30 January 2012

Anniversary: The Sinking of the Titanic

April 11th, 2012 will be the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's first full day at sea. It will be my birthday. It will also, controversially, be the day when over five thousand artefacts from the decaying ship will be put up for auction in New York.
I say controversially because these are not objects saved by passengers or rescuers in 1912. They are objects taken from the decaying ship by divers working for R.M.S. Titanic Inc. between 1987 and 2004. You can see many of them in this Guardian photo collection. The objects range from parts of the ship, including a telegraph, chandelier, dishes, a porthole, and even a portion of the hull, to more personal artefacts that remind us of the human tragedy, like men's clothing, a pair of glasses and a bracelet with the name 'Amy'.

R.M.S. Titanic Inc. clearly finds no fault with what they are doing. This New York Times blog article points out that the artefacts were taken from the debris field surrounding the ship, while the ship itself was treated as a "sacred object" and left untouched. There are multiple conditions on the sale, disallowing the collection to be broken up, and requiring the buyer to make the collection available "to present and future generations for public display and exhibition, historical review, scientific and scholarly research, and educational purposes."

The estimated financial worth of the collection is staggering. The collection was appraised at $189 million US in 2007, but the president of auction house Guernsey's points out that it is "virtually impossible to appraise". A court ruling was necessary to even allow the company to sell the collection. But that doesn't change the fact that R.M.S. Titanic Inc., its parent company Premier Exhibitions (who also created the 'Bodies' exhibit) and Guersney's stand to make a lot of money from the sale.

Many people are speaking out against this sale, and the dives as well. The Halifax Chronicle-Herald interviewed Lynn-Marie Richard, registrar for the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, who was unequivocal when it came to the museum's interest in these artefacts. As a member of the International Congress of Maritime Museums, she says, "We’re into preserving and documenting — not into pillaging." The Halifax museum has a large collection of Titanic artefacts, but she is clear that they were all donated or on loan, and were picked up by the sailors who went to the Titanic's aid in 1912. The newspaper also spoke to Steve Blasco, a scientist with the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, NS. He visited the wreck in 1991, taking samples to study the site and helping with the IMAX film Titanica. He equates taking these artefacts from the ocean floor with grave-robbing, and calls upon his relationship with a now deceased Titanic survivor, Eva Hart, who saw the site as her father's grave site.

Robert Ballard, who discovered the Titanic's resting place in 1986 (and famously confirmed the ship did, indeed, split in two) has already publicly spoken out against tourist submarines causing irreparable damage to parts of the ship, and these same tourists taking objects from the debris field that were in no danger of deteriorating. Clearly there are scientists who are calling for more restriction to the site - but the lure of the wreckage seems to be proving stronger than the argument for historical preservation. In 2004 the site was extensively filmed and photographed to assess its condition, and in 2010 the complete site was mapped with 3-D technology. Shouldn't these records be enough to satisfy our curiosity?

The debate will continue, but it doesn't change the fact that these artefacts exist. Perhaps they shouldn't have been retrieved from what can be seen by many as a grave site, but the objects are here, above water, and people have become fascinated by them (see a previous post about dark tourism). It is unrealistic to think that they will be brought back down to the wreckage of the ship. I believe the company is truly doing the best they can in this situation. There are plenty of conditions on the sale, including making it available to the public. It just remains to be seen whether rich, responsible bidders exist, and are willing to follow the rules.

And, for my birthday, I think I will skip the Titanic memorial cruise, which is sold out anyway, and go relive the Hollywood magic of James Cameron's 1997 version of the sinking on the big screen with my 3-D glasses.

Picture of Titanic's bow is copyright Emory Kristof/National Geographic.

04 January 2012

Historical Fiction: New York

I read a lot, pretty much daily, and my love of history definitely creeps in to my book choices. I have already described my early love for young adult historical and time-travelling novels, and for a long time my favourite summer reading was anything about Henry VIII, his wives, and his descendants. Luckily my tastes have broadened since then and reached beyond the 16th century. Historical fiction is a great way to get introduced to different eras and real-life characters, even if it only convinces you to visit Wikipedia to see if something you read was true or not. Just before Christmas I happened to finish three different books about one of my favourite cities, New York, and I thought I'd share them.

