The Telltale Part: Reckoning with Artifactual Correctness

This stock photo hit my inbox recently in an email exhorting me to do something—I don’t remember what—with my WordPress website. I don’t remember because when I saw this photo I laughed out loud and read no further. Really laughed, not just a toss-off LOL.

At a glance I could tell the photographer had never used a manual typewriter before. How did I know? Let me count the ways.

  1. There’s no paper in the carriage (aka the long cylinder on top that’s supposed to hold the paper).
  2. There’s no ribbon (an ink-infused ribbon, carried on spools, that the metal type strikes to impress ink onto the paper).
  3. The “wrists down” position might work for typing on a computer keyboard, but is almost impossible on a manual typewriter, which requires keys to be pressed with some force, straight down, without accidentally striking others.
  4. The carriage is extra wide, intended for large documents such as maps, blueprints, etc., not for home use as shown in this photo.
  5. The cover is missing, which technically wouldn’t prevent typing but does keep dirt out of the machine.

It’s possible the photographer did know the typewriter setup wasn’t right but assumed—probably correctly—that most viewers wouldn’t know or care.  

But some do.

The errors were obvious to me because I’m old enough that I learned to type on a manual. But looking at this photo made me wonder, what if I didn’t know? What if I’d seen this setting in a museum? With apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, is a wrong or missing “telltale part” meaningful or trivial?

Given the work I do, you’re probably not surprised that I think it’s important for museums and historic sites to do the hard work of researching not just what a thing is and what it was used for, but how and why it was used.

What were the steps taken before, during, and after using it? What other items or supplies might that activity require? How was it made? How would it have been repaired and maintained? Are parts are missing? Are those extra parts spares or were they also used in some way? Would the user have likely been trained in its use or picked it up by observation and experience? Was it modified by the user? If so how and why?

Museums—along with schools—are one of the few places people visit with an expectation of learning something, and we need to take that seriously. Studies show that people consider museums highly authoritative sources of information. How many times have you gone to a museum on a subject you know well and spotted something—like this typewriter—that’s not right? Did you trust rest of the museum’s offerings more or less after that? Did it stick in your memory? Did you recommend the museum to others after that?

I once went to a small museum with an exhibit on native plants eaten by indigenous peoples. The label about Jerusalem artichokes was illustrated with—you guessed it—a green globe artichoke, not the brown tuber that should have been there. While I’m sure both are delicious with drawn butter and garlic, only one was cultivated by Native Americans as a food source. Michigan artichoke farms are legendary, don’t you know? Almost as popular as our orange and banana orchards.

Seeing the wrong artichoke made me mistrust everything else in the museum. I left and never returned.

Decades ago, I took my mother to an outdoor living history museum where I worked. I showed her around and stopped at a field where a coworker was plowing with a horse.

My mother was raised on a family farm in Eastern Kentucky and knew about plowing with mules the same way I know about using typewriters: she grew up with it. She stood there quietly for a few minutes.

I didn’t say anything, knowing she didn’t need an explanation.

Finally, she said quietly, “He hasn’t done this very much, has he?”

It was more a statement than a question. And she was right. It was a powerful reminder that our visitors often know more than we think.

It’s even more important to get it right when our visitors aren’t experts because they trust us. We need to be worthy of that trust, especially now as we face a global pandemic and a continuing assault on truth, science, and journalism. Once earned, trust must be guarded. If the greater narratives museums present are to be believed, accuracy in all things—to the best of our ability—should be our goal. No detail is too small.

The memory of my mom’s observation has stayed with me throughout my museum career—a constant reminder of the importance of developing skill and understanding process in addition to having the right stuff.

Although I don’t demonstrate historical skills as an interpreter any more, I do obsess over material culture details in my museum projects. When I don’t know, I find someone who does.

Mom isn’t around to comment on my work any more. But that innocent stock photo in a WordPress email brought it all back.

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Postscript – Most people now call # a hashtag, but in typewriter days, journalists used two “pound signs” centered on the page to indicate the end of the story. Because I have a few postscripts, however, it’s not really the end of the story!

Post Postscript – The typewriter in question is a 1970s Olivetti Linea 98 manual typewriter with a wide carriage, probably 27 inches. I did some searching and found other stock photos of the same typewriter from different angles (see below). No manufacturer name appeared in any of them, so I did what I always do at a dead end: I asked an expert! Thanks to Richard Polt for providing the ID. Here’s a link to his excellent typewriter website.

While I’ve critiqued this particular set of photos, the photographer does have some other beautiful images, all free. Here’s a link.

Post Post-Postscript – Interesting how things come full circle. In addition to her farming knowledge, my mom was an expert typist—80 words a minute her mid-50s Smith Corona portable—before arthritis robbed her fingers of flexibility. I learned to type on that machine and my sister still has it. I have the 1930 Remington Portable No. 3 that belonged to my dad’s mother. Both still work, although the Remington’s ribbon has dried out. (It was last changed when I was in high school, according to a methodical note on the ribbon box.) An old Dr. West’s toothbrush, used to clean the type was still tucked in the case. In 1938, Dr. West’s was the first brand to adopt nylon bristles, just a year after a Dupont scientist invented it. This one has nylon bristles, but because I’m not putting it in an exhibit I didn’t attempt to date the toothbrush. And yes—if I were, I would! It’s all about the details.

Post Post-Post-Postscript – A museum organization that can connect you to experts and teach you skills of bygone eras is the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM). I’ve been a member since 1985, not long before my mom made her dry observation. And in another instance of things coming full circle, I just saw the call for proposals for ALHFAM’s 2021 Annual Meeting and Conference. The illustration is—you guessed it—an old typewriter! I’m happy to report it does have paper on the carriage.

