me the wand and hose, which we had disconnected beforehand, and upon reattachment I was finally good to go!  With the wand fully extended, and standing on the top step of the 10 foot ladder, I was just able to reach the top of the screen and finally vacuum the screen with confident speed, all while Gwen and I are laughing at how ridiculous things get, and the improvisation needed when working on-site away from all your usual tools.

vacuuming large textiles, art conservation, Edison, projection screen
Me at the top of a 10-foot ladder after finally securing the vacuum to the very top.
Thank God I'm not afraid of heights!

Here I am when all is said and done, finally vacuuming after all that hassle, and still with a smile on my face, because after all my effort I was victorious and could proceed with relative ease.  The lesson of the story is of course: where there's a will there's a way.  And my own personal inspiring quote: "Be the hero with a smile on your face because life is too short to sweat the small stuff, or in this case the big and tall stuff!"

written by Nicolette Cook, Assistant Conservator, Spicer Art Conservation, LLC
Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My Visit to Thurber's Home

by Gwen Spicer

Earlier this fall I was visiting Columbus, Ohio, when I visited the Thurber Home. For those who do not know James Thurber is was a contributing humorist for the New Yorker in the 1920s and 1930s. He is famous for his short stories, such as the incomparable "The night the bed fell". "The secret life of Walter Mitty" has been a staple of anthologies for decades. His dog cartoons and illustrated poems that first appeared in the New Yorker are justly famous. Much of his work is readily available in the The Thurber Carnival, also adapted for Broadway.

Thurber homeThurber cartoon

The house is interpreted to the few years that Thurber and his family lived in the house, 1913-1917,  the years that Thurber attended Ohio State University. His family lived in many houses in Columbus, none of which survive. This house at 77 Jefferson Street opened as a museum in 1984.

Two floors can be visited. It is a self-guided tour of the two floors. The visitor is given a brochure upon arrival; each room  has a storyboard. Cartoons and quotes form My Life and Hard Times, are used throughout the house and interspersed with the self-guided tour.

The first floor is furnished as it might have been during the years that the Thurbers lived there. In the second floor, two of the bedrooms are devoted to exhibition spaces. The other rooms on the second floor are offices, but no one seems to mind the presence of visitors. The third floor has been turned into a residence for a visiting writer.
The front bedroom where the parents slept. (TH)
The wallpaper was researched and was reproduced based on recollections of Thurber's younger brother, who was still alive when the house was purchased. He recalled which layer of paper was present when they lived there. As a rental property, many layers of paper were  found, none having been removed over the years.

Due to his eye injury, Thurber was unable to complete a compulsory ROTC course, so OSU would not let him graduate. Later they did give him an honorary degree.
Magnifiers that Thurber used.
His typewriter, one of the few artifacts that was owned by Thurber
One of the intriguing aspects of the museum is that it is not just an historic house where a great and important figure lived. The house has been turned into a living embodiment of writing, humor and education. One can walk into the home and imagine an earlier time, but that also workshops and writing events are also happening on-site and in schools.
The living room in use. (Courtesy of TH)
There are no "do not touch" signs here; rather visitors and program groups are asked to interact with the space. In fact their mission is Thurber House: Where laughter, learning and literature meet. Does that not just make you want to be a part?

Learn more at www.thurberhouse.org. Their blog is http://thurberhouse.wordpress.com
Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Conserving works on paper of the Native American traditions painted by Ernest Smith

by Gwen Spicer

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and for me, I cannot help but think of corn.  While corn may not have been what you would have thought of, let me explain why it's on my mind.  Corn is everywhere.  Corn is a symbol of the autumnal season.  "Indian corn" with it's beautiful brilliant colors are seen in decorations and corn stalks are tied together and grace lampposts everywhere.  The corn that grows at some of the farms near our studio is used to feed livestock and some cobs are harvested to be used as a fuel source.  And let us not forget corn kernnels, whether creamed or simply buttered, will undoubtedly appear on your Thanksgiving table, I know they will be on mine.

Paper conservation, Native American art repair and restoration, exhibit preparation
"Woman Preparing Corn" by Ernest Smith
Besides preparing for a big dinner with family, much of my time these days is spent working on items which will be included in an exhibit, "On the Trails of the Iroquois," which will take place in Germany next year.  Having the opportunity to treat such a wide array of Native American ethnology has been a tremendous experience.  I have also read a tremendous amount about the various collections, most notably those at the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC) and the New York State Museum.  Collections of Iroquois ethnology exist due to a huge effort that went into capturing the true essence of daily life in the various tribes through actual objects, garments, illustrations and daguerroetypes by people such as Lewis Henry Morgan, and later by William Stiles.

