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More Than a Number

 

It’s just a little more than a week ago that More Than a Number opened. As always, the work was very hectic at the end, getting all the labels done and mounted, figuring out what to do about hanging the labels on the fabric “wall”, and spending way more time than I expected mounting one of the art pieces. I was absolutely exhausted by the end, as were many others who helped put together and mount this exhibition. But, I learned so much in the course of working on this exhibition that I can only be grateful for the experience. And I know that however tired I may have been—or however hungry I was on that day I didn’t have time to stop for lunch—it was nothing compared to the experiences of the people who are the focus of the exhibition.

Like many people, I suspect, I knew that there had been a genocide in Cambodia, and I knew that many, many people had died. What I didn’t realize was that nearly a third of the population died one way or another, though forced labor, starvation, or execution. I thought when the Khmer Rouge took over, people fled to the borders and ended up in refugee camps. But that wasn’t right either. It wasn’t until the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia late in 1978 and drove out the Khmer Rouge that Cambodians had an opportunity to escape. The whole country had been a sort of prison between 1975 and 1979, with no way out.

The preview reception for More Than a Number featured special musical performances.

When we were working on the labels, I helped edit survivors’ personal stories for presentation. The hardships, resourcefulness, and perseverance of people, some only children and on their own, is astonishing. I find it hard even to imagine learning how to handle an AK-47 or swimming across a river to find food. And I struggle to understand how or why someone would target another human being just because they were an artist or teacher. It seems incredible that a government could evacuate people from cities, much less think it a good idea. And why would they try to eliminate color and make everyone dress in black, especially in a culture that so values bright and brilliant colors?

Members of the Angkor Dance Troupe perform a traditional Cambodian dance.

At the preview reception, we were lucky to have many of the survivors whose stories are told in More Than a Number. Each one’s life is a testament to human courage and determination. They are truly remarkable people, and I thank every one of them for being willing to share their stories with the rest of us.

Diane Fagan Affleck

Director of Interpretation

Wrapped in Tradition

 

My first visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico was in 1999, as part of my research for an exhibition of Native American trade blankets. I had arranged the trip around my daughter Kristen’s schedule so that she could join me at the Rainbow Man shop after she attended the Annual Federal Bar Association Indian Law Conference. My interest in trade blankets stemmed from a very moving ceremony during her graduation from Dartmouth College in 1994. Each student receiving a certificate in Native American studies was wrapped in a beautiful Pendleton blanket. Since then I felt compelled to learn more about these magnificent blankets and their importance to native people. One of my resources was Robert Kapoun a collector and proprietor of the Rainbow Man shop who had written an excellent book on the history and tradition of trade blankets.

Reading Language of the Robe I had learned basic facts about the history and evolution of trade blankets over many generations and I now understood the complex weaving techniques involved in their manufacture. In the 1600s Europeans first used blankets as a means of exchange with Native Americans. American companies including Pendleton began machine-manufacturing of blankets for sale to native and non-native consumers in the mid 1800s. The double-shuttle Jacquard loom, developed in France in the 1840s, allowed for the complicated negative and positive designs found on opposite sides of most blankets.

A trade blanket from Robert Kapoun's book "Language of the Robe"

I also learned that the symbolism of trade blankets is just as complex as these weave structures, and is therefore sacred and not openly discussed. Trade blankets are not only valued for their beauty and warmth as garments or “robes” but more importantly for their spiritual significance during rights of passage such as birth and death and every other important occasion in between (such as my daughter’s graduation and several years later during her marriage ceremony).

My research eventually led me to Dale Chihuly, the renowned glass artist who was not only an avid collector of vintage trade blankets, but who had created a series of glass cylinders inspired by the mostly geometric patterns found in the blankets. The resulting exhibition, Wrapped in Tradition: The Story of American Indian Trade Blankets opened at ATHM in 2000 and traveled extensively throughout the country.

This past month my daughter asked me to again meet her in Santa Fe where she was now the co-chair of the 35th Annual Federal Bar Association Indian Law Conference. With Kristen’s young son and daughter in tow we returned to Bob Kapoun’s shop where he continues to collect and sell vintage trade blankets. As I picked-up the gently worn blankets, I could feel the stories of their previous owners woven into the faded threads, but I knew that they would never fully reveal all their secrets.

Linda Carpenter
Director of Advancement

I Miss School…

 

So, I have to confess that I am one of those rare folks who would rather be going to school than working. It doesn’t matter about the stress of a paper, or the late nights working on a project. I crave the stimulation of it all. That is why I love working with college students at the museum. Over the years we have had quite a few graduate students do their internships in the curatorial department, and each one of them has brought with them enthusiasm, new ideas, and a sense of excitement that is contagious.

Preview of a student design inspired by ATHM’s collection.

That’s why I am so excited about our recent partnership with Lasell College and their accessory design class. ATHM will showcase the work of sixteen student designers who created hats in wool and sinamay (modern straw substitute), some based on designs in the museum’s collection. When the students came to do research at the museum, it struck a chord with me when I heard them “oooh” and “aaah” as many of them saw their first vintage piece. It was fun to listen to the students try to recreate the history of each hat; guessing who might have worn it, and where. Those were the students who I knew felt the same way about the hats as I did. Beautiful, or not, the hats had a story to tell.

Inspired Design: Lasell College at ATHM runs May 15th-August 1st. Be sure to wear your favorite hat and be inspired.

