Category Archives: Museums

Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal

The 1930s Union Railroad Terminal in Cincinnati had been closed for several years for renovations so I had never been inside it. Since 1990 it has housed the Cincinnati Museum Center, and that includes the Cincinnati History Museum.

The installation of exhibits is ongoing, so parts of the museum had an unfinished feel. Still, there was a lot to see. Unfortunately, it was the day before area schools started and it seemed like every family in Cincinnati was there. So it was a bit noisy, but how nice to see parents and kids experiencing the museums together.

The building is spectacular, with a half dome ceiling surrounded by a mural of a historic nature. I hope that the many visitors stopped to appreciate the structure itself.

The first display in the history museum was a miniature Cincinnati with train layout. This was a train station, after all. It takes the visitor back to the Cincinnati of the 1940s. Interesting, and very popular with the youngsters.

In the basement of the museum is a recreation of Cincinnati’s early days as a river city. It’s located on the Ohio River, which is still used to move freight today. But in the early days, the river was the city’s heart, and Cincinnati was the major river port in this part of the country.

These little recreated towns seem to be somewhat standard in regional history museums. I’ve been to quite a few, but this is the best experience I’ve ever had in one. Usually the visitor is left on the outside looking in through shop windows, or marginally better, behind roped off areas. But here in Cincinnati, we got to ramble through the buildings where there were enough interactives to engage even grown-ups.

Who could resist exploring a riverboat?

People across the region went to Cincinnati looking for opportunities. Here we see the imagined contents of a young woman’s trunk. We might suppose that she is looking for employment as a seamstress.  Lucky for her, Mrs. H.B. Ruggles had a dressmaking and ladies’ goods establishment nearby.

Inside the dressmaker’s shop there was this display on choosing fabrics, which is of course, where a woman started when getting a new dress in the mid nineteenth century. The presence of ready-to-wear clothing was several decades in the future. The fabrics in the display look to be good natural fiber reproductions.

The sewing machine was a new product in the mid nineteenth century, and much of the sewing continued to be done by hand. We can only imagine how excited a dressmaker would have been when she was able to add this terrific time-saver to her tools.

Exhibits of this nature seem to always be a mix of new and antique .  It’s a good way for a museum to show items from the collection, like the Godey’s Lady’s Book, that might otherwise remain in storage.

And we all appreciate a good cage crinoline.

There was a nice explanation of how a dressmaker used a paper pattern (another relatively new development) to transform the flat fabric into a three-dimensional garment.

I liked this reminder that people in the past did not just discard clothing if it became damaged.

I’d like to think that the women of Cincinnati were a bit more fashionable than this display suggests.

There were other businesses to explore, and my favorite (only because the German beer garden had no actual beer) was the photography studio. This photo was taken by placing my phone lens on the eye piece of the camera. The original was, of course, upside down.

There are other museums, including a nice one devoted to the  natural history of the region (with a “cave” to explore} to a hands-on kids’ museum. There is also an IMAX theater, and when we were there a special exhibition on Ancient Egypt. Maybe we will return some day when the displays are finished, and the kids are in school.

 

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L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters at the Taft Museum of Art

A recent trip to Cincinnati included a visit to the Taft Museum of Art. I had never visited the Taft, but had heard that it was a gem of a collection. And there was a special exhibition I wanted to see, L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters.  The show features the work of artists Jules Chéret, Eugène Grasset, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Alphonse Mucha, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who all worked in Paris in the latter years of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.

I especially loved how so many of the posters showed women ice skating and biking. This great poster, Palais de Glace, or Ice Palace is by Jules Chéret. It was an 1894 advertisement for an ice skating rink.

This poster for Marque Georges Richard was made in 1899 by Eugène Grasset. Although this poster is advertising the bicycle, the focus is on the woman and the open road in the background which beckons her.

