Mid-Internship Reflection

Howdy Professor Lucic and Peck:

This is my mid-internship report, which I’m writing so you’ll know what I’ve been up to these past two months and where I’m headed with my final three here at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The best way I can summarize this is by describing my general daily schedule and projects.

Classic Whaling Prints Exhibition
I’m currently working with Stuart Frank, the Senior Curator and director of my internship, on the Classic Whaling Prints exhibition, which will be going up in a few months. Generally, a good portion of Monday’s and Tuesdays are devoted to working on pulling this exhibition together.

When I initially got here, my first task was to locate approximately a hundred artifacts for the upcoming exhibit within the stores of the Museum’s collection—not a simple task. Things aren’t always where they are supposed to be, and when you’re new, and not even sure where you are supposed to be, it’s easy to find yourself lost deep within spirals of accession numbers. But for a geek like me, getting lost is a happy thing—I find all the coolest stuff when I am lost, like the wall of jarred whale oil and harpoon guns, or the ethnographic collections of Pacific Islander tools and weapons, or carved porpoise and shark skulls.

Once I’d located everything, the next task was to measure the dimensions of all the prints/objects. Since many of the prints were unframed, I had to make the best guesstimate could. Then I took all the measurements of the exhibition gallery and began to build a scale model of the exhibition (.75 inches to a foot) with miniature scale versions of the artifacts so Stuart can plan out what he wants on each wall. Cutting out and labeling a hundred-ish tiny scaled prints is a painstaking process, which I’ll be finishing later this week. It’s a dollhouse, basically.

I can’t emphasize enough how cool the Classic Whaling Prints Exhibition is. I personally handle beautiful prints from the Dutch golden age of whaling dating back to the 17th century, not to mention prints by Huggins, Currier and Ives, Benjamin Russell, Rockwell Kent, Durand-Brager and Garneray—Garneray’s in particular are fantastic; Melville himself saw these prints (Pêche du Cachalot and Pêche de la Baliene) and referred to them in Moby Dick as the best examples of art “conveying the real spirit of the whale hunt”. Garneray’s Combat de Scies et de Baleines en vue de l’Ile Sainte Hé lè ne (“Combat of the sawfish and the Whales, in sight of the isle of St. Helena”) is perhaps the inspiration for the smoky painting Melville references in Moby Dick, Chapter 3, “The Spouter-Inn”!

Every Wednesday I work in with Robert Hauser, the museum Conservator who specializes in paper conservation, and Rudolph Riefstahl, a volunteer/retired Curator and Art Historian. Our activities vary widely.

For one, I’m the primary liaison between Stuart (the Curator of the CWP exhibit) and Robert, so it’s really my job to make sure that the two of them are clear on expectations. It’s really exciting, because there are basically three people putting on this upcoming exhibition—and I am one of them.

Robert and I work together to assess the condition of the artifacts up for exhibition (primarily the prints), and I help organize paperwork and group sets of artifacts to be conserved and framed for exhibition. In the future weeks, he promises to teach me matting/cutting/framing techniques.

Robert also teaches me a lot about Conservation as a profession—a combination of art, craft, history, science—and a philosophical worldview. Here are a few of his maxims so you get the idea:

  • Conservate hodienum diem crastino (“Preserve today for tomorrow”)
  • There’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it over.
  • The treatment was successful but the patient died.
  • Do as much as necessary and as little as possible.
  • Conservation is 65% preservation, 30% vigilance, and 5% treatment.

He has been showing me his tricks for safely packing artifacts, such as these tiny devices one can put inside a package that indicates if the package is ever tipped beyond a certain angle, or shaken particularly violently, and strips of paper which blot different colors if they are exposed to high humidity for extended periods of time, and safety mounts to deter would-be thieves. It’s all about due-diligence.

Rudy Reifstahl and I work primarily on his expertise: paintings. Generally, we’ll get a painting that’s going to be loaned to a different museum (so far, two different paintings by William Allen Wall) and he shows me how to write up these very detailed condition reports so that if they are returned with any issues, we have documented evidence of how they were before. Rudy knows an incredible amount about paintings, and particularly frames, so he’s been teaching me a lot about American period frames and frame anatomy, as well as burnishing, bole, gesso, outer/middle/linear elements, the process of painting, the conditions which lead to various different forms of painting deterioration (crackle, tenting, flaking, abrasion, fading, etc). Next week, we’re writing up furniture condition reports for two Dutch tall clocks.

Probably my favorite part of Wednesday’s conservation is our lunch break, where Rudy, Robert and I go out for food and discuss all sorts of issues, such as the ethics of Photoshop, touching up vs. redoing artist’s work—at what point is one intruding upon an objects natural aging or over-treating an object? How do we match paintings and frames? What was the artist’s intent and are we violating that? What would you save from the museum if it were on fire? Would you die for a work of art? Which one? What is art? What is an object? What is an artifact? What should we eat?

