Recognize this Building?

Boston Public LibraryWhile it’s not on Nantucket it was designed, in part, by a descendant of a long-standing Nantucket family. He was a senior architect for McKim, Mead, and White (MMW) which designed this building. The senior architect was named after his grandfather – William Mitchell. It is William Mitchell Kendall (1856 – 1941), the son of Phebe Mitchell and Joshua Kendall and the nephew of Maria Mitchell. A graduate of MIT, Kendall was a long-time supporter of the MMA, leaving Mitchell family pieces including the family’s tall case clock and Lydia Coleman Mitchell’s childhood sampler to the Mitchell House in his estate. He travelled through Europe with his parents and Maria in 1873 and today we have the notes from his travels during that trip – his focus? Architecture of course!

Kendall was known for continuing the firm’s traditions of Renaissance and classical forms after the death of White. Kendall designed the American Academy in Rome; the New York Post Office; the New York Municipal Building; the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C.; and the surround at Plymouth Rock to name a few. The well-known quote from Herodotus on the façade of the NY Post Office was translated by Kendall and used at his suggestion. Does that little line about the post office delivering in rain, sleet, and snow sound familiar?

William Mitchell Kendall

The building in this image is located in Boston – it’s the Boston Public Library built in 1895 with the work of senior partner William Mitchell Kendall. I like to think that he had a little something to do with making sure his aunt was on a tablet there with all of the other famous scientists, artists, and others whose names are carved into the window tablets around the BPL. Even more fitting? That Maria’s name is under that of Mary Somerville’s – one of her heroes and someone Maria met on her first trip to Europe in the 1850s.

Special Collection Books at the MMA

I have been spending quite a bit of time working with our Special Collection books here at the MMA. This collection includes rare and out-of-print books that have been collected since the early 1900s and span the ages from the 1500s to the 20th century. The collection is made up of botany, natural science, zoology, astronomy, Nantucket, and other books that relate to the work that has been ongoing at the MMA since its founding in 1902. The collection also includes Maria Mitchell’s personal library – a listing of some of the books can be found here on our website – and the books of her family members, including those of her father. It is simply an amazing collection.

My latest task is to clean and move the books to the new climate controlled storage space I was able to create with funding from the M. S. Worthington Foundation. A climate system and state-of-the-art conservation friendly bookcases were installed over the last few years and now the move is on. But before I can move the books, each one has to be cleaned. This involves dusting the cover and spine, as well as the text block of each book; wiping the same areas with a vulcanized rubber sponge; and then finally vacuuming those same parts. It takes me an hour or more to complete one shelf – which is between ten and twenty books depending on the size of the books. It’s tedious and long and I have to wear some equipment to protect myself from the dust. But, oh wow the things I am re-discovering or uncovering for the first time. My hope is that once I have cleaned and moved them, I can get the catalog of these books online for the public to see what we have and to come and use them – we have some rare ones that are hard to find and historians, scientists, and others (aside from those who use them now) would love to use these. They are too well-kept of a secret!

For your enjoyment, I have included a few pages from The American Flora Vol. II by A. B. Strong. 1848 was its original publication date. The hand-colored images are beautiful. The second is from Orchids: Their Culture and Management by W. Watson. It was published in London in 1890. The cover and spine are phenomenal – they certainly don’t make book covers like this anymore!

Orchids: Their Culture and Management by W. WatsonOrchids: Their Culture and Management by W. WatsonThe American Flora Vol. II by A. B. StrongThe American Flora Vol. II by A. B. StrongOrchids: Their Culture and Management by W. WatsonThe American Flora Vol. II by A. B. Strong

Would Maria Tweet?

Maria MitchellReally, I am not sure if she would. Maria Mitchell was a fairly private person. While she did keep journals, she kept them close and after the Great Fire of 1846, when she saw all of the papers and other articles blowing about the streets of Town that were not burned up, she destroyed all of her p ersonal letters and journals. That is why most of her papers that we have today are dated after the Great Fire – there is very, very little from before the fire.

Would she Tweet “Discovered a comet tonight!” or “Gold medal from King of Denmark here boy is it heavy!” or maybe a “That Asa Gray, he wrote ‘Sir” on my letter of invite to American Academy of Arts and Sciences and crossed it off – what a slap in the face!” – maybe that was too many characters for a Tweet? But then she could Tweet her students to remind them of late night observing or maybe blog about it. She embraced technology – albeit of the late nineteenth century – and she was constantly learning – even teaching herself Greek at the age of 70.

But if she blogged or Tweeted, I think it would be more about science and education and conversing with her students and other scientists than anything personal. Maybe a Tweet after one of her daily nature walks, “Just back from walk round campus – saw Henery {the groundhog that lived around the Observatory} and Indigo Bunting. Don’t forget observing @ midnight girls!”

Buttoning Up for the Winter

Mitchell House in the snowWhile opening the Mitchell House in the early spring is always a happy occasion, closing the House up for the winter is a bit depressing. While we clean on a weekly basis when we are open, the closing up phase also requires cleaning. The House is vacuumed room by room from ceiling to floor – always working from the top down and section by section in a room. Windows are vacuumed as well as sills – even the fireboxes and hearths. Then, in the areas where the floors are splatter painted from the early twentieth century, the floors are washed. Artifacts and furniture is dusted.