It’s hard to imaging a more perfect example of Art Nouveau than this 1896 poster by Alphonse Mucha. This poster, Zodiac, was designed as the illustration of an advertising calendar for the firm that did his printing. This example does not have the advertising text as poster collectors were beginning to want copies without the ads. Many of the posters, most of which were designed as advertisements and were hung on kiosks and walls throughout Paris, were made both with and without the text.

This Mucha poster for Cycles Perfecta also highlights the woman over the bicycle. Even though she is at rest, her hair streams out as if blown by the wind, adding motion and excitement to the image.

In 1899 Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen made an image of the New Woman riding a motorized bicycle through the countryside.  She calmly disperses the flock of geese as she journeys forth.

I’m breaking with the theme here, but this poster is just such a perfect depiction of greedy cats begging for a sip of milk. The little girl is Steinlen’s daughter Colette, and the family did have several cats. The poster is an ad for a dairy farm, Quillot Brothers.

Probably the best-known of the five artists is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  I’m not a big fan of his, but I found this ad for La Revue Blanche (The White Magazine) to be quite nice. Even though her feet are not seen, it is likely that the woman is ice skating, at the Palais de Glace, perhaps. The forward angle of her  body suggests movement, and the fur muff and matching coat suggests a skating costume.

And I’m finishing with a poster that is neither French nor sports themed. Also on display was a small grouping of posters printed in Cincinnati. This delightful poster advertises Prof Morris and his dog and pony show, circa 1880.

It was just too good not to share!

L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters will be showing at the Taft Museum of Art until September 15, 2019. Organized by Chicago’s Richard H. Driehaus Museum, the exhibition has more show dates around the USA. You can check here for the schedule.

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When Great Things Happen to Mediocre Museums

In 2016 I wrote about a visit to the Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy, NC.  At the time I thought the museum was a fairly average small town attempt to acknowledge a local guy who did good in the big world beyond Mount Airy. You can read my post about it, but the truth is the museum left a lot to be desired with clothing on hangers and improperly mounted, a jumbled up narrative, and redundancies galore. At the time we were told that an update was in the works so that made me feel somewhat better about the experience.

If you aren’t familiar with Andy Griffith and his TV show from the 1960s, it was based on a small town sheriff in the town of Mayberry, which was based on Griffith’s home town of Mount Airy. Today there is an entire industry built around the TV show, with local businesses taking on the persona of the TV equivalent.  It’s a bit of an Andy Griffith theme park, but it is working for Mount Airy. All the shop fronts are filled with local businesses, and there are plenty of visitors, looking for the Mayberry experience.

I am happy to say that the museum has been completely renovated and reimagined. It’s no longer a haphazard bunch of stuff, but today tells a coherent story of the man and the TV show that put his hometown on the map.

Above you can see one of the shirts Andy wore as the sheriff of Mayberry. previously this shirt was on a clothes hanger in a space so small that the bottom of the shirt wadded up on the bottom of the case.The only good thing was that the label could be seen. It’s now hidden, but the exhibit notes tell the visitor that the shirt was made by the famous Nudie Cohn of Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors in North Hollywood.

The first part of the museum tells about Andy’s childhood in Mount Airy. The setting for this area consist of reproductions of some of the local landmarks. The Snappy lunch is located on Main Street and was mentioned in episodes of the TV show.

You can still eat lunch there today.

One of the best things about the renovation is the excellent exhibit notes. Artifacts are clearly explained along with photos from the show. The two tweed suits above were made for actor Don Knotts in his role of Deputy Barney Fife. The one on the left is from the original series and first appeared on screen in 1960. The one on the right was made for a Mayberry reunion movie.

This pinstriped brown suit was based on one first worn by Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle. After he left the show in 1964 the suit was altered to fit his replacement, George Lindsey as Cousin Goober Pyle. Goober wore the suit so much that it became quite worn, and so the Western Costume Company took apart the original to make this replacement.

