Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Monday, October 19, 2009
Trying to define the beginning of the Civil War is a bit tricky. The first shots were fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, but the causes and lead-up to the war can be seen to stretch back decades or more. One key moment, however, in the run-up to the conflict was certainly John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, whose 150th anniversary was this past weekend. John Brown entered Harper's Ferry and captured the armory on October 16, 1859; militia fought back and forced Brown into the engine house on October 17, and then U.S. Marines (who had arrived on the 17th) under the command of Col. Lee and Lt. Israel Greene captured Brown and his men on October 18, 1859.
John Brown was then taken to Charles Town and tried for treason against the commonwealth of Virginia. He was convicted and was executed on Dec. 2. Among the Rosenbach's John Brown collections are a number of drawings made during the trial by newspaper correspondents for Frank Leslies Illustrated Weekly. We also have several letters of Brown's, including one written while he was in jail in Charles Town, and the following Proclamation, which warns potential spectators to stay away from the execution.
The Proclamation's strong stance against a crowd gathering for the execution was, in fact, carried out. Governor Henry Wise ordered 1500 troops to Charlestown to prevent any escape attempts and to prevent civilians from attending the execution. However, Stonewall Jackson, who was present at the hanging with the VMI cadets wrote a detailed account of the proceedings.
For upcoming John Brown goings-on here in Philadelphia, check out the Philadelphia Civil War Consortium's John Brown events listing.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
When, where and how was this interesting photo taken?
Clue #1: This “photo-multigraph” shows five Dr. Rosenbachs seated around a table. Photo multigraphs are an example of a type of trick photography that was popular at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. These trick photographs were made by photographing the sitter from the back while seated at a table. Using two mirrors placed at a 75 degree angle to each other creates a quintuple reflection of the sitter from the point of view of the photographer, an illusion that makes it look like five of the same person are sitting down together. This type of photograph is quite rare, and photo collectors have done some serious digging to try to find out more about the intriguing subjects and set-ups pictured in photos like these.
Clue #2: Though these photo-multigraphs could have been made in many cities around the world and examples from
Clue #3: Since this picture postcard was never mailed, we have yet another clue to when it might have been taken. The stamp box in the upper right hand corner of these postcards could have been decorated with a few different types of imprints with different designs surrounding where the stamp would be placed and these designs may have changed over time. Some of the known examples of photo-multigraph postcards were indeed mailed, and these have a postmark giving us a date that we can assume is close to when they were taken! Unfortunately, the stamp covers up the stamp box, so we can’t compare these known dates to our mysterious postcard of Dr. Rosenbach. If we can find an example of a similar postcard with a known date, we could narrow down our range even more, but perhaps we’ll have to leave a little bit of mystery remaining for future investigators to explore.
For more on photo-multigraphs see:
(2) Dr. Irwin Reichstein’s talk for the Photographic Historical Society of Canada on the history of the multigraph:
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Thursday, October 08, 2009
Loaning items to other institutions is an important part of the Rosenbach's mission to engage broad audiences with our collections. But it's not a simple process--unlike when I moved my ratty Ikea furniture to my new house five years ago, you can't just wrap a Sendak drawing or a four hundred year old miniature in an old towel and throw it into a U-Haul. Instead it involves great care and a number of people.
We start by assessing whether the item in question is stable enough to travel and exhibit at all, a question which often involves consulting with conservators to treat and prepare the item. Then the item must be packed--this is where handy to have someone as skillful as our registrar Karen Schoenewaldt, who can work wonders with matboard, ethefoam, and bubble wrap. If you've every tried to pack something fragile and valuable like wedding china or crystal glassware, you can appreciate the challenge. Karen's packing skills are phenomenal and she even draws pretty little diagrams of how all the packing materials pieces fit together, so that the item can be repacked neatly for the return trip.
No Rosenbach object ever travels alone. Whenever we send something to another museum, one or more of our staff members travels with it to make sure it reaches its destination safely and is installed correctly in its home away from home. If an item is large enough to require a truck we work with specialized art shipping companies that provide climate controlled, secure trucks with two drivers--AND we send a staff member to ride along. From personal experience I have to say that the cargo travels better than the people in those trucks--it can be a pretty bumpy ride for those of us up in the cab.
Once it arrives at its temporary home, we check the item's condition to make sure that nothing has been damaged in transit and then we supervise the installation of the object, to ensure that it is secure and that appropriate environmental conditions are met--not too bright, not too dry, etc.
And of course this is only one way. We have to repeat many of these steps to retrieve an object at the end of a loan. And I haven't even begun to talk about the paperwork that accompanies each step of the process, which is all handled by our amazing registrar. And of course many exhibits involve loans from multiple museums, so you can imagine the planning and legwork that the borrowing institution must go through to coordinate everything and everyone!
So the next time you go to an exhibit that involves loans (they're usually noted on the exhibit labels), you can be glad that both the borrowing institution and the lending institution worked so hard to bring their objects together to tell a compelling story.
Thursday, October 01, 2009
Anyway, while playing around on the internet I ran across this article, comparing Hofmann and the forger Han van Meegeren, a Dutch painter who notoriously faked Vermeers during World War II. Since I recently read The Forger's Spell by Edward Dolnick, which deals specifically with Van Meegeren, I was intrigued by the comparison.
What I thought was really noteworthy about both forgers was the way in which they handled/manipulated experts. Both were accomplished forgers technically (although van Meegeren grew increasingly--and almost unbelievably-- sloppy as time went on), but their true genius was in getting experts in their fields to buy into their forgeries, to the extent that the experts had their egos and reputations bound up in the authenticity of the forged documents and therefore became the forgeries' greatest proponents.
Hofmann and van Meegeren were very good at giving the experts exactly the kinds of artifacts that they wanted to see--the kinds of artifacts that they felt "should" exist, but had never been discovered. Then of course when these items miraculously surfaced, the experts bought right into them, since they confirmed their views. Psychological research indicates that we are very prone to do this--that we tend to accept facts which support our pre-existing view of the world and to discount those that don't , to the extent that when we are confronted with irrefutable evidence that we are wrong we often embrace our positions more strongly. This seems the key to the forgers' success.
So what's the take-away from all of this? Thinking about these two forgers reminds me that we need to have a healthy recognition that all experts are human and that they are subject to human flaws, even when they are acting in good conscience. I think we also need to keep this in mind for ourselves and recognize that we engage in this process of psychological self-protection and that we need to consciously counteract this in order for our opinions and evaluations to have any hope of objectivity. And of course everyone would do well to keep in mind the old adage, "if it seems too good to be true, it probably is."