What do a sweetgrass teacup and a Surrealist sculpture have in common? One of our newest staff members, Giordano Angeletti explores our online collections and find some really interesting connections.
Just days after joining McKissick Museum as the new Curator of Exhibitions, we were sent home due to COVID-19. From home, to get my bearings, I started to explore the museum’s online collection. The McKissick Museum collects a surprising variety of objects encompassing fine art, folk art, minerals, fossils, plant specimens, political memorabilia, and historical artifacts tied to the University of South Carolina and the state of South Carolina.
As I made my way through the collection, two objects stood out for me: a cup and a saucer made out of sweetgrass, by Mary Jane Bennett. They made me smile and made me think about how many connections can be sparked by a simple object. The teacup is 4.5 inches in diameter and 2.75 inches high and, what I consider to be the matching plate, is 5.5 inches in diameter. Both objects’ bodies are made out of a single coil of sweetgrass. The handle on the cup is attached by the coils at the very top and bottom. In an interview, Bennett said that traditionally these objects would have been made to be functional rather than decorative artifacts, but at the time of the interview she recognized that they were starting to be bought as decorative items.
Bennett’s cup reminds me of Surrealist art on many levels. On a superficial level, there is nothing to see here; it is an everyday object that is immediately recognizable as such, yet it does not work. It does not work by design. It is a little larger than it is supposed to be; its sides are a little thicker than what a user would be used to drinking from; but most of all, it is a terrible vessel for liquids. The materials are just not suitable for the purpose at hand. This line of thinking fits well with my interest in finding out, “When does the ordinary becomes art?”. Does an object need to be functionally useless so that it can become an object intended to be consumed as art? Or is it that once we define and elevate a utilitarian object to artwork, do we cripple its capacity to be used in our lives? My thoughts about the cup and saucer with these existential questions I’m posing are probably not what Bennett was thinking about when making these objects; these ideas stem from my training in art history and as a practicing artist. The fact that such an artifact is so fascinating to me might be more telling about my thinking and sense of humor, than it is of Bennett’s.
Looking at Bennett’s work also makes me think of another famous artwork. While we will never be able to tell for sure where Bennett got her inspiration for the cup and saucer, when I look at her work, I immediately think of Meret Oppenheim’s Object—titled Le Déjeuner en fourrure (Lunch in fur). Oppenheim’s 1930s sculpture is a Surrealist work of art that toys with the notion of the everyday. At a minimum, the idea of bringing a fur-lined teacup to one’s lips would make most people uncomfortable. Similarly, using Bennett’s cup would prove awkward. It would drip liquid all over you and the grass would be rough and unpleasant to the lips. The fact that it is larger than we expect a teacup to be would compound the disorientation experienced.
That gap between recognizing the object as a teacup and recognizing how many ways both Bennett’s and Oppenheim’s pieces do not work as teacups is what generates meaning and causes us to question what we experience as ordinary.
The University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum is pleased to announce the release of “Quarantunes,” a weekly Facebook Live series showcasing performances by Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award recipients, South Carolina Arts Commission Traditional Arts Apprenticeship participants, and more! Tune in to McKissick’s Facebook page every Friday evening at 7pm to enjoy performances from some of the best traditional artists in the Palmetto State.
While COVID-19 may have enforced a lockdown, McKissick Museum has moved online to continue to showcase traditional music from across the state. From April to June, we will be bringing a variety of artists online to perform a series of at-home concerts.
We are pleased to kick off our series with Willie Wells & The Blue Ridge Mountain Grass Band. The son of the late Bill Wells – a 1998 Folk Heritage Award Winner – Willie has immersed himself in the sounds of bluegrass and country music since the early 1970s, playing drums, and singing lead and harmony vocals. Having early country music and bluegrass influence from his father, Willie continued to develop and expand his musical direction toward recording studio production.
As the bluegrass influence has continued to grow over the past ten to twelve years, Willie continues in the musical legacy that his father started. Inspired by his father to play guitar and lead the band his father started over forty years ago, Willie continues in his father’s footsteps to preserve bluegrass music in South Carolina.
Quarantunes is just a small piece of McKissick Museum’s mission to support the traditional arts in South Carolina. As you enjoy the sights and sounds of these influential artists, we hope you’ll consider supporting McKissick Museum’s Midlands Gives Campaign on May 5th. All funds raised will go directly to 10 local artists who have been selected to participate in FOLKFabulous 2020 and heavily affected by COVID-19. Your support will help ensure the continuation of the South Carolina’s traditional arts and FOLKFabulous for years to come!
As we work from home, our Executive Director, Dr. Jane Przybysz, takes a deeper look into the history of quilts, as more than just crafted textiles, but as charged sites. Explore how these textiles held memory, comfort, pain and ultimately, power.
