[EXHIBITION PREVIEW]

The exhibition installation is on hold while I wait for the printing company to process my (admittedly massive) order. In the meantime, I thought I would share some highlights to whet your appetite before next week’s opening.

It has been SUCH a pleasure immersing myself in the world of these old photographs. What began as a puzzling jumble has slowly smoothed itself into a coherent timeline. Tracking the visual evolution of the Hermitage house and collection is a mighty thing; Mrs. Sloane accomplished quite a bit in her lifetime!

Click to enlarge (so you can read the captions), and enjoy:

Please join us next Thursday, July 7th from 6:00 – 8:00 PM for the exhibition opening. We’ve got roughly 100 more images like these, along with letters, newspaper articles and rarely-seen objects from the collection. I also heard a rumor that there might be finger food and fancy drinks… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

T-8 days!

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Stop Everything: Tom is Ironing

Tom is going to be VERY chagrined that I shared this with you, but I couldn’t resist.  Building a tabletop display case for the West Gallery has been… a bear of a task. Here are Tom and Frank applying marvelseal to MDO plywood — a.k.a making an acid-free display case from scratch. These guys are troopers.

Ok, I helped a little:

Now the backstory:

A few months ago I called around getting price quotes on a custom tabletop case. I only needed a base and a plexiglass bonnet to protect whatever objects I chose to lay out on the table. The case would sit atop the flat-file units already installed in the gallery, and as such would not need special legs or anything. It needed to be acid free and relatively nice looking, but nothing fancy. Well, imagine my surprise when I got back a quote for $15,000! They could just as well have said ONE MILLION DOLLARS. I mean, seriously. WHO IS PAYING THESE PRICES?! I’m sure I can guess, but seriously?! Appalling. (Right? I mean, aren’t you appalled? Or am I just an incredible cheapskate?) Regardless, my DIY juices started flowing and I began the serious task of figuring out how to make one in-house for much, much less.

My research began by asking various conservators who were in-the-know about my options for acid-free wood. Turns out MDO plywood is a good material for such projects, and I was already familiar with it from the time I made Frank build custom storage shelving over a bathtub. Apparently to really seal the wood and protect artifacts from off-gassing, we would have to seal the top and edges with a product called Marvelseal. At 90 dollars per roll, Marvelseal ain’t cheap, but it’s a far cry from $15k.

So, I special-ordered two sheets of MDO plywood from Norfolk’s own Yukon Lumber and made sure I had the iron ready to go. We assembled the base of the display case this week in about two hours. Total cost so far? $280.

The next piece of the puzzle was figuring out how to create a plexiglass bonnet that would fit securely on the base. Tom went through a few phases of brainstorming for this design, and since I never rushed him (swear!) he ended up coming up with something great. We called up Norva Plastics and they agreed to build us a custom bonnet for the unbelievable price of ….. drumroll please…… $300.

So, class: how much have we spent on the display case so far? That’s right — $580. I mean, seriously.

The whole she-bang won’t be completed until the end of this week, but I wanted to tell you a bit about the experience so far. The final product will serve as a place to display our beautifully conserved hand-drawn blueprints of the Hermitage, as well as other fragile works on paper. Who knows, maybe I’ll throw a textile in there! The possibilities are endless. What types of things would you like to see displayed in our new enormous case?

The Silver Lining

The weather forecast predicts a high of 99 today. Wee doggies! I would go outside and kiss that big blue air compressor if it wasn’t so hot.

Have I got a story for you! It’s a mystery story with a happy ending, so hang on:

Remember way back in February when we started talking about conserving the Bedroom ceiling? Well, we ran into some trouble and the project limped along. In a nutshell: the leak that everyone thought was inactive (the source of the original damage) was, in fact, active. Barely.

When I say “active” I don’t mean that water was streaming from the ceiling. Far from it: Stephen’s moisture readings were extremely low. He emailed me this handy map of the problem:

As you can see, the levels were rarely over 15% — quite low for a constant leak. So really more of a drip.

Stephen wasted no time setting up his equipment and preparing to do what he could. Plaster is a wily beast: since it absorbs and expels moisture like a living organism, it was possible for Stephen to remove the flaking paint from the affected area and begin restoring the damp plaster, regardless of the active leak. The only problem is that he can never repaint the ceiling as long as the leak is active, because paint would seal in the water and, eventually, peel off and look just as bad as it did before.

We were glad that Stephen could make SOME progress on the ceiling, but the larger problem remained: what was causing the dang leak? We wasted no time dressing Frank up like the Michelin man and sent him crawling into the eaves above the ceiling on the hottest day of the year. What a champion!

Side note: do you guys know Frank? You should. He is awesome. He works with Tom and does all sorts of carpentry projects for me. Frank is blessed with the rare gift of spatial intelligence; as in, I can say “hey Frank, I want this built,” and he can conceive of it and build it without any more help from me. That is RARE, people!

Frank’s investigation was fruitless. No pipes, wet spots or odd looking puddles turned up. At this point we narrowed the suspects down to three:

1. Something was wrong with the flashing/gutter on the small roof above the Bedroom. Somehow water was finding its way to the middle (?) of the bedroom ceiling from this unknown weak spot. Sorting this out would require hiring some roofers. This option bummed everyone out because we have a new roof.  It is perhaps the newest and most useful thing we’ve got around here, so if it was failing we had bigger problems.

