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Friday, September 30, 2011

This is an Ex-Parrot

Okay, I'll admit it. Two of my favorite pieces in the new Creature Comforts exhibition are not the beautifully illustrated Buffon natural history encyclopedia or Jefferson's seminal Notes on the State of Virginia, but a pair of letters about the Rosenbachs' pet parrots.

The Rosenbachs had many parrots (and other birds) over their careers; if you've taken the house tour you've probably heard about how they kept birds in the bay window of the dining room. Their most famous feathered friend was undoubtedly Josephine the gray parrot, who lived in the reception room of the New York store. In Book Hunter's Holiday Dr. Rosenbach describes Josephine as a weather oracle, claiming that when she beat her feathers against her cage and rasped "Get out you," that was a sign of rain, while her whistling chromatic scales meant sunshine. Josephine was also remarked upon in many published accounts of visitors to the store; one noted that her repertoire of sounds included an excellent Bronx cheer.

The two letters in the exhibition don't deal with Josephine, but with her compatriots. Dated nearly 40 years apart, the letters testify to the Rosenbachs long-standing love of birds

In the first, a pet shop informs the Rosenbachs that "the parrot left for treatment the other day died last evening notwithstanding we used all effort available to restore it to good condition, but it failed to respond to treatment." The store then asks for instructions as to what to do with the "carcass" and the cage, as well as 60 cents for its efforts.

Rosenbach Company Archives. RoCo I:046:40

The second letter deals with some problems Philip had getting companion for his birds. He wants a "mate for Rosella," but he also wants "a female companion for the dwarf Mexican parrot." Apparently sexing dwarf Mexican parrots is a bit tricky, since Philip writes "if you say it is impossible to tell them apart, I don't see what could be done in the matter, as we thought the other bird was a female and it turned out to be a male and the dwarf Mexican killed it. So maybe we'd better leave him alone."

Rosenbach Company Archives. RoCo I:122:01

Dead parrots, confused sexual identity...sounds like a Monty Python sketch to me!

Friday, September 16, 2011

School Partnerships at the Rosenbach

Elyse Poinsett here, the official stand for the Special Events and Marketing hats at the Rosenbach. Most of you probably know me best as the voice behind our e-newsletter, facebook page, and Twitter feed.


If you’ve been anywhere the past few weeks, I’m sure you’ve run into the Back-to-School shopping madness. And if you’re like me, you’re having fantasies about what it’d be like to be 10 years old again, with worries that maxed out at whether you wanted a purple or blue trapper keeper.

Interrupting one such daydream, Director of Education Emilie Parker stopped by my office a few days ago to hand me a batch of thank you-notes from students at two of our partner schools. After dreaming about their worry-free lives, I could not resist reading what they had to say about what occupies a large part of my life: the Rosenbach.

Either the world has changed or the Rosenbach is just very special. (I personally think it’s a bit of the former and a lot of the latter.) Because these were not the fill-in-the-blank notes of my classroom days.

From a 1st Grader:

From a 7th Grader:

It’s obvious that we have something special going on in our education department. What is it?

One thing’s for sure: we don’t practice the “let ‘em loose!” method of museum field trips from my childhood. Students here participate in in-depth projects that often span multiple sessions over the course of months. Students have a high-quality, intimate, experience with our collections and staff.

For example, middle school students who came to the Rosenbach this spring learned about Yellow Fever in 18th-century Philadelphia. After reading and examining objects related to the Yellow Fever in our collections, the students wrote diary entries from the perspective of historic people during the epidemic. After learning about distance perspective in art, they also created drawings to go along with their entries.

On their last visit, staff gathered to watch the student’s multi-media presentation that included pre-recording readings of their entries that played alongside a slideshow of their drawings. Then, the same students performed historic dances. What started out as a group of shy or sly tweens quickly turned into a dance performance worthy of some kind of Dance Award.

Reading, writing, and drawing? Dancing? (tweens doing anything enthusiastically?!) Talk about a well-rounded education!