Even in 1960 the suit was terribly out of style, but Goober kept wearing it until Mayberry RFD, the successor to The Andy Griffith Show, ceased production in 1971.

Goober was usually dressed for his job as an auto mechanic. I have often wondered how he kept his pants waist so high above his waist. The outfit is actually one piece, with the pants sewn to the shirt.

The Mary Maxim type sweater on the right was a gift from Andy to childhood friend Emmett Forrest. It was Forrest’s collection that forms the foundation of the museum’s collection.

Hal Smith played the town drunk, Otis Campbell. He was usually seen in the town jail, and so his costume is surrounded by bars.

This mockup of Andy’s office in the Mayberry Courthouse contains many of the original items from the set. There were screens set up around the museum showing scenes from the show and interviews with the actors.

One of my favorite displays is this one that features two dresses from actress Maggie Peterson. Maggie was Charlene Darling on the show, but these dresses were worn in a 1967 variety show in which some of the show’s actors reunited with Griffith.  Maggie’s dresses were designed by Bob Mackie, and she donated them to the museum along with the original Mackie illustrations.

The museum continues in the basement of an adjoining building. There is a nice display devoted to actress Betty Lynn who portrayed Thelma Lou, Barney’s girl friend, in the show. At the age of seventeen, Betty Lynn joined the USO and was sent to the Pacific theater. That’s her gun that was given to her, just in case.

This is a hand mirror that was a gift from Don Knotts. Betty Lynn is now in her nineties, and she actually lives in Mount Airy. She relocated there in 2006 after a public appearance there.

Outside the museum they have an old motorcycle sidecar for kids visiting to climb into for a photo. I couldn’t resist.

 

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Everyday Clothing

It seems as if “everyday clothing” is having a moment. Several weeks ago I posted a link to the New York Times article about the collection of everyday clothes at Smith College. Then last week there was a conference in the UK on the topic of everyday clothes. And the latest episode of the fashion podcast Bande  à Part  is also about everyday clothes.

One of the first questions that Rebecca and Beatrice of Bande  à Part  discuss is, just what is everyday clothing. It might be pretty obvious to some, but think of the population as a whole; one person’s everyday is another’s special occasion. For discussion here, I’d suggest that everyday clothing means the clothes the 99% of us wear everyday. It does not include couture garments and ballgowns. For the most part, it does not include the avant garde.

In  short, everyday clothes are the things that one does not expect to see in a fashion exhibition at the Met, or any museum that is dedicated to the idea that fashion is art. On the other hand, you would expect to see everyday dress in a history museum. And many museums, such as dedicated fashion museums, will often have both couture and more commonly worn garments in their collections.

Personally, I prefer the historical and cultural (as opposed to artistic) approach. Not to say that I don’t appreciate a stunning Dior gown, because I do. It’s enlightening for an everyday clothing collector like me to occasionally see the work of an artist like Dior. The truth is there are plenty of topics about everyday dress that need to be explored, but do we really need another book on Coco Chanel?

I still find the study of what women wore – and why they wore it – to be the most fascinating part of fashion history.  The choice of a couture ballgown is based on what one’s favorite designer has to offer combined with trying to stand out from the other couture-clad ball goers. But in 1922 the decision to wear a pair of knickerbockers to a fall picnic could be full of gender-bending anxiety.

I can vividly remember the first day I dared to wear jeans to school. It had been stressed to us in the sixties and seventies that young ladies wore dresses and skirts, and so it was hard to ignore the disapproving voices in my head. How much stronger must that message have been to girls in the early 1920s!

It doesn’t get much more “everyday” than the school girl’s middy. My matching set is linen and was worn by a college girl. But even families with few resources could buy cheap cotton middies or make them at home.

This knit sports dress was made by a moderately priced knitwear maker, Sacony.  The silk blouse was most likely made at home, and the California Sports Hat was sold through the Montgomery Ward catalog. Even though this ensemble is far from couture, it is still important as it shows a step in the increasingly casual way people were dressing in the 1920s.