Another important figure in the preservation of authentic Haudenosaunee (term used by the Iroquois to refer to themselves) was Arthur C. Parker, great-nephew of Caroline and Ely Parker (see blog post for 10/19/12) and director of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences from 1924-1945.  In 1934, Arthur Parker initiated a program, The Works Progress Administration (WPA), to essentially rescue the native arts and crafts of the New York Indians before they were lost.

Ernest Smith, art conservation of paper
Washing corn after leaching by Ernest Smith
Parker sees that the world perceives American Indian art as nothing more than a souvenir industry dictated by Victorian tastes, which has caused it to be devoid of ethnological value.  He feared the extinction of traditional artistic methods and wanted to save as much as could be preserved.  However, Parker's vision was not just for preservation,  he also thought that a resurgence of true Indian art, and the instruction of these traditional styles to the next generation, would produce new art that may also offer a method of self-support to a financially struggling population.

Through the WPA, artists were provided with all the tools and materials they would need to create art.  This included access to photographs, illustrations, patterns, and tribal elders to provide oral history and folklore.  Most notably used are some of the original illustrations from Morgan.  In fact, if you look at the leggings and underskirt in the painting above, you will see that the woman pictured is "wearing" some of Caroline Parker's clothes.  Arthur Parker is clear however, that there is never any direction of what to create.  Instead, once the artists had been trained, they were encouraged to spontaneously produce their own original art.

Ernest Smith (1907-75), a Tonawanda Seneca, is one of these artists.  In the six years he spends with Arthur Parker and the WPA project, Smith produces 240 watercolor and oil paintings, each one capturing a moment of daily life or illustrating Native American mythology.  Smith's work is wonderful, and clearly some is more simplistic with the image centrally located in the painting, and the background is simply left in the color of the original board.  Other paintings (his "Sky Woman", for example) are the opposite: the paint covers every inch, the images have depth, light, shadow, and movement.  Smith's paintings are filled with symbolism and knowing what the symbols represent makes his work even that much more beautiful and complex.  It is in this way that Smith is truly able to "speak" through his paintings...if you know how to listen to his language.  Visit this link to RMSC: http://www3.rmsc.org/museum/exhibits/online/lhm/IAPpaintings.htm, here you will find beautiful photographs of their collection of Ernest Smith's paintings, plus an in-depth description of the story being told in each painting.

Ernest Smith art conservation, exhibit preparation
The Three Sisters and the Jo'ka:o turning the squash to ripen
Reverse side of the board that Ernest Smith used.

Ernest Smith, despite his incredible collection of work, remains virtually unknown.  His work survives at both RMSC and the NYS Museum as well as a small collection at the Iroquois Museum and the Smithsonian.
The WPA ended in 1942 when funding dried up and a fire destroyed the building used by the artists.  For all his efforts, Parker's vision was only partially fulfilled.  Art was produced and traditions were recorded.  But the artisans never quite experienced an appreciation for their own unique style and therefore never were successful in selling "real" native art.  The outside world had too strong of an influence and sadly the demand for Indian art reinterpreted into "souvenir style" was what sold, and so that is what artists produced if they wanted to sell their work and therefore survive.

If you would like to read more about the trade industry of the American Indian at this time and how it was effected by not only cultural influence, you must read, "Trading Identities - the Souvenir in Native American Art from the Northeast 1700-1900" by Ruth B. Phillips.  Also interesting is James Gifford's "The Predicament of Culture".  Both of these authors discuss the influence of culture on art and present the inevitable outcome when cultures clash.  It begs the question: is there really "pure" cultural art, or is art evolutionary as cultures develop?

While I ponder that question, I will be treating and cleaning the ethnology of the Haudenosaunee, thinking about Ernest Smith and how I wish he had painted on better archival quality board, and making corn bread for tomorrow's feast.  Ernest Smith's images of early Native American life is humbling and leaves me with an appreciation of how challenging life was for the subjects in his paintings.  It makes me especially thankful for family and traditions, no matter how they have changed.  

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The conservation of Edison's Tin Foil - the lost recording now found.

