by Shoshana Resnikoff, ’08
Doing this internship, and battling the aforementioned bugs, showed me how any work you do can be fun and exciting so long as you care about the reasons WHY you’re doing it.
The same thing goes for archival research. Sure, it was boring to look through old files and reading through changing floor plans in architectural drawings of Grey Towers, or working my way through deeds and trusts. And yes, I wasn’t crazy about the years of correspondence between Gifford Pinchot and his personal secretary. But then suddenly I’d discover a letter from Theodore Roosevelt or Gifford and his wife Cornelia’s wedding invitation still perfectly preserved in archival storage and I’d be reminded of why I love this work. Not for the glamour or the money (definitely not for the money!) but for the excitement of watching as the past comes to life before my eyes. I felt that my work had meaning. It changed the world, and the way we perceive it. That is an amazing feeling and one that I intend to keep on having.
It wasn’t just watching history come to life before my eyes that I loved, but also knowing that I was preserving that history. Part of that meant learning to do basic conservation and preservation tasks, like encasing photographs in protective film or making tiny repairs to ripped documents and chipped objects.
In one particular case, though, it meant interacting with a famous work of fine art. The Pinchots, who built Grey Towers in 1886, were of French descent. Constantine Pinchot had been a supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the family fled from France to America after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.
They never forgot their French roots or their love for the defeated Emperor, and eventually James Pinchot commissioned the famous sculptor Launt Thompson to sculpt a statue of Napoleon out of bronze. The statue, which portrays Napoleon as both larger than life and as a humble soul, was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for many years.
Eventually Napoleon (the statue, not the man) made it back to Grey Towers. Napoleon is very popular with visitors, who enjoy the non-traditional image of the well-recognized leader. Preserving bronze statues, however, is a complicated process. Bronze, like all metals, is highly susceptible to corrosion and thus has to be protected from the elements. But not all kinds of corrosion are bad for bronze; what we prize most about art made of bronze is the lovely patina it acquires over the years, but patina is just a fancy word for corrosion. In short, there is good corrosion and bad corrosion, and when it comes to dealing with bronze statuary you have to find a way to preserve the good while preventing the bad. The best way to do that is to simply apply a protective coat of non-toxic wax to the statue once a year and then leave it alone.
But how does this involve me? Well, one day I noticed that Napoleon was starting to look a little worse for wear. Concerned, I told my supervisor, wondering aloud if he was due for a fresh coat of wax. I figured that would be the end of my involvement: the lowly curatorial intern noticed that Napoleon needed wax and then the qualified and experienced museum specialist would actually apply it. But no — Becky took her position as SCA intern supervisor very seriously and was determined to make sure that I got as much work experience as possible during my short months with her. She handed me a canister of wax, flannel to use as a shammy-cloth, and told me to buck up and go take care of poor Napoleon.
Needless to say, I was terrified. This was a work of fine art! And I wasn’t just going to be doing a small preservation task — I was going to be working directly on the object! Here I was, a month and a half into my first museum position, and I was already working independently to help preserve a great work of art and an important part of this family’s history. How incredible was that?
The only way for a quality museum to protect and exhibit its possessions is for the museum to know exactly what it possesses. To do that, it has to keep a catalogue. At Grey Towers they were still in the process of updating their catalogue. A catalogue doesn’t just include the item’s name, though — it also has to have any and all background information that the museum has on it. The object’s value is often determined by its provenance, and the museum has an obligation to get all the information down in one place.
I wasn’t just working with items and looking them up in the catalogue, as I might have done in another museum; instead I was making the catalogue entries themselves. I learned exactly how to enter information and how to do the research to even find the information.
At one point one of my coworkers mentioned being distressed over the fact that on tours, many people asked about a set of gold and marble candlesticks and that she had no information to give them. “Oh, the candlesticks on the sideboard in the Great Hall?” I asked. When she said yes, I answered, “I just made a catalogue entry for those — they’re European, most likely from Rome, 19th century, gold leaf and marble, and they are worth a combined six thousand dollars.” It was a small moment, but for me it highlighted how enjoyable it can be to supply important and hard-to-locate information.
I spent a lot of my time at Grey Towers labeling objects. This is yet another thing that can sound extraordinarily boring from the outside. I mean, tell someone that you spend your days using harsh chemicals to paint tiny numbers onto antique furniture and decorative arts and you’ll watch as their eyes glaze over with boredom. But I was crawling and twisting on the floor to get the right spot to write the number in a hard-to-read location. I loved the smell of the paint and pens used to label the objects. I loved the challenge of finding stranger and stranger places to put the numbers, and I loved the goofy white gloves we had to wear whenever we handled historic objects. What I loved most of all, though, was the extraordinarily concrete nature of the work. I was so obviously leaving my mark and contributing in a very physical way to the preservation of history.
Labeling objects also gave me, bizarrely, more opportunities to interact with visitors. One anecdote in particular comes to mind. Two of the three historic museum rooms in Grey Towers have outer walls with huge window doors that open onto terraces, each with two huge drapes. Made of heavy brocade and velvet and nine feet long, the drapes were too big for me to take down, so I had to sit on the floor in the historic rooms and sew tags onto the linings of the fabric. Often a tour group would enter the room I was in and not notice me working quietly on the floor for quite some time. When the tour guides saw me (and got over their surprise), they would introduce me to the group and tell them a little bit about what I was doing. It was a wonderful opportunity for the visitors to get a small glimpse into the “backstage work” of museums, and I think they all enjoyed it.
One time a visitor didn’t hear the tour guide explain my presence. She saw me on the floor sewing, though, and came up to chat. She thought I was there as a “living history” type display, re-enacting what a servant of the Pinchots’ might have done. “Are you pretending to be a servant girl?” she asked. When I explained that no, I was a curatorial intern not a historical re-enactor (tactfully leaving out the sassy comment about how if I were a re-enactor, my non-period hiking boots and polo shirt would have gotten me in trouble) she started asking me questions about what it was like to work in a mansion during the 19th century. That sparked a whole conversation on the decorative art trends of the 19th and early 20th century. We ended up talking for a couple minutes and drawing in other visitors. It was a wonderful and spontaneous moment of education and sharing between the two of us, one that was only possible because I happened to be there that day working on the drapes.
This, then, was the second way that my SCA internship transformed me: it gave me concrete career goals and showed me exactly what was involved in the work I wanted to do. It gave me serious work experience and curatorial/conservation skills, all the while showing me how even the most boring and mundane of work tasks could be made interesting and engaging. It also gave me the opportunity to do real, intense curatorial work that I would never have been able to do at any private museum internship.
By imbuing all the work, from the housekeeping to the labeling to the conservation, with a sense of importance and significance, this experience gave me an even greater sense of mission and determination to pursue museum work and public history as a career.
Photos, from top: Shoshana; Napoleon statue at Grey Towers, photo credit - zabelle; Grey Towers Library
To be continued.
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