Thursday Scrimshaw Challenge
Thursday mornings (and occasionally other days) are reserved for the public to bring whaling artifacts to the Library for Stuart Frank (the world’s leading expert on scrimshaw) to analyze. Generally, these artifacts are scrimshaw (carved whalebone), and there is a team of other interested museum volunteers and employees who show up with magnifying glasses to see what’s on the table. I’ve seen quite a few of sperm whale teeth already, and Stuart explains everything from Ivory Legislation to methods of identification and authentication, such as patination, pigment migration, microscopic analysis of the individual cuts, etc—I’m told I’ll be pretty good at this myself by the time I leave. Just the other week, a guy showed up with a van full of almost 30 harpoons, which has impelled me to start reading about the history of harpoon technology.

Miscellaneous Curatorial
I’ve had the opportunity to attend a number of Curatorial Meetings, and have really enjoyed watching the various Curators discuss the upcoming redesign of the main museum exhibitions. Particularly interesting is the discussion of the place of the Museum within a community (1. Preserve history; 2. Present it to the public; 3. Research), and the best way to present information to the public that is accessible to different levels of the public. Furthermore, just last week the museum hired a new President, so it’s been really interesting to be at the museum at a time of major transition.

Stuart also sends me off on all sorts of odd missions. For example, a dentist who was studying anomalous whale teeth came to photograph our specimens of sperm whale teeth suffering various different pathologies. Just last week, I was assigned to work with a volunteer to catalog the museum’s extensive scrimshaw Swift collection (complex machines for converting skeins of yarn into balls of yarn, probably the most labor-intensive object to make out of whalebone). Or computer repair. Or local concerts of sea chanteys, or auctions—he promises a trip to Nantucket and Mystic Seaport before my time’s up.

On Fridays, I work with Michael Lapides, the curator of the photographic archives. Again, the work here covers a wide gamut—but generally it is a much more technology intensive department. I’ve learned quite a bit of Photoshop techniques, as well as how to do proper scanning for the collection and how to catalog items into Rediscovery, the Museum database. I’ve also been learning a lot about the history of photography, as I am expected to be able to identify different types of photos. Occasionally, I am sent out to NBWM events to photograph our activities, etc.

Because I am a big computer nerd, I’ve been really helping with steering advertising and publicity for the Whaling Museum on the internet. Since I’ve arrived, we’ve created a Facebook group and a Flickr page for sharing photos (which involved a decent amount of reading regarding copyrights and Creative Commons) with a wider community. Right now, I’ve taken up the project of updating and expanding the currently scant Wikipedia article on the NBWM.

We’ve also been significantly updating the Museum webpage and better advertising our current exhibitions as well as creating new internet-only exhibitions. Once I finish writing this progress report, I’m going to write a short article to publish as an online exhibit about the HMS Resolute desks. (An unofficial version of it can be found here: http://spellbananas.blogspot.com/2008/09/hms-resolute-was-british-ship.html)

I also have a larger project involving Benjamin Russell’s Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, which is a 12′ tall panorama that stretches almost 1300′ feet painted in 1846-48, which Russell would bring on stage and unravel in sections to give the audience a feel for what whaling was like—it’s a kind of 19th century film in a way. The museum actually owns this thing; it’s amazing. My project is to take the photographs the museum already possesses, and see if it isn’t possible to combine them into a digital panorama that can we can put online for people to look at, given it is too fragile to display otherwise. I’m actually a bit apprehensive about this project—I’m pretty certain we have complete photos, but in order to make a panorama, these photos need to be taken from the same angle, from the same distance, under the same lighting, and my bet is all these factors are highly labile given no sane photographer was able to photograph 1300 feet of delicate canvas in a single day. There is a limit to what Photoshop can do to make these images panoramic—and there’s a limit to what Photoshop should do, but I’m very excited to give it a try.

Final Internship Project
I am expected to produce a final project as part of my internship. Initially, my plan was to write an annotated edition of Moby Dick, a project I’ve been compiling slowly for a couple years now. However, I discovered that—just this year—that very project had been completed by someone else! It’s a considerably different from how I would have done it, but it’s pretty darn good: (http://powermobydick.com).

So I’m thinking about a new project. I’m considering doing an annotated version of a different work of Melville (maybe White Jacket?), but I don’t think I’ll have enough time given I’m starting from scratch.

Alternatively, I might do a project on the early (16th century) depictions of whales and whaling by Olaus Magnus, Conrad Gessner, Ambroise Parè, Sebastian Munster—I love these prints.

That’s a brief summary of what I’m up to here at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. This internship is unbelievable—I haven’t even gotten close to describing what an opportunity and experience it has been. In all honesty, I’ve already learned more in my two months here than I would have learned during a semester at Vassar; I make that statement not to diminish the quality of the Vassar education, but to emphasize the quality of my time here.

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