preservation vs. function

This week I have had the opportunity to view several of the pieces in the Berger-Cloonan Collection of Decorated Papers at the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A&M University, and to hear the collectors speak of their journey and about decorated papers. It’s been fascinating.

decorated paper 1

Yes, this is a two-dimensional piece of paper.

What are decorated papers? In the very basic sense, it is paper that has been decorated in some way, and in the case of the Berger-Cloonan Collection, papers that have been decorated by hand. Berger and Cloonan have travelled the world to find papers to add to the collection, often directly from the artists themselves. The Blue Batik Zig Zags paper I used to cover my gaming binder is an example of commercial decorated paper.

decorated paper 3One thing Sid Berger said during the talk has been turning in my mind: he wants complete sheets of paper and abhors the thought of cutting any of the papers into smaller pieces.

But what are decorated papers for? In book production, these types of papers are often used for the nice end papers inside the cover of hardcopy books and special editions. To be used for this purpose, the papers must be cut to size.

As an archivist-in-training, with a touch of a hoarding impulse, I recognize the desire to keep beautiful pieces intact. But also as an archivist-in-training and historian, with a dose of pragmatism, I see the importance of letting these papers fulfill their functions: to be used, to be appreciated in the way they bring beauty to an object that brings together a variety of specialized trades. A book that has decorated paper inside, or even outside, the cover lets us know that not only was this book considered special enough to warrant beautiful paper in its binding, but also that such artisanship was valued by its makers and audience. And that is just the beginning of the insights we could learn from such an object.

decorated paper 4

An example of a piece that has been ‘marbled’ twice using a mask.

In some ways it comes down to the intention or purpose behind the object. Some of these pieces truly are works of art. Some of the artists made these papers specifically to be included in the Berger-Cloonan collection. Some of these pieces were not made to be used as end papers in books, but are intended to be kept whole. These pieces can be framed and appreciated as the works of art they clearly are.

Therein lies the distinction. The truly singular pieces, made with the intent to be viewed as a whole, intact piece, should be kept so; but the inclusion of an entire ream (hundreds of pages) of a similar, repetitive design that was made commercially perhaps would serve its purpose better by being used. Of course, I was not privy to the appraisal process and may be unaware of the reasons why reams of material were included in the collection. Nor am I an art historian nor a decorated paper aficionado. I am, however, someone who appreciates craftsmanship and the practical and the mundane made beautiful.

We have the tendency to hide away our beautiful and finely crafted things, wrapped carefully and kept safe, hidden from view. How often do we actually use that special china, or knit something from that beautiful and hand-dyed yarn, or drink that unique tea? But how well can we enjoy those things if we do not see them or use them? Yes, using them poses some risk — we might break the china, the project for the yarn might not work out, the tea will be consumed — but this risk is part of living life. Let us use the beautiful things meant to be used and enjoyed in their use.

What do you think? How do you decide what is ‘too special’ to use and what isn’t?

All images in this post are of papers included in the Berger-Cloonan Collection of Decorated Papers in the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A&M University. This post will be updated with the names of the individual artists once I have that information.

Museum visitors

Things that visitors do that never cease to baffle me:

  • Attempt to enter the museum before it opens. The museum’s opening hours are posted on no fewer than four signs. These extra keen visitors ignore the fact that the gates are closed and enter into the courtyard anyway. Then they try to open the front door — which, being that the museum isn’t open to the public yet, is locked. But these visitors are not deterred by a locked door: they will simply continue to yank on it and shake the door until I or my colleague are interrupted from inspecting the cases or unlocking the galleries to go and tell them, no, I’m sorry, the museum isn’t open yet, please come back in fifteen minutes.
  • Sense of entitlement. When these early visitors are then confused and put out that no, we will not open the museum early especially for them.
  • Smudging the glass. Really, why do you need to touch the glass cases? Why do you  need to push your nose against the glass? I have to clean up after you.
  • Leaving through the Emergency Exit Only door. I know it’s confusing. The door you entered is the same you are supposed to leave through, and right next to it is another door with a push-bar. But this other door has a big red sign on it that says, ‘EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY’. If you open it, it will not close behind you. I will have to get up and shut it. We can’t alarm it because too many people open it. Too often I find myself saying, ‘It’s the door on the left-‘ only to have the visitor ignore me and open the door on the right instead.

These are not rare occurrences; on the contrary, they happen every weekend when I work. I just don’t understand.