How does an art conservator, conserve sound?  Sound is made of waves that penetrate the air, that move and bounce, not something that one holds in their hands or sits on your work bench.  Sound is motion that creates vibrations in our ears, not an inanimate object that one observes, cleans, or consolidates:  all of the typical activities that an art conservator performs.

Conservation of Edison tinfoil, before treatment, object
The Edison tinfoil before conservation.

This was the dilemma that was confronted by Art Conservator, Gwen Spicer, earlier this year, when Chris Hunter, Curator and Director of Collections at miSci, (formerly the Schenectady Museum) brought the earliest known full sheet of Thomas Edison's tin-foil to the conservation lab.

Typically when treating an artifact, a conservator can visually observe the changes that are occurring as the treatment progresses, and how these changes are effecting the end product.  All types of tools are used in order to enhance this ability, the use of specific light, magnifiers and microscopes.  But when the end product is the auditory aspect of the artifact, these modern tools are ineffective.

Edison's phonograph serves as the marker for modern sound recording.  It is the beginning of the technology to preserve sound.  Ironically, Gwen Spicer with every tool and technological advance known to conservators, must use the most rudimentary of tools to painstakingly flatten the tinfoil by hand.

It is not what the foil actually looks like that will determine if the sound can be retrieved.  The technology that is used to retrieve the sound will not rely on the surface being absolutely perfect, which is of benefit since the "found" condition of the tin-foil, and the way it was stored, make it impossible to completely flatten.  The tin foil itself is like an archive, with its importance lying in the information that it holds, as opposed to the actual "beauty" of the sheet its self.

When treating this tin-foil, there was a two part aspect to the project.  There was the flattening of the sheet and removing or lessening the folds and creases, which allowed the new technology to better be able to read the surface of the sheet.  The second part was the creation of the sound that was in the bumps and dips of the surface that creates the sound.  As a conservator, you must consider, how much do you touch or hold the sheet so as not to disturb its ability to create the sound?  But of course, that answer is unknown.  In fact, during the treatment there was no real method to know how the treatment was effecting the final outcome.

A next set of experts at California's Berkeley Lab,who would enable the world to finally know what was hidden in this sheet of tin-foil, would ultimately determine if the treatment was effective.  It would only be evident, once they began their attempts to "uncover" the sound.

Tonight, at the GE Theater at Proctor's in Schenectady at 6:30pm, the world will hear the full contents of this Edison tin-foil.  Right now, we know it is a bit longer than one minute, there is some music and a male voice reading "Mary Had a Little Lamb", but the rest is unknown until later this evening.

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of objects and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Conserving a textile lantern from The Wide-Awakes

by Gwen Spicer

In this political season, why not think about an earlier campaign?  Imagine you are watching a nighttime parade, full of young men, wearing black oil cloth capes and hats, and carrying lanterns.  It would be the year 1860, just before the election of Lincoln and Hamlin.  You would be watching the Wide-Awake supporters, a group who wanted to ensure that slavery did not spread to the Western Territories, a sentiment felt by all Republicans of the day. The Wide-Awakes were a political group that began in Hartford, Connecticut and quickly spread over the north, spreading as far west as St. Louis, Missouri. 
1860 photograph of the founding Wide Awake club in Hartford,
Connecticut, shows the paramilitary theme of the organization.
The large Wide Awake parade in lower Manhattan was part of a
series of demonstrations in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland,
and Boston during the first week of October 1860.
Wide Awakes sign, civil war era artifacts, Columbia County Historical Society

A large eye emblazoned on their standard attested to their watchfulness over the nation. The group had mottoes like "free soil and free men".  Reports say that these large parades had many oil light torches, but now there are only a few left in existance.
The Columbia County Historical Society is lucky to have one of these.  It is now in their exhibition, Civil War Panorama: Columbia County 1860-1865, open till December 2012.
Smithsonian Institution

Wide Awakes sign, civil war artifacts, Lincoln presidential campaign, restoration, conservation.The torch banner was quite soiled, but was quite complete for being such an awkwardly shaped artifact.  It was constructed of a wooden box frame that was covered with printed cotton fabric stretched on two sides, the front and back. The sides had been covered with fabric as well, but are now mostly lost.  The top had been kept open.  The box is attached to a tall pole.  Forge iron brackets helped to support the two together.
An example of a lamp
CCHS's torch banner does not have the open eye symbol, but it is printed with Chatham, a mid-size town in the county as well as the phrases "Free soil and free men," with added "Free speech and free homes." In some ways, this torch banner is quite explicit with the issues of the group.  Spattered lighter-colored spots were evident from the oil.

