Lies My Docent Told Me: Part 2

Last time I mentioned a “docent fumble” and then promised some insights into looking at museum exhibits.

While I am picking on the Victoria and Albert Museum, let me bring up an issue that all museums deal with. Your labels and information about artifacts are only as good as the people who make those labels. At one visit to the V&A I was scrounging through the old Bronze gallery (the gallery has since been redone). The labels in the gallery had been typed on a typewriter, heaven only knows in what year. (This is a giant “red flag”.) The label on one of the large bronze jugs stated. “There are letters on the jug, but we don’t know what they mean”. The letters? “A M G P”. Probably one of the most common magical incantations of Medieval times – Ave Maria, Gracia Plena (Hail Mary Full of Grace). And to make it worse, some of the other jugs correctly identified what “AMGP” stood for. Consistency folks, consistency. Here is one of my old pictures from the Bronze Gallery – note the wrinkly old typed card.

V&A Jug

If I go to a digital online museum collection, almost all of them now have a “let us know that there is a problem with this record” link. Several years ago I started noticing some very serious clerical mistakes at the British Museum website. What I mean by “clerical” is that there might be six pictures associated with a specific artifact, and five are correct, but picture number six is a picture of a different artifact. Sometimes it is super obvious, the item in the picture has a different number on it than the artifact number in the record, or the artifact record is for a piece of pottery and one picture is a piece of jewelry. But sometimes both of the artifacts are of the same type. I remember discovering several clerical mistakes and trying to figure out how to contact someone. Sometimes I found some sort of contact person and sent them an email, and sometimes I finally gave up in frustration. I never received a single reply to any of my emails, not even an auto-responder message.

It really bugged me to see mistakes, so I kept sending messages. My one and only reply came from the Metropolitan Museum Of Art. I was looking at Middle Eastern beads online and I discovered a record for a “necklace”. One look told me that it was a Subha – a prayer bead strand. I found a random contact name and wrote a polite note about the piece. And about a week later I received a very nice email back, thanking me for pointing out the information and assuring me that I was correct, and that the museum was in the process of updating a bunch of records and that this one would be updated to reflect the additional information. It felt so good to know that I had actually reached a person and that the record would be updated!

It was not long afterwards that I started noticing what I think of as “Ooops” buttons, on a lot of museum sites. Links that let you report mistakes to museum staff. I am sure that I was not the only one out there to notice mistakes. I like to think of these buttons as “crowd sourcing corrections”. The more eyes that see a piece the more likely mistakes, or additional information is likely to be discovered.

Next time: Tuning in to Your Museum’s Listings

Carrying Coals to Newcastle!

“Carrying Coals to Newcastle.” Exactly what do I mean by that? Well, it may be a slightly obscure reference for many, but Newcastle was a major coal producing area of England. Therefore trying to import and sell coal there would have been a futile effort. But back to that in a moment.

For those who have known me for a while, my interest in the accurate reproduction of pieces of period jewelry and accessories comes as no great surprise. I have always been interested in history, and with a Masters in Anthropology with a specialization in Archaeology, accuracy seemed like a natural thing. I know that my art teachers were often confounded by my unusual questions and projects. Fortunately for me they were mostly concerned with me learning specific techniques and not with what I actually made. And many years later I am still working on adding new, and very interesting, items to my shop collection.

Since I actually make my living making historically accurate items that people want, I obviously listen to my customers about what they would like to see in my shop. Sometimes that feedback is very direct, emails, and people who actually walk into my shop and make requests. Other times people “vote” with their wallets, and I have to admit some of those “votes” over the years have really made me smile.

And some of that “voting with their wallets” is why hubby and I have discussed “Carrying Coals to Newcastle”. It would never have occurred to either of us that the items that I sell might not be available in the countries in which they were originally made. One of the first of those sales was the lady from Sweden who purchased my reproduction of a key from the Swedish National Museum. As a reenactor she wanted a key that was as close as possible to the original one in the museum. All she could find in Sweden was “charm” sized keys. Mine is within a millimeter of the size of the original.

Etsy 29

And then there was the gentleman from Norway who bought one of my plain cast silver Thor’s hammers. He wanted a plain, solid silver Thor’s hammer, and had not been able to find one.

And the lady from Greece who purchased a batch of my brass fibulae and was totally delighted when she received them – Carrying Fibulae to Athens?

And the dozens of batches of dress pins that I have shipped all over Europe, including to a British TV production studio. Really? No one there makes these?

At Potrero War, a gentleman that I see at several events every year informed me that he loves my stuff, but that he is always amazed at how little stock I have in my shop. Really? I will admit, it is not your typical crowded and cluttered shop, but that made me wonder. Just how many separate items do I usually have in my shop (not counting backstock)? And because it was a new shop layout, and I had taken good pictures, I was able to count! Over 523 separate items, with a pair counted as one, and ranging in size from individual bronze buttons to knights chains, and Viking swags to Medieval spindle whorls, and with absolutely no attempt made to count the hundreds of glass topped veil pins. That will just have to be good enough…for now.

Hot! Hot! Hot! Part 2

Well, last time I wrote my blog on the fly on my iPad. I had just finished packing up and leaving from Great Western War in Bakersfield, CA, and I was totally psyched about the very cool, and very hot, activities that I had participated in. It was the sort of experience that makes you genuinely excited about your craft and reminds you why you got involved in all of this in the first place.

Thanks to the miracle of the internet I now have more information to share about the people and things that were going on. The bead furnace at GWW was made by Thea Northernridge, Maeve Douglass, and crew, from the Kingdom of Caid. I have seen several bead furnaces over the years, most courtesy of Keeley the Tinker (Kingdom of the Midrealm), who has been researching and experimenting with pre-1600 glass bead furnaces for a considerable number of years. The GWW bead furnace is based on Keeley’s work and the plans that she made available to the group. The plans produce a furnace that can be completed quickly and used quickly. While not completely period it gives the impression of a period furnace, and it does work well enough to allow people to make beads. Not all experimental furnaces actually function.

I am not using any formal titles for any of the folks who are involved with this project. Several people have several titles, some people’s titles that have changed since older documents were published, and to be honest, my goal is to give as much credit as I can to the folks who did the work. I have several titles and names. My favorite one to answer to? Eirny.

Like many things that happen at events, this bead furnace project became a cooperative project. Through a series of mishaps people who had planned to help could not attend, but another group, who were planning to build an iron-smelting furnace, pitched in. And the rest is history. A pseudo-historic bead furnace and an iron smelting furnace were both built down at the end of merchants’ row, right next to the blacksmith shop. Great piles of red clay and charcoal became baked receptacles for glass and iron ore. And to be blunt, it was just plain exciting. I stopped by as often as I could to watch the progress of the construction and firing of the bead furnace and the smelting furnace. Great lengths were taken to make sure that water and fire extinguishers were at hand and that everyone was safe. Here is a picture of the iron smelting furnace, complete with some fire.

Iron Smelting Furnace

I realize that not everyone has seen a bead furnace in person, and many people may not have even seen glass beads being made. I went in search of a good video that would show how Viking style glass bead furnaces actually work. This is probably one of my favorite videos about ancient glass beadmaking. It shows the building of the furnace, the firing of the furnace, and then the furnace being used to make glass beads. The video was made at the Viking Center outside of Ribe, Denmark, so the commentary is in Danish, but the pictures tell the story very well. I was impressed by the skill of both the clay worker who built the kiln and the glassworker who was making beads. No one knows for sure what a real Viking Age bead furnace looks like, so this is just one of many types that have been made.

Next time: More Glass Bead Furnace and Bead Making