Rainy Saturday

While the rest of the country has been forecast lots and lots of snow, we just have rain. I can never tell whether rainy days will mean more or fewer visitors to the museum. Today, just like the rain, we’ve had a steady flow of visitors.

Even though I’ve lived here for over three years, sometimes it still feels wrong to complain about rain. I grew up in a desert. You mention rain to anyone from San Antonio and they’re likely to joke, ‘Rain? What’s rain?’ No, I don’t always like to walk in the rain, or that weird sense of not-feeling-quite-put-together that comes from being wet, but I still come from a land where we thank God for the rain.

Today is one of those days I’ve gone to work before work: I was in my office this morning at 9.30, reading articles for a couple of hours until I had to open the museum to the public. I’ve read a couple of articles while at MUSA, and now I’m back in the office to read a few more.

And a few things I still need to do this evening:

  • Wash All Saints’s towels and my surplice to take back to church tomorrow;
  • Cook dinner;
  • Write out notes for the Postgraduate Christian Union (PGCU) Bible study I’m leaning tomorrow;
  • Update my monthly budget;
  • EDIT: Watch The Lion King.*

Tea is in order. Tomorrow will be equally busy, if not busier.

* Oh goodness. I haven’t seen this film in about a decade and I can still remember the words to every song and most of the dialogue. 😀

I contradict myself

The event I coordinated for my museum on Saturday night was a splendid success. For various reasons, we only had a week for publicity, so I was expecting a maximum of twenty people. We had sixty (60). The musicians were talented and knowledgeable, the audience enjoyed themselves, and although we only had two staff on site (I thought we would have three) everything was still covered. I really do enjoy my job. I really do like working with museums.

But when I’m not being the sophisticated, collected Front of House/Visitor Services Assistant, I’m the mad woman tottering around town on only two and a half hours of sleep, thinking and speaking in confused Spanglish. The crazy lady who whispers to snowdrops and bluebells to stay asleep, it isn’t spring yet, it isn’t time to bloom, and who swings her umbrella at the swarm of seagulls that attack while she’s feeding the ducks (surprisingly effective, she might add).

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.

Thank goodness Mondays are my day off.

Fun at work

Yesterday and today were busy days at the museum: Christmas cupcake decorating masterclasses yesterday and a pottery workshop today. I’m wiped out! But the good thing about organising and running these events is that even I get to take part in them!

For instance, here are my two cupcakes (which survived the trip home):

I’m not big into baking and decorating cakes, but having the different nozzles for icing cupcakes would be nice to have for those times that I do!

Today at the pottery workshop, I got to throw pots for the first time. It was marvellous! The morning had been rather stressful, and it was such a nice reprieve to immerse myself in something creative. I made two pots, which the potter has taken away to dry, glaze, and fire, so I don’t have any pictures of those. I really hope they don’t explode! Be sure that when I get them back in the new year I will be showing them off. I had so much fun that I want my own wheel now, and a kiln. Potters’ tools are now being added to my list of things to have at my imaginary country house, with the workshop for spinning and weaving, and the writing hut, and the library…

This crazy month

This is what November looks like:

  • 30 hours/week – PhD work
  • 20 hours/week – MUSA
  • 14-20 hours/week – Novel writing
  • 6 hours/week – Extracurricular (choir, dance, swimming)
  • 4 hours/week – Church/PGCU
  • 2-3 hours/week – Skyping

Now I know why I feel like I have three ‘identities’ — because I have three jobs and a life.

Word count: 17,267


The Lammas Fair has come and gone. For five days every August the town is transformed into a fairground. My housemate hates it, but I’m always amazed at how these massive rides can fold out of the backs of lorries. I love how for a brief while our medieval town is full of incongruities. Rides, games, vendors, fortune tellers, various traveling merchants selling their wares, there really is a bit of everything. I’m sure I would hate it, too, if it stayed any longer — but as it is, I enjoyed walking around it, eating fair food and gawping at the ferris wheel, carousel, and other rides that swing and spin perilously close to buildings.

Otherwise not much has been going on beyond the usual work routine. My evenings have been spent knitting instead of reading as it becomes ever closer to certain little persons’ birth dates, which means I’ve been watching more than usual on BBC iPlayer. More recently, however, Ros and I have been watching the news and checking Twitter about the riots spreading across England. It’s completely baffling. These aren’t protestors, but opportunists, looters. What is even more baffling to me is that the repeated phrase seems to be that the rioters are striking back against the rich and showing them and the police that they can do whatever they want. That, as the lower class, unemployed, or marginalized, they are tired of being put down and ignored. But by destroying and looting local shops and businesses they are only disenfranchising others in their own communities, thus perpetuating an unequal system.