The curator and newly appointed Director, Diane Shewchuk, wanted the artifact preserved, yet, still able to maintain its transparency of light.  Additionally, the cotton fabric needed extra support from its many years of being exposed, yet, often, backings or other supports are opaque.

The inside base of the torch, showing
where the oil lamp was secured.
Art conservation, wide awakes, Lincoln presidential campaign, civil war era artifacts, repair and restoration
Positioning and securing the replacement fabric on the sides.
When the torch banner arrived at SAC's studio, it was cleaned throughly. The original cotton fabric layers were reinforced with a sheer fabric that was stretched onto wooden frames that were custom fit inside the wooden armature.  The new fabric was to provide the original cotton with added support and lessen potential bowing.

Once the treatment was complete, we attempted to figure out what the missing sides of the transparency looked like. We had two clues.  One was the remains of a letter that was still attached to the side.  The other was a loose fragment.  In the image below, a possible location was the "N" in the second line down "FREE MEN !" that was located on the reverse side.  By tracing full letters, it was possible to speculate that the sides were also another version of the printed fabric that was on the back side.  Since  all of the cotton was printed, it shows that a number of these transparancies might have been produced.

Art conservation, Lincoln campaign sign, wide-awakes, civil war era artifactsWhile positioning the tracing next to the two sizes of "F", the fragment is closest to the "F" of "FREE MEN!" The width of this phrase matches the width of the missing side.  The mystery had been solved.  But figuring out what the missing sides said would not alter the final exhibit of the piece.  The missing sides were covered with a fill fabric (above left image) to blend with the front and back.  For more info on the Wide-Awakes, the Columbia County Historic Society please visit the links below.

The Torch banner on display with a reproduction oil cloth cape.
Visit the museum's website: www.cchsny.org

Also read Luykas ground hog's impressions: http://luykasgroundhog.tumblr.com


Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The conservation of textiles belonging to Caroline Parker, the Seneca woman known for her clothing.

by Gwen Spicer

Caroline Parker, was a Tonawanda Seneca and older sister to Levi Parker. They were both friends with Lewis Henry Morgan, a pioneering ethnographer and lawyer from Rochester, New York.  It was Morgan who, with the assistance of the Parker family, amassed collections in the mid-nineteenth century of Iroquois artifacts that are now housed at the New York State Museum in Albany, New York; National Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark; and the Rochester Museum & Science Center in Rochester, New York.

Native American beadwork, textiles, historic clothing, Caroline Parker, Spicer Art conservation
Caroline Parker, ca. 1840. Daguerreotype
Art conservation, textiles, Native American historic clothing, Iroquois, Caroline Parker
Caroline Parker wearing articles of traditional
Seneca clothing that were sent by Morgan
to the NYSM in 1851. Colored lithograph

Caroline Parker is unusual in the fact that up to recently, she was only known for the clothes that she was pictured wearing and that she had possibly been the creator of these clothes.  Morgan's two published reports on the collections made for the New York State Regents and his subsequent League of the Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee or Iroquois included colored lithographs of Caroline and her brother, Levi, dressed in clothing, and of the individual articles of dress, now in the collections of the New York State Museum.  The full standing figure image is often used in publications or illustrations in exhibitions of a "typical Iroquois woman".  It is fascinating how the clothing has personified not only her, but all Iroquois.  Her image, as well as that of her brother, have become the ideal or stereotype of the well dressed Iroquois.

In 1849, Morgan acquired complete Seneca woman's and man's ceremonial costumes of the day, including this skirt (see above image).  In the daguerreotype, Caroline Parker is shown wearing the woman's costume, consisting of beaded moccasins, leggings, skirt, overdress, blanket, and handbag.  Most, if not all, of which she herself had made.

A note on the images, first between the daguerreotype and the lithograph, the artist did make a few changes.  But also when daguerreotypes are created, the image that they produce is a mirror image of the subject.  The most notable element is the beaded flower on the skirt.  The lithograph, as well as the photograph (both are featured in the images below) of the skirt show it as the object actually exists. 

