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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