It took only a few days to read The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay (author of The Birth House), which shows you how much I enjoyed it. The book follows Moth, a 12-year-old girl in the Lower East Side of 1870's New York. The book delves deep into the poverty, crime and generally poor quality of life (sanitation-wise, health-wise, education-wise, you name it) for residents of that neighbourhood. Young girls and women are hit particularly hard - Moth is first sold into being a maid for an mentally unstable rich lady who beats her, escapes to beg on the street, and ultimately ends up in a house where girls are trained to become prostitutes and their virginity is sold to the highest bidder.
McKay wrote the book after researching her great-grandmother, who was a 'lady doctor' in the Lower East Side at this time, so we also get a fascinating glimpse into the life of a woman who chose to study medicine (in the 1870s!) and then committed herself to treating the poorest women in the city. I love that McKay's own family history got her researching and writing. And while the 'virgin cure' (the idea that having sex with a virgin can cure syphilis) seems crazy, McKay writes on her website that parallels can be found today with AIDS in countries like Thailand and India, which just reminds me why we need to keep studying history in the first place.
Read before: visiting the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.


It took me significantly longer to read Edward Rutherfurd's New York, but then again, it is almost 900 pages long. This is Rutherfurd's love letter to New York, an epic that follows the van Dyck and Master family (among others) from their beginnings as 17th century Dutch immigrants to their success in the financial world of Wall Street by the 20th century. Did I mention the book is 900 pages long?
The book is far from perfect. Some parts became too bogged down with historical detail - the American revolution was important but I didn't really need to read about every movement of the British and rebel armies. I enjoyed how events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire were detailed, but other ones were completely ignored - one Amazon reviewer recalled the amalgamation of the boroughs and the building of the subway as events unworthy of being left out. And while secondary characters were created to discuss some of the more marginalized populations (the Irish, African Americans) the book was really about a white, upper-class family.
The main character of this book is really the city itself. I found it fascinating to learn interesting tidbits of New York history, from when and why buildings were built to why streets are named what they are named. While it got a little cliched at times with its talk of freedom and the American Dream, it is a well-researched epic that's worth reading for its historical detail.
Read before: wandering Wall Street and drinking at Fraunces Tavern.


Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin is set in 1970s, which begs the question - when is fiction classified as 'historical'? Are the 1970s historical? Is last year historical? Either way, I'll include it in my list for it's portrayal of a very specific time in New York history. One summer morning in 1974, New Yorkers looked up and saw something incredible: a tight-rope walker balancing, without a harness or safety net, between the two World Trade Centre towers. McCann introduces a variety of characters - an Irish priest looking after prostitutes in the Bronx, a grieving mother on Park Avenue, the tight-rope walker himself, among others - and chronicles their stories as they interconnect.
McCann does a great job placing readers in his specific time period - you feel the growing tension in Harlem, the heat of the summer day, the poverty on the mean streets of the city, the anger regarding Vietnam, the excitement of the new World Trade towers. While I wouldn't necessarily call it historical fiction, he does drop readers right in the middle of that particular day.
Read before: wandering up Park Avenue before exploring Harlem and the Bronx.

13 December 2011

The Art of Collecting

I was thinking of writing about the new Mayan exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, which I got to see last night. I found myself much more interested, however, in writing about two smaller exhibits I saw in the past few days, which gave interesting glimpses into museum collections.

I went to the ROM earlier in the day yesterday to see The Art of Collecting, a small temporary exhibit from the European department. Taking up only one room (but fitting in over one hundred artefacts), the exhibit highlights recent acquisitions from the past fifteen years in stand-alone glass cases. I wandered past a Tiffany lamp, Georg Jenson silver teasets, Royal Worcester porcelain figures, 19th century bouquet holders, and early 20th century rocking chairs, among other things.

Unlike most exhibits I've seen that highlight objects in this way, the text panels on the wall went beyond explaining why the museum focuses on certain areas of collection. They first explained why the department was set up in the first place - to collect masterpiece decorative art objects that students could learn from and observe. The panels then explained how the museum acquires its artefacts - fortunately mostly by donation with some purchases. It then explained how they got the money for purchases - through deaccessioning other objects. Surprisingly, it then explained the rules for deaccessioning objects that museums follow. It even finished with a paragraph about the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board!

I loved the transparency of it all - museums aren't exactly secretive but most people probably don't think about how and why certain objects turn up in museum collections. I understand what the ROM is doing, of course - explaining clearly to collectors that they can get tax receipts for donating objects to museums instead of keeping or selling them, and reassuring the public that their tax money, for the most part, is not being spent to buy these lovely objects. But it's also a great lesson about how museums build collections - something a little different from the usual decorative arts history lesson/timeline.