A book by feminist quilt artist Radka Donnell titled Quilts as Women’s Art: a Quilt Poetics (1990) first introduced me to the idea of quilts as “charged sites”. Donnell perceptively observed that—in many cultures–quilts and other textiles are objects linked with major rites of passage—birth, marriage, and death. As such, they often evoke strong and sometimes conflicting emotions. What with fabric being so skin-like, and bedcoverings being so intimately associated with the bodily pleasures and pain we experience in beds, Donnell made the case that quilts as an art form are unique in that they simultaneously conjure feelings of comfort and vulnerability.
Thinking about quilts as charged sites really complicated how I subsequently thought about the history of quiltmaking in North America, particularly the history of quilting bees. Whereas quilting bees seem to have entered the popular imagination as quaint gatherings of little old ladies who gossiped away an afternoon while sharing the work of stitching the three layers of a quilt together, close readings of multiple historical accounts of quilting bees suggest women often hosted quilting bees—or “parties” or “frolics”—to jockey for resources, visibility, power and control over the fates of their daughters within their families and communities.
Unlike the rather tame affairs that most of us imagine quilting bees to have been, 18th– and 19th-century quilting bees often were quite rowdy “coming out” parties for newly marriageable young women or even widows. After the collective work of stitching a quilt together during the day was complete, men would arrive in the evening for food, drink, and making merry. Making merry might include singing, dancing to fiddle tunes, and play party kissing games late into the night and early morning. A quilting party, in other words, was a way that women proactively invited and vetted potential mates for their daughters and, on occasion, themselves.
In this context, the quilt itself might be a testament not only to the social networks but the actual skills, knowledge, and wealth—specifically cloth wealth– a woman might bring to a marriage. Prior to the industrial revolution, cloth of any kind was highly labor intensive to produce and, hence, an expensive commodity. People who knew how to raise, harvest, spin, weave, dye, cut and sew cloth possessed skills and knowledge widely valued within families and communities. Cloth was a form of wealth and quilts were listed in estate inventories as valuable property.
Mothers wanting to empower their daughters with cloth wealth might organize quilting parties as a means to that end. Whether the quilt was made from cloth purchased by the girl’s family or from blocks contributed by multiple family and/or community members, a quilt made for a young woman’s dowry provided her a resource that she could later use to pay or barter for other goods if the need arose.
Folklore has it that a young woman was supposed to have completed a baker’s dozen quilts prior to her engagement, at which point she would begin work on the 13th—her wedding quilt. In truth, most 18th– and 19th-century brides appear to have had two or three quilts with which to set up housekeeping. But I like to think that the supposed “tradition” of a girl having 13 quilts when she wed was more like an aspirational goal women of a certain era had for their daughters—a wish that they be well supplied with the physical embodiment of the emotional support of their female social networks and the economic resources they would need to cope with the ups and downs that married life almost inevitably entailed.
Today’s blog comes from Dr. Lana Burgess, McKissick Museum’s Faculty Curator and Director of the Museum Studies Management Certificate Program. The topic? Documenting and collecting projects during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
The idea of collecting stories during the COVID-19 Novel Corona Virus pandemic was originally shared with me by Amanda Belue, McKissick Museum’s awesome Communications Manager. Amanda is engaged with and follows all of our social media outlets. While the thought of doing that exhausts me, I appreciate that she shares what she learns. She sent me a link to a conversation on Twitter between faculty who were creating and sharing assignments asking their students to document this unprecedented, historical moment
Our initial research also turned up additional resources from the, now international collection and online exhibit, started by Catherine O’Donnell, Richard Amesbury, and Mark Tebeau in the School for Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University aptly titled A Journal of the Plague Year: an Archive of COVID-19. Anyone can and is invited to contribute to their ongoing project here. At McKissick, we talked about having our student staff participate as a way to help them continue to work and earn a paycheck. I also began to think about it as an assignment idea for my class.
This semester, I am teaching a graduate seminar for UofSC’s Certificate of Graduate Study in Museum Management on the best practices in collections management. Much of what I teach leans towards the very practical, hands-on side of things. Not being able to have the class meet in person concerned me greatly, as the result could be an unfulfilling experience, given the hands-on limitations of online learning. Watching the news about a possible recession, stimulus packages, and spreading disease, I began reflecting on the student’s final project. It actually was an assignment that could be completed remotely. I had asked my students to submit an electronic portfolio demonstrating what they had learned about museum collections: their care, legal issues, policies, and procedures, etc. Normally, this assignment serves the students well, as students in past years have presented their work at conferences or used the portfolio in job interviews. However, at this particular moment in time (March 23, 2020), I felt strongly that the students needed to do something else. If there was any possibility that there are not going to be internships and jobs available by summer, then why put students through the torture of an assignment that is a constant reminder of their uncertain professional future? And what better way than to employ curatorial practice than by putting word and image together to tell a story of how they are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic?
