Notes From the Calm (Before the Storm)

Today’s tasks included photographing every nook and cranny of the Hermitage. The reason? Oh, just impending doom. Apparently it helps to have a photographic record of the grounds in the wake of total annihilation.

Truth be told, we’ll probably be fine… but it doesn’t hurt to prepare. Either way, we’ll always know what the compost piles looked like on August 31, 2010:

Our compost containers were custom built for us by Frank The Super Intern. He is a whiz with the tablesaw.

My photo-journalistic sojourn quickly turned into more of a fashion shoot and less of a serious record. Yolima joined in on the fun:

Yolima must have watched her fellow Colombian, Sophia Vergara, on the red carpet at the Emmy’s. The resemblance is uncanny:


Anyways, here are some shots of the Hermitage from today.  Tomorrow: a special treat! A lesson in Chinese cinnabar from Colin!

Be well.

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On Disaster Planning

First of all, we had a minor disaster this morning when I turned the corner and beheld Colin’s new haircut:

The Curatorial Department is in a state of emergency.

In other disastrous news, look at what the Atlantic is brewing:

What the what?

Which brings me to my next point: I am in charge of the hurricane plan here at the Hermitage. For someone born and raised in the mountains (and a far cry from the punishing lash of the Atlantic), the hurricane activities implicit in my choice of locale are nothing short of terrifying. Thankfully I am surrounded by the likes of Colin and Matt who were raised here and actually — perversely — look forward to hurricane season (better waves for surfing!).  Both guys have their fingers on the weather pulse, and this morning I found them gathered around Colin’s computer high-fiving over the chilling graphic featured above.

Disaster planning is a large part of any curator/collection manager’s job. Our daily battles with light levels, humidity, dust, and pests (of all varieties) are ongoing — add a category 5 hurricane to the mix and you’ve got a real party! As the Atlantic starts to heat up, the 2010 Hurricane Plan is already circulating amongst the staff. Our emergency kits are stocked with flashlights and drop-cloths. The tree clearing company has been contacted ahead of time and the windows are ready for boarding up.

Though largely unseen, proper planning is not something to be taken lightly. A good disaster plan means that our institution can continue to function after a major emergency and that the potential threat to our collection is significantly lessened. My primary job is to care for our collection, and in some cases there is a very slim window in which an object can be saved. A good disaster plan shaves hours, even days, off of the typical amount of time it takes to implement recovery procedures in the wake of a hurricane, and in many cases that means saving parts of the collection that would otherwise be lost.

If you are doing some disaster planning of your own, the following links might be of interest:

The advent of the NEH’s  Emergency Response Wheel in 1997 provided cultural stewards everywhere with a go-to reference for every iteration of natural disaster.

In 2010 the IMLS provided over a million dollars in grant money to five states for the planning and implementation of emergency plans.

A New York Times article about the eight employees of the New Orleans Museum of Art who stayed behind to protect the collection during Hurricane Katrina.

A handy guide released by the Virginia Association of Museums detailing how you can assemble your very own Museum Emergency Support Team.

…Happy Hurricane Season 2010! Let’s make this the best one yet.

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Extracurricular Activities

Now that the summer heat has abated (a bit), we are entering event season at the Hermitage. Event season means that the curatorial department spends almost as much time restocking the bar as we do researching the collection. We don’t really mind working events… especially when the weather is pleasant and Colin wears his pink linen shirt.

The people of Norfolk asked us to keep the grounds open later during the balmier months and we listened. Last Friday was our first ever Friday Night Films series. We screened the movie on an enormous inflatable movie screen in the East Garden (thanks WHRO for the technological help!):

Our guests arrived at 6:30; picnics were unpacked and blankets unfurled; 100+ people watched the sun set over the Lafayette River while they waited for the movie to start. Once the sun went down, Grace Kelly blazed onto the screen to the sounds of crickets and waves lapping against the bulkhead. Not a bad way to spend Friday night.

The Hermitage has long been a gathering place for the people of Hampton Roads. Mrs. Sloane hosted every manner of party as part of her larger effort to bring the arts to Norfolk. Card parties, supper parties and dances were a regular occurrence; anything that might garner interest in her museum was attempted at least once, sometimes multiple times. “I have tried everything this year simply to get bodies through the door,” Mrs. Sloane wrote in a letter to her sister, Grace, in 1932. Creating a space for her fellow citizens to meet and mingle amongst great art was truly her life’s work.

We carry on Mrs. Sloane’s intrepid spirit with every event we work. We are a small staff, but each of us care deeply about the enduring mission of this place, and we will do whatever is required to “get bodies through the door.” If just one person out of a hundred comes to a movie and ends up experiencing this place in a profound way… well, then we have done our jobs.

As Henry James once famously wrote:

It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.

Come watch a movie next Friday. Listen to live music at Sunsets on the River. Take a house tour. Ask questions. Look around. Explore. This place was built for you and we are merely keeping it until you arrive.

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First Wee Slice of Attingham

The whole group at Flintham Hall, Nottinghamshire

27 Country Houses.

18 days.

48 classmates from around the world.

2,382 photos.

928 sheep.