But that is easy for me to observe, being some hundred miles away, in the very privileged position of being able to pursue what I want in life, a PhD in such an esoteric field as the concept of ‘fairy’ in medieval romance, especially since I also am now among the ranks of the employed, having applied, been interviewed, offered and accepted a position at a museum in Town. (More on that later once I actually begin working, which will be in a few weeks.) I am glad that social networks like Twitter are also being used to organise clean-ups in the targeted communities — a huge, standing ovation to #riotcleanup and to the police who, despite the criticisms against them, I’m sure are trying their best. And I’m sure we can all agree that we hope this madness ends soon.

Watching, waiting

Internet and mobile phone networks have been cut off in Egypt since early this morning. I hope that my friend Chris, and the students she’s looking after, are safe. They were supposed to go to Luxor this weekend, but they might still be in Cairo. She and I are supposed to Skype on Sunday. Who knows if the Internet will be back up by then?

I’ve been listening to radio reports about Tunisia and have a personal interest in what is happening in Egypt just now. Oddly, no one else I know seems to be following the protests and the ripple-effect they are having across the region.

The ruling party’s headquarters is on fire. It’s right next to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Please, oh please, I hope the museum does not catch fire, too.

Watch live updates from the BBC here: BBC News – Egypt Unrest.

Watch Al Jazeera in English: Live Stream.

It’s all history

Today has just been ridiculous. Running around here and there, I was maybe in the office a total of two hours, where I read articles that were somewhat relevant to my work but not really. My meeting this morning with both supervisors went fairly well; at least, I have something to Do, which is better than not having anything, but it’s not like I wasn’t plugging away at my reading already. The workshop this afternoon went on an hour longer than it was supposed to, which made me miss my meeting with Megan; I left my keys in my office and had to go back to get them; I thought I had bought dark chocolate only to find that it’s actually milk. Good grief. It seems the whole week has been like this, one thing after another.

The best part of today was working in Special Collections: sitting in a big, highly air-conditioned room and wearing brightly colored gloves, sliding into that timeless space where the only sound is the hum of the air-conditioner and the scratch of pencil against paper. For those two hours it was only me and the artifacts; I sorted through the box of manuscripts, handling the black and white photographs of the university with the same reverence I held a Byzantine icon or an Egyptian alabaster jar when I worked at the museum. It’s all history. One of the photographs was taken in front of the cathedral with a large group of people; that one candid moment captured. Who were those people? Is that man holding a pipe? What is he saying? I read a booklet of references for a woman applying for some unknown post. One of them said, ‘I can only think that the rather disturbed conditions under which the students have had to work this last year account for the Division 2’. Another one of her references couldn’t say what she had done at her job because of the Secrets Act. She was fluent in French and German. The year was 1940.

Sedes Sapientiae

While I was in Shawnee, I made sure I went to the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art, to visit Delaynna, et al, and also because my exhibit was up (!). “From the Seat of Wisdom: Medieval Art from the Mabee-Gerrer Collection.” This is a very photo intensive post… my apologies. But it came out so great!

I chose most of the pieces… and wrote the labels for them. Hannah Byland also helped. She translated the Latin from the manuscripts we had.

The focus is on the Sedes Sapientiae, or the Madonna & Child Enthroned. I loved researching them and being able to touch them (with cotton gloves, of course). But because we didn’t have enough just Madonna & Child pieces, we expanded the exhibit to include music and recreation in the Middle Ages. We had examples of both secular and sacred music, and aristocratic past times (dominoes, hunting).

A wall of painted Madonna & Child’s. Look, in the second picture, Christ is holding a finch. 🙂 The Byzantine Madonna is one of my absolute favorites. I remember doing a condition report on her a year ago, when we had a miniature exhibit for the annual meeting of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. And the Ecce Homo (“Here is the man”) is also a favorite.

Some of Hannah’s handiwork, and the German fowling crossbow. Clay was trying to get that into the exhibit from day one, but it wasn’t until June when I realized we would have to include the secular element as well as the sacred that we decided to add it in.

This last picture is from the main gallery. Can you see why I loved this place? The painting of St Augustine and St Gregory in the back left is there temporarily, usually a Madonna & Child is there. And that ivory box… I can’t tell you how many hours I spent staring at that thing, researching every detail, trying to find something out about it… but it’s still a mystery.