Bathing suits were becoming a necessity, and they were available at many price points, from less than a dollar to more than twenty dollars. A woman needed a cover-up. but that could be borrowed from her own boudoir.

These two garments were probably beyond the budget of many 1920s women, but this would have been everyday wear for a woman who had a bit more to spend on her clothes.

And here is an example of a more aspirational garment. This is from French fashion house Babani, and would have been priced at a level that most American women could only dreamof.

I think it is great that historians are giving everyday clothing a closer look. What people wore is important in understanding the times in which they lived. It’s interesting to think of clothes as artifacts, and not just what one wore each day.

 

 

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Dressing for the Occasion at the Carl Sandburg Home

The last home of writer Carl Sandburg is located in Flat Rock, NC, and I’ve visited the home, now a national historic site, many times. Besides taking hundreds of fifth graders to see where the great poet lived, it’s a great place to hike and have a picnic. The last time we took the tour through the house, it was a bit disappointing because most of the furnishings had been removed for renovations. The house felt naked.

When Sandburg died in 1967 his widow Lilian sold the house and most of the contents to the US Department of Interior, with the goal of opening it to the public. As a result, the house has the feel of the family having just stepped outside. Someone on today’s tour called it a time capsule, but it is much more than that. It’s almost as if the house retains the spirit of the Sandburg family.

With the renovations complete, I wanted to see how the newly spruced-up house looked. To my great joy and surprise, for the first time clothing of the Sandburgs was also on display. Most are the property of the house, while some are in the possession of the Sandburgs’ granddaughter, Paula.

The house, Connemara, was built in 1839 as a summer home for Charlestonian Christopher Memminger. The house has been altered somewhat by subsequent owners, but if you look closely, you can see that this is an antebellum house. Memminger was quite wealthy, and he served as the secretary of the treasury for the Confederacy from 1861 to 1864. And while the Wikipedia article on Connemara refers to them as “servants”, Memminger kept enslaved persons on the property. A building identified as the wash house, and later a chicken house, was originally the slave quarters, which is acknowledged by a Park Service sign.

But to visit Connemara today, you don’t get the feeling that it is a fine house. It simply feels like the Sandburg home. I loved taking my fifth graders here because they always questioned how someone so famous could live in such an ordinary house with ordinary furnishings.  They were amazed at how “lived-in” the house was.

But back to the present, I must say the old house looks great with its new paint and freshly cleaned rugs, and whatever else was done. In the living room we see Carl’s chair, and one of his many hats. And books. The house contains thousands of books, all cataloged by the Library of Congress, and many still retaining the small slips of paper Carl used to mark the place of  passages he liked.

Probably the grandest thing in the home is this grand piano.  Carl often played his guitar in this room in the evening. And he was quite fond of plaid shirts.

Carl’s office is next to the living room, and in it are more books, of course.  I learned not to make assumptions after seeing his sweater and set of silk scarves. I assumed they belonged to Lilian, Carl’s wife.

But no, these belonged to Carl who enjoyed a bit of silk around his neck! He also wore the green visor, a holdover from his days as a newspaperman.

This denim chore jacket and skirt belonged to Lilian who wore them while working with her herd of prize-winning goats.  Mrs. Sandburg never wore pants.

These two garments belonged to Sandburg daughter Margaret, and were on display in the dining room. Yes, even the walls of the dining room are covered with books. This room has a wall of windows, and the family also used it for bird-watching. The brown suede jacket was Margaret’s birding jacket. Margaret was the family librarian, and often served as her father’s editor.

Carl had a small room beside his bedroom which he used for writing. He wrote at night, went to bed around 5 AM, and then joined the family for lunch at noon.

The house curatorial staff did a good job showing the Sandburgs wearing similar clothing in photographs. Note Carl’s green visor.