I polled the students to get feedback on the idea. They liked it and so I borrowed heavily from the open source, creative commons work of my colleagues at other universities to create the assignment. Some of the things that I added were a few directly personal questions as a way of checking on my students before they took a deep dive into documentation and reflection. Because I think that I am the funniest person that I know, I created a short slide show answering some of the questions to which I asked the students to respond. The PDF of my initial contribution to the collecting project, which I shared with my students, is available for you here too, as is their assignment.
So why collect the COVID-19 pandemic? For museums and archives, the items collected become a part of the historical record. Letters, journals, notes, such as grocery lists, photographs, oral histories, and medical supplies (or their absence) in such collections, will help future generations contextualize the past. It will teach fear, sadness, hope, change, adaptation, and resilience. In the present, and partly because we live in an information age, the act of collecting and sharing stories bridges the physical distance between human beings and penetrates the closed doors separating us from talking to each other in person. Commonalities emerge and communities form to mitigate the anxiety, loneliness, and grief experienced by so many.
At a time when we are all trying to figure out the best way to cope, I ask that you please share your story. What has daily life been like for you? If you wish to share these with McKissick Museum or the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina, we would welcome your submissions. We will share more as information becomes available about University-wide collecting efforts
But don’t do it just for us. Do it for yourself.
Make yourself a priority. Reach out and stay connected. After all, we will get through this together.
Fresh off her home computer, Linda Smith, our HSN Project Manager, brings you this month’s HSN update.
Wow! What a difference a month makes, right?
We were working right along, making up lost time….and BOOM! Covid-19 makes its presence known.
“WHAT NEXT?” was my first reaction when the campus closed for an extra week of spring break. I shouldn’t have asked…Fast forward a week and a half and campus is closed for at least the remainder of the Spring 2020 term.
But we are in the middle of a multi-year, nearly half a million dollar grant and we have to keep working. Our grant employees need to continue to receive paychecks. So, “WHAT DO WE DO NOW?” became our next question. How does one convert an ongoing digitization project housed in a museum, where access to the collection is integral to the process, to a remote work project?
Answering this question has been our focus for about a week and a half now.
The first step in the process was to access. Access where we are in the project. Access the connectivity of the group, who has access to a computer, the correct software, etc…
The most important piece of the puzzle was figuring out how we can access the collection remotely. Thankfully, our brilliant and compassionate Curator of Collections converted an off-campus office where one of our students could continue to photograph the remainder of the shells in the Gibbes shell collection.
Next, we needed to assign different aspects of the process to various student employees in order to get these images processed. Once we photograph and process to DNG’s, we file share the photos to a student for descriptions and to another student for processing.
We have other students working on metadata, spreadsheets, and entering objects into our Past Perfect database as well.
Easy? No. Necessary for the circumstances we find ourselves in? Yes. Not the way we would chose to work on our project, but necessity breeds ingenuity…is that the right saying? Oh well…it definitely applies to this situation.
So you may see some rather odd blog posts as the response to Covid-19 continues to unfold, but know that we are working hard to be flexible, and truthfully, just happy to be working.
Stay tuned…as the Historic Southern Naturalists project continues marching on…ok baby steps but progress is progress.
February’s update comes from Matt Gibson at The Charleston Museum. Our Historic Southern Naturalists Project continues to uncover key players in the preservation of natural history in the South, like Daniel S. Martin.
Professor Daniel S. Martin served as Honorary Curator of Geology at The Charleston Museum in the early 1900s. Prof. Martin was responsible for all rock and mineral samples as well as invertebrate fossils. Formerly a Professor of Geology at Rutgers Female College, and a geologist of renown, Martin helped reorganize the geological collections at the Museum which at the time were in disarray. As Martin himself notes, “In the department of mineralogy and geology … little has been done since the time of Prof. Holmes” who had resigned his curator position with the Museum in 1869.
As curator, Prof. Martin took on the task of organizing the geological and paleontological specimens in the Museum and took particular note of two subsets of the Museum’s collection: A collection of minerals from the Ural Mountains (located in Western Russia) and a collection of phosphate rocks collected by Dr. C. U. Shepard. The Ural mountain collection was representative of the mining efforts in the area and included many semi-precious stones used in jewelry making such as emerald, topaz, garnet, and azurite, among others. Martin described this collection in Museum bulletin as truly exceptional and that “No such exhibit of Russian minerals can probably be found in any other Museum in the United States.” Dr. Shepard’s collection of phosphate rocks were collected from all over the world with the primary goal of being used comparison to the phosphates known from South Carolina.