The Art Gallery of Ontario too has a small, temporary highlight exhibition. It's called Shift, and also encompasses a small space - one and a half rooms on the first floor. It features highlights from the Modern collection and despite its small size, it's quickly becoming a favourite - among my fellow employees, anyway. It definitely packs a punch - Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, Chuck Close and Andy Warhol (among others) are all featured.

These highlight exhibits can serve different purposes - an older post of mine also talks about this. They can allow museums and galleries to show off new objects without the time and effort to re-do permanent displays (or while waiting for funding to do so!) or without organizing a larger, more comprehensive exhibition. For the ROM, most of their decorative arts collection is in furnished period rooms, with very few objects received post-1990s on display. It can also show the breadth of a museum's collection. For the ROM, the European department collects pieces from the medieval period to the 20th century, obviously a huge timeframe. As for the AGO, most visitors know about the Thompson collections (Group of Seven, European art, etc) but may not know that the gallery does hold some interesting modern pieces. It's also fun to see objects out of a linear context - viewers can see each independently or find connections between different objects. These objects are meant to be seen, and anything that gets them out of storage is fine with me.

28 November 2011

Digital History: What's on the Menu?

Food history was buzzing online last week - Ian Mosby's post on Active History discussed problems with popular locavore author Michael Pollan's rule about only eating food your great-grandmother would recognize, and it came only a day after this Star article about the University of Guelph's 13,000-volume Culinary Collection. Public historians should recognize the importance of studying food - the politics and social norms surrounding serving and preparing food can tell us so much about different eras, and describing (or even creating) old recipes can really grab the public's interest. As Mike Ridley, U of Guelph's chief librarian, says, "the fastest way to people’s minds is through their stomachs".

I was reading Food Network Magazine not too long ago when I came across a mention of a New York Public Library project, What's on the Menu?. The NYPL has one of the world's largest historical menu collections, with over 40,000 holdings, 10,000 of which are scanned. To make this amazing resource even more user-friendly, the NYPL has started a transcription project with those scanned menus, and they are enlisting the help of the public to help them with the huge project.

Their aim is to have all the menu items and prices transcribed for each menu, so dishes can be easily searchable by whomever wants to search them - academic historians, museum curators creating an exhibit, historical fiction writers, chefs, the list goes on. The NYPL plans to do this by letting internet users look through the menus and transcribe the items and prices into a text box. Users don't have an account, and there is no log-in - anyone who visits their web page is pointed towards menus that need transcribing. They hope, of course, that visitors read the Help section first - which details what to transcribe, what to skip, and how to format.

This is an great way to have data easily searchable and available to anyone with an internet connection. Why not allow users to transcribe data? Everything is reviewed by staff (though I can't imagine how long it will take to review 642,961 - and counting - dishes). One would assume that the job won't be perfect, but isn't it better than not having anything searchable or digitized at all? It reminds me of the oh so cruel Why you shouldn't become an archivist video that made the rounds last year. One character points out archivists will toil away (in a basement, of course) processing a large collection that no one will use - until someone finally does, but that person will be angry that the entire collection isn't digitized. The video is a joke, of course, but it does point out that researchers expect a lot from these collections - and records aren't serving their purpose if they're not easily accessible. In this digital age, accessibility is key - for researchers and, really, for anyone with an interest in history.

One interesting aspect is the Data section, where the NYPL lets users download the collected raw data and use whatever creative tools they can to analyze, interpret, or even create games with the data. The NYPL clearly understands the use of crowdsourcing - something I touched upon way back in January 2009 when discussing the Smithsonian's digital reputation. Maybe a software engineer will come up with something brilliant - using knowledge a trained historian wouldn't have. If only Miss Frank E. Buttolph could imagine how the collection she started in 1900 for the NYPL would be used in 2011.

21 November 2011

Recent Exhibit: Grace Kelly: From Movie Star to Princess

Anyone who attended the Toronto International Film Festival would have seen the trailer for the TIFF Bell Lighbox fall exhibition about Grace Kelly. The swelling music, the comparisons to Diana and Kate Middleton, the promise of showing her dresses and "yes, even her Oscar".

Now would I have normally paid 15$ to see this (let's admit, fluffy) exhibit? Well, no, but after recently purchasing a discounted TIFF staff membership, I had free admission. And I have always liked Grace Kelly. I actually read a biography of her back in my younger days, and I very rarely read Hollywood biographies. I had seen a good handful of her movies. So really, why not wander over and see what they have?

