Some Answers to your Questions

What was that whistling sound? Oh, it was the sound January makes as it FLIES RIGHT PAST ME. Good lord, y’all. That was fast.

So! Last year as I was dreaming up the design of the West Gallery I had a wild hair. I desperately wanted an interactive portion in the new gallery, and since we’re not exactly rolling around in dollar bills over here I knew it had to be cheap (i.e. no touch screens, audio components, or anything that needs bolting to the floor on account of its appeal to thieves). I did some poking around on my favorite museum blogs and came across this post on Museum 2.0 about a participatory exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum called “Case by Case.”

[this is where I admit to completely ripping off something I found on the internet]

The premise of “Case by Case” is pretty simple: put objects on display with no label and provide the visitor with an opportunity to ask questions and/or make observations about the objects. The Curators provided the public with plenty of sticky notes and pencils and they went for it! The result was impressive. CLICK HERE TO SEE.

The Hermitage version of “Case by Case” is not nearly as large, nor as specific. Instead of questions about particular objects I invited our visitors to ask any question they had about the house, gardens, or galleries. I had Tom rig up a floating door panel (covering up one of our storage areas and visually extending the gallery wall all the way around the room) and used the 4’x8′ panel as a place for our guests to post their questions (you don’t want sticky notes hanging willy-nilly around a historic structure).

Well, it’s been a hit! Here is the question panel this morning:

I thought I’d post a few of the questions here as they concern all aspects of our site — and you might be interested in my answers as well.

1. How did you make the vines go up the building?

There are two types of climbing vines growing around the Hermitage structure. The first type, Boston Ivy, clings to brick walls with tiny roots that secrete a sort of glue that bonds to the masonry. The second type, Wisteria, requires a trellis or other supporting structure in order to climb. The Mechanical Building (the building you see on the right as you approach the museum from the parking lot) is covered in Boston Ivy. Here it is during its autumnal peak:

Here is a picture of one of our 70-year-old wisteria vines spilling over the East garden wall in the spring:

Ah, spring. Here is another wisteria vine in bloom:

Mrs. Sloane traveled extensively through England during the 1920s. When she returned to Virginia she wanted her American home to appear as old and distinguished as the English country homes she admired. The quickest way to make a new building look old is to plant a fast-growing climber near the foundation and let nature have its way. Here are some pictures of the Hermitage from the 1920s-30s showing the ivy in its infancy:

The vines were picturesque in the 1930s-40s… but pose a difficult battle in the 2010’s. Yolima Carr, our Curator of Gardens, uses nails, fishing line and a good sharp electric hedge trimmer to keep everything in line year-round.

2. What were the names of Mrs. Sloane’s dogs?

The Hermitage was home to nearly 40 dogs during Mrs Sloane’s lifetime. She loved them! Her favorites were two Russian wolfhounds named Zonoza and Dosa. Here is Mrs. Sloane with a puppy on the front lawn of her first home in Norfolk, circa 1905:

3. There is a little room at the end of the hall that is cordoned off. The library books are very interesting and diverse. Who did the room belong to and what was its purpose?

Mrs. Sloane had two young sons who grew up at the Hermitage. The second floor of the East wing was their domain and there are a number of small reading nooks replete with shelves and desks for private study. The boys, William Jr. and E.K., went off to Oxford in the 1920s and left behind an impressive collection of books that Mrs. Sloane continued to add to throughout her lifetime. When the Hermitage opened to the public in 1937, Mrs. Sloane envisioned the museum acting as a mini lending-library for the citizens of Norfolk, with a special emphasis on books about art. Today, the small library at the end of the Painting Gallery holds a number of rare books on art and architecture from around the world. 

The books on the right are tied with acid-free twill tape to help hold the fragile bindings together. At some point in the last fifty years a nefarious mouse (or cockroach, blecht) chewed all the glue (and most of the bindings) from that side of the room. Oh lord it gives me the heebies just thinking about it. I had two of my star interns work on cleaning, stabilizing, and documenting the book collection over the course of a year or so. In addition to tying the books together, they filled out condition reports on each book, photographed it, and manually entered the record into our database. The best part? Now whenever we get a research request I can refer to the handy map made by my favorite intern Rebecca and find the book in question lickity split!

4. Did you leave this room the way it was? 

[Referring to the West Gallery.] No, I did not. However, Mrs. Sloane always intended for the West Gallery to be an area for exhibitions, based on the built-in display case along the far wall. We are better able to feature more of her collection in optimal conditions in this updated space and I think she would have liked that.  Here is the West Gallery in 1941. You may recognize the painting on the right as the one hanging in the Central Hall today. It is a still life painted in 1922 by Hovsep Pushman entitled At the Temple Door:

5. Please add labels and tags to the flowers and trees in the garden. 

We get this one a lot. Unfortunately, we are not a botanical garden. We have one gardener for twelve acres… which is not nearly enough. If you want to know more about the varieties of plants growing around the site please consider taking a garden tour with our curator, Yolima. She is extremely friendly AND knowledgeable to boot! Yolima wanted me to point out that we carry a list of plants currently in bloom in the back of our newsletter (found at the front desk). She updates that list every two months. Our new website also features an interactive map and lists of plants according to season. Click here to ch-ch-ch-check it out.

6. Why the statue was crying flowers? [This one was written in the ADORABLE handwriting of a very young person]

The statue this young visitor refers to is this one, currently on display in our Contemporary Changing Galleries as part of Blossoming: Works by Tory Fair:

One of the many joys of hosting contemporary artists at the Hermitage is the ability to send them questions like these. (Oh, how I wish I could ask Mrs. Sloane a few questions…) Tory answered us via email and explained,

“The flowers are growing out of the eyes like tears.  I put flowers at the end to suggest that with sadness there is also growth.  Sometimes something beautiful emerges from something sad.”

Lovely! Here is another of Tory’s pieces currently on display, entitled In the Floor:

I hope you enjoyed today’s Q&A. This is just the first installment! Many thanks to the fine folks of the San Diego Natural History Museum for their creative and cost-effective idea. We are loving it in Virginia!

In other news, did you know that four members of Hermitage staff (including yours truly AND our esteemed director) are teaching art history at THREE of Norfolk’s universities? That is a lot of higher learning going on. Hey I know — let’s all meet in the common room and talk about Romanticism. I’ll order some pizzas.