2. A rogue radiator pipe was embedded in the cement above the bedroom ceiling and it was dripping. Did I mention there are six inches of cement between floors of this house? As a result, there is almost no way to know where any pipes lead, and we have no systems map of any kind to give us a hint. This option seemed unlikely, since nobody in their right mind would send a radiator pipe across the middle of a ceiling, even in 1916.

3. Somehow the utility sink in the storage closet above the Bedroom was leaking… but the water was shut off to that sink long, long ago! The staff is under strict instructions not to use that sink, and furthermore, that utility closet is the scariest place on Earth and no one ever goes in there unless coerced. To illustrate just how ominous it is, here is Colin standing in the corner, Blair Witch-style (with some color modification to really set the mood):

In the midst of this guessing game, THE AIR CONDITIONING BROKE. Boom. The end. Our sleuthing was placed on hold while we emptied dehumidifiers and wiped the sweat from our collective brow.

The story picked back up yesterday when Stephen came in to re-measure the wet spots on the ceiling. At that point, the new air conditioning system had been running for at least a week. Guess what? The moisture readings were cut in half. Puzzled, he realized it had to have something to do with our air conditioning system, as that was the only variable that had changed drastically in the last few weeks. He ventured upstairs once again to check out the air handler in the scary utility closet.

As he stood there and looked up at the gigantic unit affixed to the ceiling of the closet, something caught Stephen’s eye:

Do you see that white PVC pipe threading its way down to the right? Stephen grabbed it and followed it to the wall, where it ended…. at the sink.

At that point, the sink was buried under boxes. I failed to take a picture of this stage of the investigation — shame on me — because you would understand why this little white pipe would not have occurred to us before. It was completely obscured by junk.

But guess what? A steady drip of water was coming out the end of that pipe. Condensation from the old air handler had, at some point, been redirected into this “dead” sink. And none of us knew it. As long as the air conditioning was running, water was draining into that sink and presumably leaking out of a faulty pipe and into the ceiling below. We started collecting the water in a bucket and, would you look at that! The moisture all but disappeared.

The important thing to take away from all this — according to me, the eternal optimist — is that we probably wouldn’t have figured this out had the air conditioning not broken.

The new air conditioning is much more efficient and blows a lot colder than the old system. Had this colder air not been introduced, and had our air handlers not been producing less water as a result, Stephen’s readings would have stayed the same. We would have hired roofers, spent more money, and continued to hunt and peck until maybe — let’s hope — someone had thought to check that durn PVC pipe. It would have taken a lot longer, in other words.

So that’s the story! The Bedroom ceiling is saved thanks to our air conditioning kicking the bucket. Speaking of buckets: we’re letting that pipe drain into a gallon bucket that needs emptying every 5 hours. Can you believe how much water was draining down that “dead” sink without us knowing? Crazy.

Respite

The very, very expensive temporary air conditioning unit is up and running.

I assume we are paying for it by the ounce, because not only is it expensive (did I mention that already?), it is HUGE:

This art history major can’t help but be impressed by our new set-up. First, an enormous truck arrived and unloaded this monster in our staff parking lot. A team of able-bodied people busily hooked it up to our existing system (not without its electrical hiccups), and WAH LA: perfectly chilled air is pouring into my office as I type. I mean, I realize we put a man on the moon, and my own dear husband rides around on a nuclear-powered submarine, but I am amazed by the power of machinery. But maybe I’m just an idiot. Regardless, I am thankful for the air conditioning and so are the paintings.

I’m busy preparing for the June 30th opening of our archival exhibit on the life and times of William and Florence Sloane. I’m having a blast figuring out what objects to display along with the timeline. For instance: in 1901, Florence Sloane acquired the very first item of her esteemed collection: a Japanese satsuma bowl on a teakwood stand. The bowl was a gift from her sister, Grace B. Stiles. The handwritten accession record simply states, “This gift started the Florence K. Sloane Collection.”  We’ll have the bowl on display alongside the first museum vitrine she ever purchased (in 1912! Nearly 20 years before her first gallery opened!). All of these objects lead inexorably to her greatest achievements: the founding of the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences (now the Chrysler Museum) and the Hermitage Museum and Gardens.

Mrs. Sloane with a litter of puppies. August, 1929

I find it interesting to track Mrs. Sloane’s collecting patterns alongside corresponding personal and world events. As a new bride, she purchased a great deal of furniture,  silver and china in the years between her marriage (1893) and World War I (1914). Her interest in painting, sculpture and Asian art did not arise until much later (1930s and beyond). She made some missteps in her early years, and I’ve seen the drawer full of hideous knock-off Sevres porcelain that proves it. Right now I’m fleshing out her story during the 1920s — easily the most exciting time in her life as a collector — and I am continuously amazed at what a simultaneously electrifying and depressing time it was for Americans. If anyone can recommend a good book on the interwar period please let me know! I’d particularly like to see one about women…

Mrs. Sloane and friends on vacation in Italy, 1927

So, as you can see, I’m not quite finished, but I am so excited to finally tell Mrs. Sloane’s story in depth. I think she is a fascinating figure in American art history, particularly in the South. She was a woman operating alone from what was essentially a backwater industrial town. Isolated from the New York society in which she was raised, she worked tirelessly (for nearly forty years!) to recreate that same sort of learned gentility in her new Virginia home. Every single arts organization and museum in this area has her to thank for their structure, funding and history, and almost nobody knows it. And that makes me a little mad sometimes. So here’s to you, Florence Sloane: thank you for all you achieved.

As a parting shot, please enjoy this snap of the Oak Leaf Hydrangea taking over the front of the East Wing. It is a lovely time at the Hermitage:

Cheers!