The images below are the plates from Lewis Henry Morgan's Third Regents Report, Chapter 8.  The clothing articles are the items that Caroline Parker is wearing in the above images. 
Pl. 6  Over-dress, front
Pl. 6a  Over-dress, back

Pl. 5  Skirt

Pl. 4  Female leggings

Pl. 2  Moccason, for female (spelling in the report)

Pl. 11  Work bag
What wonderful luck to have these images of the individual artifacts, and how the assemblage would have been worn. A true treasure. This is especially the case as the the vast majority of the artifacts were destroyed by the devastating 1911 fire of the New York State Capital, where all of the collections were on exhibition.  Below are the clothing articles that survived, which consists of only the overdress and skirt.  Thanks to an IMLS grant in 1998, these and other fragile textiles from the collection were stabilized and rehoused for study.

Iroquois clothing, traditional Native American textiles, art conservation, Spicer Art
Red overdress, NYSM
Beaded Native American textiles, Caroline Parker, Art conservation, Iroquois
Beaded skirt, NYSM
The surviving overdress and skirt are considered to have been made by Caroline herself.  Her mother, Elizabeth Parker was also known as a needlewoman, so it might be that she also had a part in their construction.  However, the RMSC has two beaded textiles, an overdress and table cover, that are attributed solely to Caroline.

Even in the mid-nineteenth century, Iroquois had made adaptions and were influenced by their surroundings. One case in point is the style and cut of the overdress. It has many similarities to the cut of garments worn by the larger New York community during the 1840s. The exception being the beadwork, in particular, which distinguishes it as Native American. (A non-Indian woman, for instance, would have worn lace-trimmed pantalettes instead of bead-trimmed leggings.) 

Now, thanks to Deborah Holler, a historian, Caroline Parker's biography has come to light. We now know the important roll that she played with her family, clan, and larger community.  It was a time of change and turmoil for the Tonawanda Seneca.  Land was sold, new means and ways of living where needed to be found.  With her knowledge of English, promoted by Morgan himself, she acted as translator for her community during the later half of the nineteenth century.  Her education, as a female at the time, was extraordinary.  She attended Baptist Missionary School at Pembroke, later the Cayuga Academy in Auburn, and lastly the State Normal School in Albany, New York.

The New York State Museum has on their website all of their collections: http://collections.nysm.nysed.gov/morgan/. To read more about the skirt www.nysm.nysed.gov/womenshistory/skirt.html.

Rochester Museum & Science Center also has some of their collection online at: http://www3.rmsc.org/museum/exhibits/online/lhm/LHMmain.htm

Many thanks to George Hammell and his assistance with this post.
Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Famous flags, famous folks.

by Barbara Owens

You cannot escape it.  When we discuss objects and artifacts in collections we must talk provenance.  If the object does not hold a "pedigree", it casts doubt as to whether that object is genuine.  Hence, objects with good provenance are so valuable, not just monetarily, but in historic significance.  Some artifacts are simply so old, that even if the story attached to them cannot be verified, the age of the piece places it close enough to a significant person or moment in time that the piece therefore gains importance.

Tecumseh flag, Spicer, art conservation, historic textiles, repair and restoration, mounting and display
Tecumseh Flag, NMAI.
SAC recently treated a fantastic piece of history, the Tecumseh Flag.  It belongs to the Museum of the American Indian and was recently mounted for the centennial anniversary of the War of 1812.  The term "Tecumseh Flag" can be misleading as there is no ONE flag.  Instead, there are several attributed to be affiliated with the Shawnee leader at various museums and historical societies, as well as private collections, around the world.  So why so many?  And which one (or which ones, in this case) is real?  Tecumseh, like Washington, or Custer, or any other famous person in history has many items "attached" to him.  So, separating fact from fiction becomes difficult, if not impossible.

This particular flag has nice provenance and it is in remarkable shape. It is made of wool bunting and hand-stitched with linen thread. Along the hoist are three hand-stitched grommets.

Tecumseh (1768 - October 1813) a  Shawnee leader.
The design of this flag is a British blue ensign flag (yes, the British used red and white as well, but we'll get to that later), which was used throughout the British Commonwealth beginning in 1801 when the St. George Cross, the St. Andrew Cross and the St. Patrick Cross were intertwined.  Therefore, this flag was clearly used in the War of 1812 as a British Navy flag.  But remember, Tecumseh spends his time mainly in the  Michigan Territory, so what is a navy flag doing in the center of the continent? And more importantly, why would such a flag be given to Tecumseh?