Karen Herbaugh

Curator

Creating a Cell Phone Tour

 

We are always on the look-out for the best new ways to engage our visitors, so when I had an opportunity to attend a New England Museum Association conference session on cell phone tours in museums I jumped at the chance. One of the panelists at that session was the Director of the Bennington Museum in Vermont who spoke about working with local college students to develop informative blurbs on various artifacts on display. These blurbs were accessible by cell phone at the museum, and were posted on their museum website. I was able to speak with this director afterwards and hear these recordings on their website, which inspired me to see if ATHM could work with our local youth on a similar project.

Fortunately, we had a great relationship with the United Teen Equality Center (UTEC), an organization that works with teens to help stem the influence of gangs and deter gang violence right here in Lowell. UTEC staff were enthusiastic about working with us and their teens to create an product all of us would be proud of. With so many local residents having family histories involving the mills, we thought there would be a natural interest for the teens to learn more about textile history, and we hoped they would dive right in.

Of course, we needed funding. We wrote up our concept in a grant request to the Lowell Cultural Council (which distributes funds for the Massachusetts Cultural Council), and were very pleased to find they were as enthusiastic about our idea as we were. They approved our application, and we were on our way.

Though none of us really knew how well the UTEC teens would like the project, they were really involved, and all of them recorded multiple blurbs about the displays they liked most. They worked in teams. One very talented gal with a beautiful voice recorded a couple of songs we had long wanted to make available to our visitors, and she wrote an original piece of poetry about another display in one sitting – the inspiration just flowed out of her. Everyone had a blast recording at UTEC’s own studio, which was set up by the Music Department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UML). UML was very supportive of the whole project, as they are also keen to find ways to interest teens in learning about their broader options like attending college and pursuing careers in music.

UTEC staff and teens celebrate the launch of the Cell Phone Tour

We were given a great tip about a local cell phone service provider, Spatial Adventures, and they completed the team that created our teen cell phone tour. When the recording was finished and we were ready to go “live,” we invited everyone involved to an all-you-can-eat pizza party in our Ed. Dept., and invited everyone to sample the 16-stop tour. Well over fifty people enjoyed the party and tour, and many have enjoyed the tour since. Visitors from Texas, Florida, Vermont, Connecticut, Maryland, New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, California, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Illinois, District of Columbia, Colorado, New Jersey, Maine, Missouri, Nevada, and of course, Massachusetts have heard this fun-spirited tour, answering burning questions like “how did we get that airplane into the museum?” For information on how to take our Cell Phone Tour, click here.

We look forward to working with UTEC teens on other projects in the future. For now, we just need to pick up our cell phones to hear their voices. We may expand on our cell phone tour format, as well, as soon as time and inspiration allow.

Sue Bunker
Director of Museum Education

FROM THE OSBORNE LIBRARY

 

One of the most pleasurable activities of my job is purchasing and accepting donations of books, manuscripts, photographs, postcards, trade catalogues, etc. Adding items to the library collections is a thrill. I love the hunt and the chase. When a package or box arrives in the library, my day is made.

Just how do we add to the collections? We have a very modest yearly fund that supports purchases. This fund came to us from a thoughtful Andover resident who left the library a bequest in his will, the income from which we have been using for a number of years. While alive, he enjoyed donating books, photographs, postcards, etc. to the library– items that he had purchased in bookstores, antique shows, and garage sales. We are ever appreciative of friends of the library who continue this tradition.

Where do we purchase items? There are a number of avenues. Firstly, there are dealers who know us well and will contact us directly with objects that they think will interest us. Mostly, however, they send us their catalogues either online or in print. Some specialize in technology, others in manuscripts and yet others in labor or women’s history. The key is to scan the catalogues as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you will find the item gone. The extent of the competition is truly amazing. You think: “Who would want this obscure pamphlet about a carding machine?” Believe me, there are collectors out there for every subject imaginable. You can meet collectors at book, photograph and ephemera fairs— also very good places to make contacts with dealers. And these collectors can be quite aggressive—I’ve been elbowed a number of times as I flipped through boxes of photos and postcards. The fairs are fun though. This is where the thrill of the hunt really comes into play. You ask a dealer if he has anything in the textile line. “No,” he says. But your instinct says he does, and, lo and behold, you find something in a dusty box of trade pamphlets. Yes, money is a problem and I have had to pass up many an item that was too costly for our budget, but you need to be selective based on the gaps in the collection or the needs of the curators.

Yet another source of objects is eBay. This is where the killer instinct of the collector really demonstrates itself. How many times have I tried to scoop an item by bidding at the last minute? And how many times have I been scooped? However, I have learned over time not to get so invested in a particular item for sale. My blood pressure can’t stand the strain.

We also rely upon donors to add to our collections. The sources are varied. Many books and technical material come from donors cleaning out attics and basements of their relatives or spouses who worked in the textile industry either as workers or managers. Sometimes we receive their textbooks, their notes, and on-the-floor machinery manuals. Occasionally, we receive the collected papers of someone engaged in the fashion industry or those of a scholar of textile history. We are fortunate to have received the records from a number of textile companies that have gone out of business. Sometimes, they come from the owner or his family, or a lawyer and sometimes from neither. I can still remember a phone call from a town librarian who anxiously told us that the contents of a textile machinery company were being discarded as she spoke. We rushed down and rescued the records even diving into the dumpster parked in front.

Sometimes we are disappointed of course. We collect auction catalogues of mill buildings being sold. I contacted companies in the South that handled more recent auctions but they had discarded their catalogues. On eBay, I lost a wonderful image of a mill girl who was pulling thread through her shuttle with her teeth. I just didn’t bid enough. We also lost the records of a mill when it burned down before we could get them out. Never mind. It is mostly fun running down objects for the collection. I love the excitement and am also surprised that so much remains to be collected. You would think that most collectibles have long since disappeared. But how wrong you are…

Clare Sheridan
Librarian