While with the Museum, Martin also donated some of his own specimens to the collection. There are currently over 100 specimens within the Museum’s collection collected by Prof. Martin. Most are geology specimens, like samples of the metamorphic rock, gneiss. A high grade metamorphic rock, gneiss is formed from igneous rock (such as granite or schist) or sedimentary rock (such as sandstone) that has been exposed to high levels of heat and pressure. This process causes the minerals to align into distinct foliations, appearing as stripes or bands on the rock. Common minerals seen in gneiss include quartz and feldspar which are hard minerals. This in addition to the changes brought on through metamorphosis result in gneiss being a particularly hard material and results in gneiss commonly being used in industry as building material, as ornamental stone, and tabletops.
Prof. Martin also collected some paleontological material from the Charleston area. This includes two fossil whale teeth. Collectors have been uncovering fossil whale material from James Island to as far inland as Orangeburg, with specimens recovered inland being from older layers compared to those found closer to the present coastline. The two teeth are from an extinct species of odontocete, or toothed whale, and were collected from an old phosphate mine. These two specimens represent two more data points in fossil whale research in the Lowcountry. Specimens like the ones Prof. Martin collected over a century age help build our understanding of our natural world and we aim to continue his legacy of preserving these important objects.
Our first blog of 2020 is brought to you by our fantastic Digital Collections Librarian Mēgan A. Oliver
Digitizing natural history collections is quickly becoming a specialty of ours, over at the Digital Collections department at the University of South Carolina Libraries. We’ve partnered with McKissick Museum for the past few years on their nationally grant-funded digitization project entitled ‘Historic Southern Naturalists’ (HSN); many thanks to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the grant. This digital project has been highly collaborative and has produced a useful and beautiful web portal from which to access myriad museum collections of fossils, rocks, dried botanicals, and minerals, as well as the library’s collection of early naturalist manuscripts.
Since the HSN digital collaboration yielded such great results in providing museum and library users with fantastic historical resources, we’re excited to be back at the beginning of a new natural history digital collection.
In 2019, UofSC officially established the Mark Catesby Centre, a collective of scientists, librarians, curators, rare book experts, and naturalists, with invested personnel spread across the United States and the United Kingdom. The Catesby Centre’s work revolves around researching and promoting the ever-important findings and illustrative records of Mark Catesby, a naturalist that came to study biology in the Carolinas, Florida, and the Bahamas almost three centuries ago. Catesby’s seminal work predates that of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus by 29 years, with Catesby’s first edition of natural history findings published in 1729. Linnaeus would not release his now-famous biological classification system until 1758. The entirety of Catesby’s work in his multivolume set “The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands” was published over the course of 18 years, beginning in May of 1729 and ending in July of 1747.
Digitizing these rare and sometimes delicate natural history items requires specialty scanners and camera equipment, fully trained staff, and a great deal of time and patience. We strive to ensure that the color balance and tone distribution captured with our digitization equipment is as true to the physical, original item as possible. Calibrating and staging a single shot or scan can take up to 30 minutes, or the process could involve multiple scans of the same item in order to get the digital facsimile just right. In our department, this attention to detail often captures the iridescence and depth of the pigments used to hand color illustrations, as well as the texture of paper and the organic signs of age that rare books exhibit. Our staff, often graduates of the School of Library and Information Science here at UofSC, take great pride in producing such detailed work, as digital collections like these provide researchers with the next best thing to seeing a rare item in person; seeing it anywhere in the world at any time, online.
Last year alone, we digitized and helped to format metadata (data that describes the digitized items online) for about 12,000 items for the Historic Southern Naturalists digital collection, and we scanned a little over 2,500 pages and prints from our Catesby rare books. In creating yet another stunning natural history digital collection for students, scholars, and historians to peruse, we hope to create a diverse wealth of natural history primary resources online.
Historic Southern Naturalists, http://digitalussouth.org/historicsouthernnaturalists/index.php
The Mark Catesby Centre, https://digital.library.sc.edu/markcatesbycentre/mark-catesby/
The Centre’s announcement, https://sc.edu/about/offices_and_divisions/university_libraries/exhibits_events_news/news/catesby.php
Mark Catesby, https://cdn.lib.unc.edu/dc/catesby/about.html
Catesby’s multivolume publication dates and information, personal communication (email) with Catesby Centre curator Dr. Michael Weisenburg
Carolus [Carl] Linnaeus, https://www.anbg.gov.au/biography/linnaeus.html