This was my second time in the exhibit space at the Lightbox and again I hated it. You enter the exhibit through an awkwardly large glass door that looks like an exit. Inside there is one large room, and it's never clear which way to go through - last year I walked through their Tim Burton exhibit backwards. For this exhibit, you walk into a large introductory room, but then are given a choice of paths - and I again took the wrong one. It didn't make too much difference, but I can't imagine it's just me who finds it very unclear.

There is also a separate room off to the side, again with large glass doors that are always closed. It worked well for this exhibit, as it featured one of their prized possessions - a recreation of Kelly's wedding dress. But again, it's not very welcoming and interrupts the flow of the exhibit.

In general, I had two complaints about the exhibit. The first isn't too surprising, once it's clear that one of the organizers is the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco. The point of the exhibit is to celebrate Grace Kelly, and how wonderful she was. It is to marvel at her transformation from upper-class all-American girl to Hollywood leading lady to actual royalty. The exhibit is possible because the archives in Monaco lent her personal items - we see telegrams she received early on in her acting career, clothing she wore, letters she received from close friends such as Alfred Hitchcock, and even home movies she shot of her young family in the 1960s. These are all wonderful artifacts, but it also means that anyone looking for a hint of scandal will leave disappointed. Not that there was ever much gossip about Grace Kelly (she left Hollywood quite young, at the age of 26), but there was nothing negative about her at all. We are meant believe she was the epitome of style and grace, and never made a mistake or had a difficult moment in her life.

There is one letter that stands out among all the others on display. Most are congratulatory, discussing film roles or her Oscar nomination and win in 1955. One, however, is from her father. He writes what he describes as a painful letter, telling her that he and her mother are very disappointed about her relationship at the time with fashion designer Oleg Cassini. This British Vogue article mentions a 2003 biography of Kelly that argues she and Cassini never married because her parents disapproved (he was older, foreign and divorced). Her father, for that matter, was never supportive of his daughter's acting career either. While the exhibit briefly mentions she dated Cassini, it basically discusses how it affected her personal style. And while it describes in great detail her first meeting with Prince Rainier of Monaco (She wasn't wearing a designer dress! The power was out at the hotel so she couldn't blow-dry her hair!), it glosses over how their relationship grew, how they kept in touch, and why they got engaged so quickly - only about six months after meeting.

My second complaint was a complete lack of Kelly's own voice in the exhibit. The only words from Kelly's own mouth were a few quotes on the walls of the exhibit. Everything else - the telegrams, the letters - are written to her. The exhibit does a fine job of taking us through her early days in show business (modeling photographs, magazine covers) to her days as a top actress (movie posters, shooting scripts, film clips) to her days as a royal princess (archival footage of her arrival in Monaco, her clothing) but nothing gives the audience the sense that they know this woman more than any other fan would have in the 1950s. As the TIFF website states, the exhibit wants to celebrate "a figure sure in her own self-creation, fully aware of her consecutive, iconic roles as movie star, bride and Princess of Monaco." And that's what we see throughout the exhibit - the glossy creation known as Grace Kelly, superstar. The young woman who went through these transformations might have been more interesting.

18 November 2011

Recent Visit: Lower East Side Tenement Museum

I finally had a chance to see the Lower East Side Tenement Museum when I was in New York last month. I had heard of the museum a few years back, and was looking forward to taking a tour with one of their volunteer docents.

The price was a little steep - 20$ for an adult - but I hope it doesn't stop people from visiting because the museum gives glimpses into a part of New York's history that isn't unknown, but probably doesn't get the attention it deserves from most tourists. In a city like New York it's easy to spend the majority of your time at the big tourist destinations, and ignore the smaller museums. I find it hard sometimes just to leave mid-town Manhattan! But this museum, which focuses on the immigrant experience over multiple decades, is definitely worth a visit.

Visitors must take guided tours, which last roughly an hour, so first there was some waiting around in their gift shop/visitor centre. Luckily their gift shop is full of interesting books on New York and immigrant history. There is also a short film that visitors can watch.

Our docent met us in the shop and then we were led across the street to 97 Orchard, a five-floor tenement building built in the 1860s. The building had been closed down in the 1930s (the landlord couldn't afford to pay for some renovations) and basically shut for the next fifty years. The storefront was in use, but the apartments above stood empty up until the 1980s, when the museum founders were looking for a space for their museum. The museum consists of restored apartments based on specific families, and there is a wide variety - the Irish, Russians, Germans and Italians are all represented. Our tour was "Getting By", which talked about how immigrants lived, worked, and what happened if they hit hard times. It focused on two apartments and families - The Gumpertz family, German Jews in the 1870s, and the Baldizzi family, Italian Catholics in the 1930s.

