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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What We're Up To

Sorry to be a bit behind on blogging this week, but I thought I'd give you a glimpse of what I and my collections colleagues have been working on. We're preparing to install the new exhibit "Friend or Faux: Imitation and Invention from Innocent to Fraudulent" and so we've been busily patching and painting walls (that's our very own Patrick Rogers demonstrating the use of a roller), changing room configurations, and trying to find storage space for the exhibition furniture that is not being used in the show. We're all dusty and covered with paint splotches, but it looks like things are coming together nicely, which is a good thing, since the show opens two weeks from today.

Monday, October 19, 2009

John Brown's 150th

W. Dewitt, portrait of John Brown. Charles Town W.V., 1859. 1981.7

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 Going to Court. Charles Town W.V., 1859. 1981.6

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.

Proclamation. November 1859. A 859p

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

Guest Post: A Rosenbachiana Mystery

This guest post is brought to you by the Rosenbach fall collections intern Jessica Walthew.

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 Argentina, Canada, Spain, Austria and New York City have been published, figuring out where our photo was taken is very easy. On the verso, the postcard is labeled “Myers-Cope Co., 1521 & 1635 Boardwalk, Atlantic City, NJ.” Though examples are scare today, many of the surviving examples of photo-multigraphs were made to commemorate trips to Atlantic City’s famous boardwalk. Heinz-Werner Lawo, a German photo collector, has many examples of photo multigraphs catalogued on his blog, including 18 from the Myers-Cope Company. Thanks to Herr Lawo’s blog we can look at some similar examples from the same studio in order to figure out when our photo of Dr. Rosenbach was taken. Of the photos posted to the multigraphs blog, we can see that our postcard looks most similar to the ones from 1910-1920, but are there any other clues that might help us?

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:

(1) Heinz-Werner Lawo’s blog:

(2) Dr. Irwin Reichstein’s talk for the Photographic Historical Society of Canada on the history of the multigraph:

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sendak on Screen

OK, with the Where the Wild Things movie coming out on Friday, it's about time for a blog post on Sendak's ventures into film. For those of you counting down the days until the release, you might enjoy this Newsweek article about the film, this MTV page in which the actors talk about their memories of the book, or the AP review of the film.

Having not yet seen the film myself, I'll have to hold off on any further commentary on Jonze's efforts. But WWTA does not represent the first attempt to translate Sendak's work into moving pictures and I thought I might digress and talk a bit about some of his previous on-screen projects.

My earliest Sendak memory actually involves his 1975 TV special Really Rosie. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this project, it was a animated special for which Sendak collaborated with Carole King. It incorporated characters from Sendak's Nutshell library (Pierre, Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup with Rice, One was Johnny) along with Rosie, who came from such books as The Sign on Rosie's Door. Anyway, I was not alive in 1975 to see Really Rosie on TV, but when I was in kindergarden in 1984 my teacher used to play music during naptime/quiet time in order to keep us from talking. She usually played classical music, but occasionally she would play the soundtrack to Really Rosie, which would make my day since I thought it was MUCH more interesting than Mozart or Ravel or whatever.

As a special, Really Rosie was a one-shot deal. But there have been two actual TV series based on Sendak's books--Little Bear, which ran from 1995 to 2000, and Seven Little Monsters, which ran from 2000 to 20003. Interestingly, Seven Little Monsters is based on a book which itself is based on an unaired segment that Sendak created with Jim Henson for Sesame Street. Because of his clout as a children's book author, Sendak was involved in some of the earliest discussion seminars that led to creation of Sesame Street--there are some amusing stories about this in the Sesame Street history Street Gang, which I picked up at the library a few months back.

In addition to Sendak's characters, Sendak himself has made some on-screen appearances over the years (including in our own Sendak-umentary DVD that you can buy at the museum shop). One of the most surprising Sendak appearances is probably Last Dance, which is a documentary about a collaboration Sendak did with the Pilobolus Dance Company on a Holocaust-based dance piece. During the 1980s Sendak was extremely involved with opera, theater, and dance projects, which may come as a surprise to folks who only know him through his books. Another unusual appearance was a cameo as a rabbi in his friend Tony Kushner's HBO series Angels in America (Kushner and Meryl Streep also played rabbis in the same scene).

That's about it for my discursive musings on Sendak movies. I'd be interested to know if any of you have memories of his previous TV/film projects, or thoughts about the new movie--feel free to add your comments below.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Rosenbach on the Road

I'm a bit behind on blogging this week, since I just got back from New Haven, where we are lending our miniature of James I to the Yale Center for British Art for an exhibit on the collector and commentator Horace Walpole. The exhibit runs from October 15-January 3 and it won't even cost you a dime to see it since the Center for British Art is free to the public, so if you live nearby you should definitely check it out.

In addition to old Jimmy there are a number of other pieces from the Rosenbach collection making the rounds at the moment. Our Sendak on Sendak exhibit is currently out on the left coast at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and we've also lent to a Wild Things exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York.

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

Forgers and Experts

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about our upcoming exhibition "Friend or Faux" which deals with the nature of authenticity. Recently in doing research for the exhibition I had occasion to delve into the story of the forger Mark Hofmann. For those of you who are not familiar with his case, Hofmann was a forger of Americana and Mormon documents who ultimately ended up murdering two people with pipe bombs in 1985 in an attempt to buy time to deal with his spiraling financial problems. Obessive fans of procedural crime dramas might recognize that an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent ("The Saint") was loosely based on his story, which also spawned at least half a dozen books. If you are wondering what the connection is to the Rosenbach, it comes through our (genuine) Bay Psalm Book, which provided forensic evidence in the case. To find out all the details, you'll have to come to Friend or Faux.

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."