1 of the best desserts I have ever had the pleasure of eating:

I am still processing all that I observed and learned while at Attingham.  I’m not sure if I could have had a better experience, and the reverberations of lessons learned will resurface here in many future posts. Those lessons will certainly reflect in my work here at the Hermitage as we move into a year of exponential growth and redevelopment. I hit the ground running (well, limping a bit) and plans for the upstairs painting gallery are moving apace.

I’ve enjoyed watching my fellow classmates struggle for words to describe our three weeks together as it makes me feel less of a failure. Attingham was phenomenal. It was so unlike anything I’ve ever done that my attempts to explain my experience always seem to fall short. Each day was a walking dream — an occasionally difficult walking dream that sometimes left me feeling so tired I thought I might fall asleep with my head in the soup — but a dream nonetheless. A classmate of mine snapped this photo during one such moment of total saturation:

The most notable advantage the program provided was unparalleled access to some of the finest (and otherwise strictly private) houses ever built in England. We were often invited to wander unhindered through the storied spaces, snapping photos and even rolling around on the floor if the urge struck. The food ranged from delicious to offal (pun!) and the people were some of the loveliest traveling companions I’ve ever had. There’s something to be said for a group that is just as keen as you are to flop down on the floor and examine the underside of each pier table along the way.

If you are dying to spend an hour or so thumbing through thousands of photos, by all means click here to view my Flickr set. Fair warning: many of my photos were taken for reference. Please ignore the weird snaps of text panels and other exhibit-design related images.  Also, there are some photos of the final night’s costume party. Yes, those are an enormous pair of antlers on my head and yes! they are made of newspaper. I would be delighted to fashion you a pair of your very own. If you can figure out my costume I will send you a prize!

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Museum Happenings: Cesar Romero

What are you doing Thursday night? Are you in the Norfolk area? Mad Men is on Sunday so I’m guessing you don’t have plans.

Why not come out to the Hermitage for our contemporary gallery opening? The artist, Cesar Romero, will be there to answer all of your questions. Promise me you’ll come and I will spend most of Thursday afternoon artfully arranging cheese on plates. The galleries are open 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM.

Kate, Melissa, and Cesar have been working tirelessly behind the scenes for the last two weeks. Here is a glimpse at the installation process:

I won’t give it all away just yet — come see for yourself at the opening.

And now some serious words about our artist:

Cesar Augusto Romero is a contemporary oil painter and engraver living in Bogota, Colombia. Romero’s most powerful influence is nature, thanks to a childhood spent largely outdoors and alive in the natural world. The Sailors’ Dreams series is duly inspired by symbols found in drawings by Colombia’s indigenous cultures, as Romero draws enormous inspiration from the geometric abstractions found in aboriginal art. The Sailors’ Dreams series is a journey through the mysterious depths of the ocean – a silent place inhabited by whimsical creatures. Romero’s enchanting versions of aquatic life forms are awash in color and delight the eye. His muses – sirens, coral, mermaids, octopi – are suspended in water and steeped in a collective cultural unconscious. Romero’s work serves as his urgent call to arms: we are entrusted with this fragile world and we must work together to preserve it for future generations.

UPDATE: I forgot to tell you that DJ Cornbread is going to provide the music. So if you have a move and you need to bust it… this is your chance.

The Sky is Falling and Other Updates

Y’all. Y’ALL [lest you forget, even though I spent some time in England recently I am still deeply Southern] – I have so much to tell you about my trip to Attingham. Oh, twist my arm. Here’s a sneak peek of what’s to come:

We saw a lot of gilding.

But first, my apologies. I am two (if not three) weeks late in my blogging. I have my reasons, starting with the fact that whilst I was away the ceilings of the Hermitage conspired against me. Hooboy, there is something in the air around here.

First of all, imagine my delight to discover how much mold had sprung up all over the ceiling in the Music Room. I had my work cut out for me. Knowing what was ahead, and feeling nostalgic for England, I dressed as Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club and set to work:

Don’t worry, conservators, I wasn’t spraying directly onto anything.

This flopsweat of a summer has really thrown our environmental monitoring for a loop (anyone working in a Southern historic house is invited to nod vigorously in agreement), and despite our best efforts it is still a constant battle to keep moisture levels reasonably low.

Just when I thought everything was under control the ceiling in the Archives room decided to spontaneously collapse, showering our flat files with a mix of plaster and broken dreams. I wasn’t around to hear the collapse, but Yolima was, and she said it sounded like a car had driven through the wall of the museum.   Luckily no one was grievously injured, and the indomitable Sarah Mason was not in the room at the time.

Don’t worry, archivists; no paper was damaged during the making of this photo.

An anonymous (and much, much, much appreciated) donation coupled with the swift ministrations of our site manager Tom contained the mess. Repairs are finished as of this afternoon.

Needless to say, I’ve been lost in the hailstorm of catching back up. Three weeks is a long time to be away, but I’m back, baby! Watch this space for at least a thousand more photos of gilding… that is, if the ceilings don’t get me first.

Oh, I almost forgot! While I was gone, Colin went and got himself hired FULL TIME as the newest member of Curatorial staff. He is our now our Curator of Interpretation, which means that instead of curating objects he curates your mind. I got him some appropriately masculine balloons to celebrate: