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Friday, October 26, 2012

The Hog-faced Gentlewoman Called Mistris Tannakin Skinker

So what are you going to be for Halloween this year? If you haven't picked yet, perhaps you could go as Mistris Tannakin Skinker, the hog-faced woman. According to a 1640 pamphlet in our collection, Mistris Skinker was born in 1618 with the snout of a pig after her mother turned away a beggar woman who was also a witch. The woman left muttering, "As the mother is hoggish, so swinish shall be the Child shee goeth withall." Mistris Skinker, lovely apart from her deformity, eats from a silver trough and speaks only in grunts, although she can make her desires known in writing.

A certaine relation of the hog-faced gentlewoman called Mistris Tannakin Skinker … London: J.O., 1640
Rosenbach Museum & Library EL1 .A1do     
The only hope for Mistris Skinker lies in marriage to a gentleman, but finding a husband proves difficult. Her parents dress her in beautiful clothes and offer a £ 40,000 dowry, but even fortune-seeking prospective suitors find her snout too much to stomach.

At this point the pamphleteer jumps into a retelling of John Gower's Tale of Florent (found in Gower's Confessio Amantis, of which the Rosenbach owns a great 15th-century manuscript copy). The Tale of Florent is another "loathly lady" tale in which a knight marries a hideously ugly woman, only to have her curse lifted. She tells her husband he has the choice between her appearing beautiful by day and ugly by night, or ugly by day and beautiful by night. He cannot decide and when he offers her the choice,  the spell is truly broken and she remains lovely both day and night.

The pamphleteer of Tannakin Skinker explicitly leaves the relation of the Tale of Florent and the tale of Mistris Skinker as an exercise for the reader. The closing paragraph relates that she now lives in London, either in Covent Garden or Blackfriars.

Although the theme of the loathly lady was nothing new in the seventeenth century (a popular medieval motif, it had appeared not just in Gower but in Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale and the Arthurian tale of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, among others), the twist of the pig-faced woman proved to be quite popular. Legends of pig-faced women (and their silver troughs) appeared regularly in popular culture well into the nineteenth-century. Sheridan Le Fanu, the Irish author who wrote the vampire tale Carmilla, even incorporated a concocted "Bretagne ballad" about a pig-faced woman into his 1864 novel "Uncle Silas."

If the pig-faced woman has caught your interest, there is apparently a book entitled The Pig-Faced Lady of Manchester Square: And Other London Medical Marvels. Or you could spend $1.59 on your own pig snout and reenact the tale at your next costume party.

Kathy Haas is the Assistant Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Scratch and Sniff

We all know the appeal of new-car smell, but here at the Rosenbach we also know the appeal of old-book smell. Many of our collections objects have the generally pleasing smell of age, but I thought I'd point out a few particularly fragrant items that I would include on a "scratch-and-sniff" tour, if such a thing existed. (Disclaimer, please do not actually scratch collections objects. Disclaimer #2, this blog post would be better with smell-o-vision, but we'll have to make do).

The Holford collection of Defoe materials is housed in the third floor hallway. The bindings for this large matched set are made of Russia leather. Russia leather has a distinctive aroma, which comes in large part from the birch-bark oil used in its production. It smells of wintergreen and the effect of whole cabinet of books is quite pronounced when the glass doors are opened.

Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies. Third impression. London: Printed for P. C. [Philip Chetwynd], 1664.Rosenbach Museum & Library. EL1 .S527 664

Another smelly item is our Shakespeare Third Folio, which you may have seen recently in the Burn This exhibition. Our copy smells strongly of smoke and, to paraphrase Elizabeth Fuller, it is tempting to imagine that that the scent is a souvenir of the Great Fire of London in 1666. The Great Fire burned London's bookselling district and is believed to have destroyed many unsold copies of the Third Folio. Unfortunately, as Elizabeth has pointed out, any possible Great Fire scent would have been washed out when the book was rebound in the 19th century and the present odor was probably acquired in peaceful repose in a library with a smoky fireplace.