The answer is multi-layered.  First, is that it is the custom of the British to present flags, medals or uniforms to Indian chiefs as an understanding of their relationship and the expectation that the Indians will fight for the British.  Many of these flags were referred to as "treaty flags", but there is often an absence of a formal treaty, so perhaps they are best described as "gift flags"?  Tecumseh was aligned with the British through Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, in hopes of creating or maintaining an independent Indian state in the Midwest.  Tecumseh came to the aid of the British in the capture of Fort Detroit.  But, during the Battle of the Thames in 1813, he was killed.  After his death, his confederation fell apart and the British deserted their Indian allies at the peace conference that ended the War of 1812.  Later, American settlers took possession of all the territory south of the Great Lakes.

Northern Indiana

With that bit of history, let us look back to the large number of flags that are associated with Tecumseh and their similarities and differences.  A British red ensign flag is at the Windsor Museum in Canada, also called the Tecumseh Flag.  This flag is said to have covered the body of Tecumseh following his death at the Battle of Thames and has an oral history associated with it.  So while the colors are correct for the time period, the story that accompanies it, can never be confirmed.  The red background is somewhat a mystery in that a red ensign was designated as a merchant ensign, whereas the blue was a Naval Reserve ensign.

Tecumseh Flag, Windsor's Community Museum, ca 1960s.
Windsor Community Museum's Tecumseh Flag. (June 2012)

The construction and the size of both the NMAI's and Windsor's flags are similar.  But one is blue and the other is red.  Two other similar flags are found at the Kentucky and Minnesota Historical Societies, respectively.  The color differences and their relationship to Tecumseh is a mystery.  Are they simply legends perpetuating more intrigue?  Or in fact, part of symbolic alliances between parties?  Tecumseh's death at the Battle of the Thames marked the end of his resistance movement and the start of a period of myth-making that would craft an imagined hero out of this extraordinary man.

Records indicate that the "flag was carried by Native Americans
 who fought with Tecumseh during the War of 1812"
(Kentucky Historical Society)

Ojibwa Chief Mike Flatte in a ca. 1930 photograph
 wearing British treaty medals and holding the flag.
(Minnesota Historical Society)

Maybe we are thinking of this in too narrow terms.  Perhaps the color is not what is important, perhaps the symbolism of giving a flag is what mattered and the kind of flag, or where it came from was not considered.  Additionally, how many flags were available to give?  Maybe you gave whatever you had on hand?

The major European powers in North America are known to have executed various treaties with the Native American Indians, namely Great Britain, France, Spain, Russia and later their respective successors in interest Canada, United States and Mexico. The execution of these treaties was often accompanied with the exchange of gifts. The Indians often gave pelts, tanned skins, intricate beadwork and other crafts while their European counterparts often presented chiefs with medals, uniforms and flags.

The United States and Canada are all known to have continued the practice well into the 19th century. In the case of Great Britain, the flag most often gifted to the Indians were red or blue ensigns. Clearly flags were not just given to Tecumseh but to other Chiefs as well who the government wanted to have favor with.

To read more about Tecumseh and some of the other artifacts associated with him go to: http: //tecumseh.omeka.net/exhibits/show/traces-of--shooting-star---the/introduction and http://blog.nmai.si.edu/main/2012/11/a-flag-of-the-fathers.html

Special thanks to Vexologists, James Ferrigan, David Martucci and David Phillips for sharing their wealth of knowledge about all things flag related.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Wet Umbrellas!

by Gwen Spicer

I remember the first time I saw a method of containing a wet umbrella.  It was in 2007 and I was in Taiwan, entering a metro station near the National University in the capital.  There at the top of the escalators was a dispenser of plastic bags, made to easily slip over an umbrella.  Later, I was entering a ceramics museum and an even more elaborate vehicle for umbrella containment was there.  In this version, you plunged your umbrella into the contraption, and it instantly enveloped your umbrella in a tight-fitted plastic (or shall we say "rubber") sleeve.  This was great, no wet drips on the floor as you walk to the coat room.  I thought, "Wow, here is a very organized country in a tropical climate".  True in the United States we don't quite have that sort of climate and perhaps not nearly that level of rain.  However, this simply means we are at an umbrella wrapping disadvantage.

Why do you ask is it so important to wrap your umbrella?  Let me tell you...
 Taipei County Yingge Ceramics Museum (2007)

I have since seen many other solutions in other countries and in the United States.

Ibere Camargo Museum, Porto Alegra, Brazil (Spring 2008)

Umbrella bags at the NMAI's Suitland facility. (Summer 2012)

Outside a historic house