The docent used a variety of interpretive tools, including artifacts (furniture, textiles, photographs) in the apartments, photocopies of census lists, oral histories, even a court transcript to talk about the families and the Lower East Side in general. To give us the feel for the period she would describe what language we would have heard on the street, where people may have worked, what shops would have been nearby. But the real star was the building itself.

The museum would have lost a lot of its impact if it hadn't been housed in that tenement building. Immediately walking in you were transported back 100 years. The hallway was tiny, the walls dingy. The cramped air felt worse once the docent described how dark it would have been, how many families lived in the building, coming and going at all hours. The public toilets weren't installed until 1901, gas lighting not until 1905, electricity not until the 1920s.

The apartments themselves were tiny - how did a family with several children live in a three-room apartment with one window? The Gumpertz family used outhouses in the backyard, and had no running water. The Baldizzi family had only three rooms as well, and an air shaft between their apartment and their neighbour's left little privacy. It was amazing to listen to how Mr. Gumpertz had left for work one day and never came back - no one ever found out what happened to him - and to stand in the apartment where his widow and children learned to live without him. We listened to Josephine Baldizzi speak about living at 97 Orchard as a small child - remembering how her family played checkers at the kitchen table and what brand of soap her mother kept above the sink. The docent made good attempts at getting us to comment on what we saw, asking us lots of questions - "What would it have been like?" - and though we weren't the chattiest group, the message came across.

The tour included a quick look at some unrestored apartments, where the shopkeepers stored their goods and used the walls to do inventory lists while the building was closed. The building isn't in the best condition, and I hope the museum has the funds to keep their programmes going while making sure the building survives well into the 21st century.

The museum's website is really well done, with big, clear text and graphics. It is easy to navigate and lets visitors know how they put the museum together. I especially like their use of crime scene photos to look at furnishings - "Note the Decor. Ignore the Body". I would definitely recommend a visit if you're in New York. It's easy to get swept up in the grandeur of Fifth Ave but history is definitely alive in the Lower East Side.

01 April 2009

In which I consider children in the museum

We spent a lot of time today in museology class discussing children's museums. These museums have been around for a hundred years, and are popping up all over the United States (and Canada). Children's museums are categorized by their high level of interactivity, and exhibits that appeal strictly to children. They are like science centres (which I would argue are pretty much children's museums in everything but name - a discovery I made a few summers ago at the Ontario Science Centre) where children are encouraged to run wild, while being stimulated by lights, computers, sound, buttons, cranks etc.

Unfortunately, our discussion relied on a strict dichotomy between children's museums and "traditional" museums, one for kids and the other strictly for adults. It seemed that these traditional "no-touch" museums could not possibly hold any interest for children. This seemed a bit silly to me, since I was an avid museum visitor from a young age and have never stepped foot inside a Children's Museum.

I feel that the vast majority of museums appeal to both adults and kids. They have to - these non-profit institutions could not survive without appealing to families, or anyone under the age of 40. We have discussed in different classes the level of education most museums must assume their audience holds. In the interest of having a wide audience, and not alienating those who may not have university degrees (for instance), museums generally write text panels anywhere from a grade 3-9 level. Besides, as a child in a museum I would have most likely been accompanied by an adult, who could explain a concept I didn't understand. Topics in history museums have always appealed to children, classics such as mummies, dinosaurs, and large machines.

We also discussed in class the nostalgic feeling people have for their local museums, and the sadness when renovations erase this public space people have grown to love. Surely many people began to feel a connection to their museums when they were children?

I definitely did. I have fond memories of visiting various Ottawa museums as a child with my sister and father. The Museum of Nature held dinosaurs, gems and stuffed animals ( I did enjoy these as a child...). The Aviation Museum had large planes - always fun. The Museum of Civilization was always impressive, with its collection of Native artifacts and models of early Canadian life. I visited the National Gallery quite a few times, but usually enjoyed the architecture more than the art. The Museum of Science and Tech was a favourite, though this falls more closely in the category of science centre, since I enjoyed looking at the chicks, climbing in the trains, seeing the model of the Titanic, walking through the Crazy Kitchen and watching the video of space ships blowing up.

I liked museum manager Mary Warner's article, "The Rumble of Little Feet" (Museum News, Sept/Oct 2006), because it argued that children could learn, and, gasp!, have fun in a traditional museum. As she says, children's brains have not changed to the extent we think in the past few generations: they are still curious about the world around them. They don't need overstimulation to get a valuable learning experience.