Toilet bottle from Philip Rosenbach's grooming set. England, Charles Fox. Rosenbach Museum & Library 2002.0337.006
It's not just our books that have evocative odors of the past.  Several bottles from Philip's grooming set retain strong scents from their original contents.The tightly screwed caps may have assisted in the olfactory preservation.

Sadly, none of our objects smell of fresh-baked bread or chocolate-chip cookies, but hopefully this brief tour has given you a "scents" of  their history.

Kathy Haas is the Assistant Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

Friday, October 12, 2012

Reaching and Teaching Through Material Culture

Two weeks ago Judy Guston, Elyse Poinsett and I had the opportunity to present at a symposium on Reaching and Teaching Through Material Culture, held at the Winterthur Museum.  The three of us participated as part of a session on using technology and our presentation "A Tale of Two Programs: Using Technology Judiciously to Improve Visitor Experience" explored the ways that both technology-based programs and technology-free programs can work to create an intimate experience of collections objects.

The two programs we used as case studies were the blog-based Today in the Civil War and the no-tech Hands-on-Tours. In some cases the two programs even draw on the same set of collections objects--there is a Civil War Hands-on-Tour (as well as tours on everything from Magic to The Sea) and the same documents used on the tour have or will come up in due course on Today in the Civil War. Through our presentation we were hoping to show that technology is a great tool, but only a tool, and one to be used with thought, rather than as an automatic and necessary component of any 21st-century museum experience. We also wanted to encourage our colleagues in small to mid-sized institutions that even without a huge technology budget or staff you can still produce great programs. Based on the positive comments we received, our message and examples made an impact. Many thanks to everyone who helped us create our presentation and to all of the Rosenbach visitors (both web and on-site) who have participated in and supported these two programs over the years.

One aspect that unites the two programs we discussed is that they are intended to provide deeper access to and more personal experience with items from our collection. That theme seemed to be a leitmotif running through the entire symposium: making connections to great objects is at the heart of great museum experiences. From the keynote speaker, who ran through slide after slide of fantastic objects from so many museums and historical societies that our jaws were hanging slack with amazement, to the closing speaker who presented detailed survey data indicating that people's most meaningful museum experiences center around objects, the theme came through loud and clear--objects matter. To be honest, this wasn't much of a surprise to us Rosenbachers--we've seen people's excitement on getting close to a real letter by George Washington or seeing Joyce's slanted penmanship running down the page. But it's nice to know that we're on the right track and that we're not alone in our thinking.

So what objects matter to you? When have you had a meaningful experience in a museum--either here at the Rosenbach or somewhere else? I like to joke that I was doomed to become a museum curator because at the age of five I would stand in front of the dinosaurs in the natural history museum and hold forth to anyone who would listen. Now it's U. S. Grant's letters and Bram Stoker's Dracula notes that no one can get me shut up about. But it's because I feel that connection and it excites me. What about you?

Kathy Haas is the Assistant Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

Friday, October 05, 2012

Detail Detective (Part 2)

Here are the answers to the "detail detective" questions we posed two weeks ago. How many did you get correct?

This unicorn is part of the British royal coat of arms on the magnificent Paul Storr candelabra in the dining room.

This carved detail comes from the back of a chair in the first floor hallway.

Rosenbach Museum & Library 1954.300.001

This Meissen leopard is part of Marianne Moore's menagerie. It lives on the mantelpiece in the Moore Room.

Rosenbach Museum & Library 2006.3018   

This is a close-up of an 18th-century game table in the parlor. The well is to hold game counters. Ante up everyone!
Rosenbach Museum & Library. 1954.2028

This smart snake tells time on the Jean-Baptiste Baillon clock in the dining room. His tongue points to the correct time as the dials revolve.
Rosenbach Museum & Library 1954.2017

This is a close-up of an unusual bowl in the Moore room. It's on the right as you walk in, on the wooden sideboard. The bowl was a gift to Marianne Moore from her brother.

Rosenbach Museum & Library 2006.3052

Kathy Haas is the Assistant Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog