{USA} Behind the Scenes at the Smithsonian

April 10, 2013


It goes without saying that visiting museums ranks high on the list of a museum lover’s favourite pursuits. But what ranks even higher on the happiness scale, is a chance to go behind the scenes. During Washington D.C.’s Social Media Week in February, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History hosted a behind-the-scenes museum tweetup (#SITweetup). I followed online from afar, wishing it would have coincided with our D.C. holiday so that I could have been there for real. Well, sometimes wishes come true! The lovely Erin from the Museum of American History, who incidentally has guest blogged here on Museum Diary in the past, made another behind-the-scenes Tweetup happen six weeks later on the occasion of both myself and Mar Dixon of CultureThemes, visiting from England, being in town at the same time (I admit, I quite enjoyed being referred to as “visiting dignitaries from foreign parts”). Erin has summed up the event, and the following #musesocial Twitter chat about museums and Tweetups, quite comprehensively via Storify, but I wanted to share my own experience of it here with you too. The post is a bit longer than usual but stay with me, the stories are worth it!

There were ten of us in total, including us visitors, Smithsonian staff from other museums, and one or two other museum professionals. Erin had arranged for three different curators to meet with us, who had each pre-selected some key objects, that weren’t currently on display, from their respective collections to share with us. Each carefully chosen item highlighted the significance and value of museum collections for our social history, and we had the benefit of the enthusiastic curators telling us some of the stories behind the objects that might never make it on to an exhibition label. As curator Bill Yeingst put it, “Collecting objects is all about the stories!

First up was Tim Winkle, curator for Home & Community Life, who started us off with a very special object. Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts, which the museum took as an occasion to add to their collection of Scouting history. At first glance, our object may just seem like any old Girl Scout sash, but it actually belonged to Louise Davies from North Carolina and bears the Golden Eagle pin she was awarded in 1930. Louise was a lifelong member of the Girl Scouts, and the museum not only has her sash and pin, but also her family photo album showing her wearing her uniform, as well as her framed certificate of enrolment. All together, they give a complete picture of an important part of American History.


Another really interesting object was a membership badge from the Tremont Horse Thief Detective Association. This was a great example of an object that looks fairly innocent, until you hear the story behind it. Horse Thief Detective Associations started springing up across the state of Indiana in the 1860s and 70s. What started out as vigilante groups tracking down horse thieves and enforcing morality through floggings, turned into a self appointed moral police who handed out lynchings as punishments to suspected criminals. Membership was strictly open to white males only, and many later went on to join the Ku Klux Klan.


As part of his remit, Tim also looks after the firefighting collections and as a big fan of the Edinburgh Museum of Fire, I was particularly looking forward to this. In the US, early volunteer fire services functioned much like fraternities, and members were exempt from some things such as jury duty. Below is a fire sign advertising an insurance company – apparently it is a myth that volunteer fire fighters would compete in putting out fires first to claim insurance premiums, or let your house burn down if you had the wrong insurance. Unlike in 19th Century Edinburgh, where letting houses burn down led to the founding of the UK’s, and possibly the world’s, first municipal fire service.


It was also interesting to see an example of a museum object before and after conservation. This fireman’s hat from the 1830s/40s was made from pressed felt and offered little protection. It was probably worn as a parade piece.


Next we met with John Hasse, curator of American Music. The Music Hall is in the part of the museum currently being renovated, so this was a great opportunity to see some prize objects. Oh my, if I had already been excited about the fire fighting collection, was I in for a treat. John had specifically chosen to share pieces from the Jazz Collection with us. I can’t remember much from his opening gambit, except for the words Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington! Turns out, the Smithsonian has a significant collection of Duke Ellington memorabilia, including 100,000 pages of unpublished music. Wow!! Apparently Ellington’s collection was unpublished for good reason. He didn’t want people to be copycats, and he never wrote down the piano pieces – just playing them by heart – making it difficult for anyone else to play from the score. Incidentally, he also wrote his music for specific players in his band, i.e. not just a generic 1st or 2nd trumpet band. Such amazing precision! Below are two medals awarded to Ellington, the Star of Ethiopia, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour on the US, awarded to him in 1969 on his 70th birthday.