Want another example? Last spring, the first graders from Chester Upland School for the Arts participated in a program designed to help them understand elementary concepts of poetry. I’ll let them tell you what they did in their own words:

"During our poetry exploration, we read a lot of poetry to understand what poetry is from haiku to Shel Silverstein and many poems in between. We also studied a poem by Langston Hughes titled City. While on our field trip, we walked around Philadelphia to experience the city through our senses. We took notes, made sketches, and recorded sensory observations in our poetic journals. We used these ideas to create a city poem like Langston Hughes. We tried to use phrases that were beautiful and “sound like a poem” or POETIC LINES."

Here are a few of my favorite lines from their thank you notes:
  • “Thank you Rosenbach brothers (Abraham and Philip) for having such a cool house turned museum”
  • “Rosenback: …I like the poem… Thank you =) I feelt happy.”
  • “Ms. Emilie, I like when we was in the brother’s home it is cool.”
  • “Dear Ms. Emilie… I love you.”
  • “Ms. Emilie, I wish we can come again!!"
To me, their accolades are POETIC LINES. And yes, whoever asked… you can come back with your mom! I’ve got my fingers crossed that their youthful excitement about poetry, Yellow Fever, and the Rosenbach is a symptom of a new generation who just LOVES arts and culture. In the meantime, congratulations to Emilie and Assistant Director of Education Farrar Fitzgerald for showing them the way!

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Megalonyx--Mega What?

As we work on preparing Creature Comforts: Collecting Natural History at the Rosenbach, which opens on Sept 21 (less than two weeks!), all of us here are excited about a very special visitor from the Academy of Natural Sciences that is coming to be a part of the exhibit--Megalonyx jeffersoni. What you ask, is Megalonyx jeffersoni?

Megalonyx jeffersoni is an extinct giant ground sloth, whose bones were first found in a West Virginia cave and shown to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, who had previously been embroiled in a debate with the French naturalist the Comte de Buffon about the "degeneracy" of American fauna, was always excited to find examples of massive American animals that proved the equality (or superiority) of the New World as compared with the Old. In March of 1797 Jefferson gave a talk at the American Philosophical Society on the sloth, which he named megalonyx or "great claw." Jefferson even hoped that the sloth might still be extant somewhere in the American wilds and he remarked in a letter that he thought it possible that Lewis and Clark's expedition might find some.

You can find out more about Jefferson's sloth at the Academy of Natural Sciences website and of course in our upcoming exhibition, which will feature bones on loan from the Academy alongside our own Buffon encyclopedia.

As a preview, here's a 1799 engraving of the bones which Jefferson saw.

Wistar, Caspar. 1799. "A description of the Bones deposited by the President, in the Museum of the Society, and represented in the annexed plates." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 4, No. 71, pp. 526-531.

Here's a more complete mounted reconstruction at the Ohio State University Museum

And just for kicks, here's Rusty, a model Megalonyx at the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History.

You can see more pictures of Rusty decked out for every season on his very own Facebook page!

Lions and tigers and sloths, oh my!

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Code Breaker

Rose O’Neal Greenhow , Message from Mrs. Greenhow of Washington D.C. 1168/11

This puzzle of a paper is part of a large (a.k.a. hundreds of documents) collection of material at the Rosenbach related to Confederate General P.G. T Beauregard. The note at the top indicates that it's a message from Confederate spy Rose O'Neal Greenhow, which explains why it's in code, but until this summer we never figured out what it actually said.

I was doing some research on Greenhow in preparation for including this document in our Burn This show about secrecy and I found that a decoding key had survived in the collection of the North Carolina State Archives. The key was supposedly found on Greenhow's body when she died in 1864. She was returning from England to America when her ship ran aground near Cape Fear. Afraid of being captured, she insisted on being rowed to shore, but the boat overturned and she drowned, weighed down by the gold she was carrying for the Confederacy. We weren't sure if a key found in 1864 would work on a document presumably written in 1861, but I asked collections intern Rachel McCay to see if she could decode the message. And indeed she could--thanks Rachel! Here's what it says:


Fort “Ellsworth,” situated about- I send this which is reliable and will in a few days send plan of masked batries at long bridge and other points also of Shuters hill and two other above named strong works between this and Ellsworth.

For more on Greenhow, to try your own hand at using her code, and to find out more about other Civil War ciphers check out Burn This and be sure to take an activity sheet!