For real this time:

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How to Live History: Remembering Blake Hayes

I returned home last night from the party held in memory of Blake Hayes in Cherry Valley, New York. This post is a bit unusual in that it’s written for colleagues in the museum field, the line of work to which Blake dedicated his life—especially for members of the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM).

I met Blake at ALHFAM’s annual conference in 1986. We got married and were together 15 years before we moved on personally, but we remained engaged professionally and as friends. (Don’t worry, Blake and his wife Lorraine and me and my husband Tony all get along!)

His memorial party was an amazing event, with his friends from childhood, high school and college, his immediate family, adopted family, extended family (I think there were even in-laws of in-laws there!), “ex-family” (still regarded as family), professional colleagues, neighbors, local and regional friends, kids who grew up around him and brought their own kids, ALHFAM colleagues, Jell-O shots (which no one understood except the ALHFAMers), pets, meats, and music.

I heard Katie Boardman, one of Blake’s partners at the Cherry Valley Group, say that the comments and tributes to Blake “broke the ALHFAM-L,” a professional listserv normally used for questions and comments about museum matters. I think they also broke Facebook. After not checking my inbox for three days, I discovered literally hundreds of unread emails, nearly all Facebook notifications, ALHFAM-L summaries or personal messages about Blake.

This electronic outpouring, however, made me realize that as much of a tech enthusiast as he was, Blake didn’t need social media. He was social in the old-fashioned way—in person. He met, called, welcomed, taught, partied, shared time and stories, food and drink. Even when he was arguing his point of view passionately, it wasn’t personal. Even when he couldn’t type or walk any more, he talked. As his family reported, it was when he stopped talking that they knew the end was near.

Almost the only thing he didn’t share widely was news of his illness.

While we miss and remember and treasure all of our departed ALHFAM colleagues, I think it was Blake’s extremely social nature and long-term, deep commitment to ALHFAM that has made him so profoundly missed by all of us. Wherever Blake was, the party was. But when the party was over, valuable teaching and learning and doing occurred, informed and enhanced by personal relationships. Blake’s life is a reminder that opinionated doesn’t have to mean obnoxious.

As Dr. Takuji Doi, a long-departed ALHFAM colleague from Japan, once said after observing the flow of the annual meeting: “The difference between Japan and America: In Japan, make big decision, get drunk. In America, get drunk, make big decision!”

We need to continue to tell all of ALHFAM’s stories, the jokes, and the memories. And as much as possible we need to do it in person. There is no real substitute that can perpetuate our history. Maintaining the folklore of this organization and of your sites depends on you.

So go to your regional meetings, or those of other regions. Attend the annual conference whenever you can. Show up for your local history-related events. Gather with colleagues after hours for meals. Do it in memory of all our dearly departed, do it for yourself, and do it for the next generation.

Telling stories is, after all, the essence of history.

I recently came across something that, to me at least, seems to embody Blake’s professional and personal philosophy. It’s the last paragraph of Will and Ariel Durant’s book, The Lessons of History, published in 1968 (the year Blake graduated from high school).

To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing. The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.

May Blake live long in that spacious country of our minds, building and organizing, cooking and joking, helping and sharing. With much love always, ms

(Thanks to Eileen Hook for this great 2013 photo of Blake going Full Woodstock at ALHFAM!)

Eight Million Sunflower Seeds Can’t Be Wrong

The other day I spotted this headline: “Tate Buys 8 Million ‘Sunflower Seeds'”

For a moment, I thought that London’s famous Tate Modern was branching out into living history, or perhaps starting an heirloom seeds program like that of Pennsylvania’s Landis Valley Museum.

The single quotes should have tipped me off. These were hand-painted porcelain seeds, part of  a 100 million-seed art installation by Chinese artist Ai WeiWei. As I read on, I realized his original 2010 installation had a few similarities to some outdoor museum programs.

Seeds and plants–real ones–are important to many living history museums, as is the food that comes from them. But sometimes for the sake of interpretation, convenience, or cost, artifice comes into play. Imitation foods, products, people, or buildings can become stand-ins for the real thing, references to times and objects that no longer exist.

Mr. Ai’s handpainted seeds have multiple references: sunflower seeds were an important food source in difficult times; the tiny nuggets reminded him of tweets; Mao had called the Chinese people “sunflowers.” Mr. Ai hired 1600 Chinese artisans to make the seeds in a town where traditional porcelainware had been the mainstay for over 1000 years. In that sense, this project was a new application of traditional skills honed over generations–something some of the best living history museums also try to do by learning, preserving, and adapting historical methods and practices.

At first, Tate staff encouraged visitors to touch or wade through the pile of porcelain seeds. But they soon realized that the visitors’ movements caused the seeds to grind together, releasing hazardous dust. How many times have living history museums encouraged visitors to touch, feel, or immerse themselves in an activity and then had to back track when something went awry?

I don’t want to overextend the analogy. I was just having fun thinking about this modern art installation in terms of living history. But the folks at Landis Valley’s heirloom seed operation may want to take note: Sotheby’s sold a portion of the work–100,000 seeds–in London last year for more than half a million dollars. That’s about $5.60 per seed. Perhaps instead of printing an order form, Landis Valley should hire an auctioneer.

UPDATE Feb 3, 2013: Here’s a link to a CBS Sunday Morning feature on Ai WeiWei and a show of his work at the Hirshorn. Powerful.