After that it just kept getting better – Ella Fitzgerald’s Grammy! Actually only one of several in the museum’s collection. Apparently she wanted her things to go to the Smithsonian after her death.


But the best was yet to come. Shake your tailfeathers everybody, for the museum’s collection of Ray Charles memorabilia! To say I was a big fan of Ray Charles would be an understatement. To many people it may just be an ordinary pair of sunglasses, but to me it was, “OMG, WOW!!” It’s almost as if the museum had read my mind as to what I’d most like to see. The editorial cartoon of the weeping sunglasses, published on Charles’ death, was also quite sweet.

But there were also some really interesting objects relating to things I never knew about Ray Charles. Such as the fact he was an accomplished chess player, and was even once featured on the cover of a chess magazine. Charles, who was blind from the age of seven, played on a specially adapted board, with inset fields, pegs underneath the pieces to keep them in place, and nails (pointy side down, of course) on top so he could identify which were his. Quite funny, on the other hand, was Charles’ Braille copy of Playboy. I guess it’s true that some people really do just read it for the articles ;-) John shared the story, that he had researched the provenance of the magazine before it went on display in an exhibition, to find out who had published it should there be any complaints he needed/ wanted to pass on. Turns out it was the Library of Congress!


The story around Dizzy Gillespie’s custom-made trumpet case was also very sweet. The museum had written to him, asking him to donate some personal items for the collection, and never got a response. So instead, they wrote to his wife. A week later, a parcel arrived out of the blue at the museum, containing the case. Usually a major donation like this would involve a bunch of paperwork and special collection via courier, but good old Mrs Gillespie just sent it via UPS. Priceless!


I didn’t really know much about John Philip Sousa, but learned that he was a conductor and composer, known mostly for his military and patriotic marches including ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ (the National March of the USA). Just look at that incredible embroidery!


Oh yeah, and apparently there was a bit of a fuss on Twitter when we tweeted pictures of Prince’s and Van Halen’s guitars…


John, quoting a former museum director, also summed up nicely one of the things I love so much about museums: “We are in the forever business!

Our final visit was with Bill Yeingst, Chair of the Home & Community Life division, who was sharing some objects from the Immigration/ Migration collection with us. As Bill said, “Curators have a lot of power!” The power of choice. And with the power of choice comes the responsibility to use it wisely! Bill certainly chose wisely when selecting the objects for our tour, which all demonstrated different forms of immigration/migration, from forced to voluntary. We started on a very solemn note, with a ship manifest from the state of Virginia documenting the sale of 83 African slaves. Not only is it a physical reminder, but reading the names and personal details of all 83 people also humanises this part of American history.


This story cloth, on the other hand, was made by a woman who emigrated to the US from Laos. It is one of many that she made and sold to suport her family financially.


An example of cultural dualism comes in the form of these two objects: Korean children coming to the US for adoption wore traditional Korean costume, and were given American cowboy boots on arrival.


Finally, I want to leave you with this object which doesn’t look like much but then… Apparently many curator stories begin with the sentence “one day the phone rang…”, as people frequently call to offer items for donations. Such as this suitcase from Holocaust survivor Camilla Gottlieb, which was originally turned down as the museum already had many battered old suitcases like it in their collection. But then her family, who had called about the case, went to look through the rest of her belongings to see if they could find something more unique – and unearthed around 250 documents telling her whole life story, including her deportation papers. An incredible and invaluable piece of history.


And that was my amazing day behind the scenes of the Smithsonian. “Thank you” doesn’t really cover it. Thank you so much to all three curators for sharing your collections with us. Thank you to the other participants who tweeted along, asked questions, shared discussions. Thank you, of course, to Erin for making it happen. Thank you to everyone who came along for drinks afterwards. It was great to meet everyone. Thank you for a great day. Thank you for making my dream come true!


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