This dress belonged to daughter Janet. Janet helped with the goat farming. This looks like a quite youthful style, but Janet would have been in her sixties when she wore it. Neither Janet nor Margaret ever married, and they remained in the home until their father’s death. The third daughter, Helga, lived in the house with her two children until 1952, when she remarried and moved to Washington, DC.

This is Margaret’s bedroom. I wonder if this dress was made on the sewing machine in the background.

Lilian had the best room in the house.

The dress shown in this room was worn by Lilian on a visit to the White House. That’s her wearing the dress, with Carl on the grounds of the White House.

When the Sandburgs bought the house in 1946, the kitchen was located in a separate building, a practice common in antebellum houses. Lilian had a modern 1940s kitchen installed inside the house.

This is a view of the guestroom, which featured Lilian’s dressy silk frock from 1935. And, look! Another sewing machine!

Carl often took his books and writing to the out-of-doors. What could be a nicer place to write?

I have a few words to add about visiting historic sites. While the group which which I toured the house was small (fifteen), there were some things that probably drove the volunteer docent to drink. The last thing she said was to silence phones. We stepped into the house and, you guessed it, someone’s phone rang. The guy ignored it, and so the person on the other end began yelling into the voicemail. The docent finally had to unlock the front door and let the guy out to take his call.

Then there was the family – two little boys of around two and four and their parents. I usually cut parents of small kids some slack, but the docent had to continually tell the kids not to climb on the furniture, swing on the rope barriers, and keep hands off the artifacts. And the parents did nothing at all to keep the two in line.

In comparison, there was another family of older kids, maybe six and eight, and they were really well-behaved, and even asked questions. It was fun being with them, or would have been if not for the other family. I got the gist of the real problem as the tour was coming to an end and the docent asked if there were any other questions. The father piped up, “Yeah. Can we leave now?”

It was perhaps the rudest thing I’ve ever experienced in a museum or historic setting. But boy, does it not explain a lot about his kids?

 

 

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Mount Airy Regional History Museum

I am a fan of museums, and throw in the word history in the name and I’ve just got to pay a visit.  On a recent trip to a flea market, we made a stop in Mount Airy, North Carolina. I’ve written about Mount Airy in the past. It is a thriving little town in the northern North Carolina foothills; thriving because of its association with the 1960s television series, The Andy Griffith Show.  But there’s more to Mount Airy than Andy, and the Mount Airy Regional History Museum was there to educate us.

One never knows what to expect when visiting a small regional history museum. There’s the very good, and unfortunately, the very, very bad. I suppose a lot of the difference is due to the amount of money available to each museum. I suspect that history museums are not terribly high on the county budget priority list.

Local museums are also often a victim of donations. Several years ago I had a long and insightful discussion with the director of a small history museum in another NC town. That museum had, in the past, had such a liberal policy concerning donations that almost anything was accepted into the collection. As a result, the museum had  six large spinning wheels, a dozen treadle sewing machines and nineteen vintage typewriters.

So many small museums end up being old stuff warehouses. Over the years I’ve been in many museums that are pretty much the same, with the usual assortment of old tools, spinning wheels, and taxidermied wildlife. But this was not (thankfully) what we found in Mount Airy.

Instead, the museum truly tells the story of the town and the surrounding area, All the exhibits are place specific. Of couse I was mainly interested in the textiles and clothing, but I also enjoyed learning about the Native inhabitants of the region and the very important granite industry.

There were actually two exhibits on textile manufacture, one of home manufacture of the early settlement, and the other on the cotton knit manufacturing that was formed in the region in the early twentieth century. Part of the home manufacture exhibit is above, and it uses period photographs and artifacts to explain how people made their textiles and clothing at home.

And, yes, there was a spinning wheel in the exhibit, but it was used within the proper context. They also had this giant loom set up in the middle of the room. These are sometimes referred to as “barn looms” as they certainly did not fit into the small pioneer homes. I’m betting there are still dozens of these in barns scattered across the eastern US.