And then the move begins! Furniture is moved to the center of the room. Andirons are pulled and covered. Items are put away and in many cases wrapped in acid free tissue. Textiles are wrapped in acid free tissue, supported, and boxed. And all items on the outside walls are removed. Fine art, framed documents, and articles such as Maria Mitchell’s Dolland telescope, are removed to climate controlled storage for the winter. Everything is then covered in sheets and then in plastic.

It is a lot of work but it provides one last look over artifacts for any possible dreaded insect infestation or damage of any kind before the spring comes around and it happens all over again – the deep cleaning, the moving, and this time – the setting UP of everything. It is like cleaning your own home but more carefully and with white cotton gloves on!

It is getting a bit cold over here in the Mitchell House – I try to remain as long as possible. Soon, it will be time for me to “button up for the winter” as I move to the Library for the winter where, in addition to all sorts of other things, I will be cleaning the Special Collection books and moving them to the climate controlled storage space. I will be over frequently to check on the House and think about all the great things we have planned for next season.

Visiting the Historic Home of Sarah Orne Jewett

The Country of the Pointed Firs is my favorite book. Written by Sarah Orne Jewett in 1896, it details the life of a village along the Maine coast. For many years I wanted to visit her home, now a historic house museum owned by Historic New England. Because she is the author of my favorite book and such a strong female presence in the 19th century as Maria Mitchell was, I felt it was a place I needed to see.

I like to think that a young Sarah, born just two years after Maria’s comet discovery, was inspired by Maria when she was a young girl. She was certainly encouraged by her father to be a strong, educated, and independent woman – similar to the support Maria received from her father, William.

After being disappointed last year in my attempt to visit the Jewett home, this year I contacted the site manager, Peggy Wishart, directly to ask if she would be willing to provide me with a private tour – and she was! The house is very close to its original condition and about two years ago Historic New England acquired Jewett’s desk – the one on which she wrote her books. It sits in front of the window in the upstairs hall looking over the street and center of South Berwick, Maine just as it did in Sarah’s day.

My interest is also keen on this desk area as it reminds me of the small study William built for his children – most often used by Maria. The small landing turned closet study has a built in desk and drawer and two shelves and most importantly a window that faces south and looks over the street – just as Sarah’s does. From there, Maria could see people as they made their way up and down the street, be warmed by the southern sun, and work on her “Juvenile Inquirer” on a Saturday morning away from the hubbub of her numerous siblings.

The first ever MMA Haunted House!

Haunted House at 33 Washington StThe Maria Mitchell Association loves Halloween. It inspires creativity and makes people think outside the box. This is exactly what good scientists need and we are happy to help with that!

We threw our first ever haunted house this last weekend at our newly acquired building at 33 Washington St. We knew it was too scary when the first participants burst into tears and couldn’t get through the first room! Yes, most of the tears came from four and five year olds, but throughout the two hour event, several adults scrambled to exit (one actually ran out), and more than a few screamed.

The haunted house included three completely blacked out rooms with spooky lights, sound effects, spider webs, and most importantly, actors. We had two monsters jumping out at people, a re-animated Maria Mitchell at her telescope, and the head of a scientist sitting next to his dissected body. To get people to actually go through the whole thing, we turned on a strategic light, reined in the monsters, and asked the decapitated head to banter with folks instead of look really dead. We also had lots of games, crafts, and food, so there was something for everyone.

We are already looking forward to next year and hope to see you there…

Happy Halloween!

Speaking to the Dead

Mitchell family monumentsNo, the curator has not gone completely mad. But when you are working on a stone monument at the cemetery, you feel compelled to talk to Maria and her family. You see, I am cleaning their grave markers. Back in 2005, with funding from the Community Preservation Act, I worked with a stone conservator to clean the stone monuments of the Mitchell family correctly. Unfortunately, people think that bleach is a good idea. It’s not. It eats away at the stone causing irreversible harm. (And by the way, taking rubbings of gravestones is illegal.)

Mitchell family monumentsAs a way to share the knowledge of properly cleaning a historic stone monument, we opened the process as a workshop – which was underwritten by the Community Preservation Act – during Preservation Month. We had a wonderful turnout, including descendants of the Mitchell family and a professor of microbiology who, while upset we were removing excellent samples of lichens from the stones, regaled us with all the names of the lichens we were removing and all sorts of interesting facts about them.

You see, while a microbiologist might think they are fantastic and that Nantucket’s cemeteries have some of the best lichen growths, a conservator sees lichen as the bane of the stones existence! Growths lock in moisture and help to more quickly erode the facades of the stones.

So, with the beautiful fall weather, I have been back at work cleaning the stones with a special environmentally and conservation friendly cleaner made just for such a job. If you are interested in learning more, or possibly participating in a workshop this spring to learn how to do this, please contact me.

And remember, it’s okay to speak to them – I think they like the visit.