At one time Mount Airy had several factories that made socks, underwear, and other cotton knit items. That green machine made socks, and actually, some small makers across the South still use similar machines.

The long underwear in the background had a label that sort of rang a bell. It was not until we left the museum that I remembered where I’d just seen the name.

In the next block down the street was the old Spencer’s factory.  In business for over 100 years, Spencers closed in 2007, and it looks like the buildings are being converted to condos.

There were also quite a bit of clothing on display as well. Another celebrity from Mount Airy is country singer Donna Fargo. This fringed mini dress was worn by her for performances at Disneyland in 1973.

This dress was described as an “… an antique lace top and skirt worn by Donna Fargo, was featured on her 1981 album, Brotherly Love.” To be honest, it looks more like an assemblage of old lace pieces made into an ensemble, a practice not unknown at the time.

There were some actual antique clothes, all worn by residents of the town. The 1890s suit above was a wedding dress worn by a member of a prominent Mount Airy family.

This dress was made by an unidentified bride, who also made the lace.

The wearer of this (1905ish?) dress was not identified either, but I thought the presentation was quite nice.

Another resident of Mount Airy who went on to fortune (if not actual fame) was Katherine Smith Reynolds. I’ve written about her before, as she was the owner of Reynolda House, and her husband was the founder and owner of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company.

But if I had to pick a favorite, it would be this girl’s basketball uniform from JJ Jones High, which was a segregated Black high school. The museum has a great display of artifacts from the school, along with an explanation of how Jim Crow laws affected the educational system.

Outside the museum is a tribute wall of sorts, that honors people who were important in making Mount Airy what it is today. It warmed my heart to see the textile mill factory worker included in the tribute.

And here’s a close up view just to make sure you could see that the statue is made from bricks.

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Golden Pirates of the Silver Screen – NC Maritime Museum

On our recent trip to the North Carolina coast, we visited the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. It was a big surprise when we got there and saw they had a special exhibition of movie pirate costumes and other great stuff.

If you ever visit the NC coast you can’t escape all the pirate references.  Our coastline is full of inlets and hidey-holes that were custom made for the colonial era pirates. The notorious Blackbeard is especially associated with the region, as it was a favored hideout and playground for him and his crew. He eventually lost his life in a battle at Ocracoke on the Outer Banks of NC.

The NC Maritime Museum thus is a natural place to tell the story of colonial piracy. In fact, Blackbeard’s famous ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was scuttled in Beaufort Inlet, within sight of where the museum stands. When the wreck of Queen Anne’s Revenge was found in 1996, the museum began receiving artifacts from the find.

My hat’s off to the people at the NC Maritime Museum for taking advantage of the renewed interest of pirates and the pop culture associated with them. Yes, movies tend to glamourize piracy, but the museum’s permanent exhibits on piracy give a perfect counterbalance to the Hollywood version.

This is the costume worn by Errol Flynn in the 1935 film, Captain Blood.  This was the movie that made Flynn a Hollywood star and which first paired him with Olivia de Havilland.  The costume is part of the museum’s permanent collection.

Let’s not forget that women were pirates as well as men. The 1995 film Cutthroat Island starred Geena Davis as a pirate. This costume was labeled as a “woman’s pirate costume” from the film, and though the mannequin is styled to resemble Davis, there’s no indication that she wore this costume. I could not find a photo of her in it either.

This is a man’s costume from Cutthroat Island. Both costumes are in the collection of a local event, the Beaufort Pirate Invasion.

This costume from a private collection can be seen the the television series, Black Sails.

And here is Blackbeard himself, as portrayed by Ian McShane in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The costume is on loan from the Disney archive.

When looking at movie costumes, it pays to keep in mind the period of history which is being represented. I found it interesting that all these costumes have some version of a colonial era man’s waistcoat (vest).

 

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