Friday, 26 June 2015

TEXTILE LITERACY: WHAT I DON'T KNOW IS GONNA MESS UP MY DATABASE

SEW WHAT?

BY: ANYA BAKER

I once worked in a museum that was digitizing its entire catalogue of artefacts and archival material. Group after group of summer students, staff, and volunteers had worked over the years to bring all the original typed accession and cataloguing sheets into the 21st century--a lot of cook's spoons were in that pot of catalogue soup. Having done my share of data entry for the project, I was simpatico with the location fond categorizing system that the museum was using, and was given the task of standardizing all of the digitized catalogue entries.

A lot of problems were centred around how objects were named. We all use a lot of different words for something like a shirt: a blouse, a top, a tee. Before the museum's new categorizing system came along, cataloguers were being as specific as possible when naming objects--which was a great, until someone tried to search for all shirts in the system and came up with a suspiciously low number.

Other times, the original cataloguers were not specific enough, either because they could not identify the object, or because they assumed a universal knowledge of its use. Forty years later, only a large-scale matching project began to connect entries for "collars" with jabots and revealed why the museum seemed to be hanging on to a lot of "tattered" hankies.

Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I solved the Great Museum Mystery of our age. I kept seeing whole collections of tattered textiles--everything was in tatters! Why were we keeping this stuff? When did we accession this stuff? WWNDD (What Would Nancy Drew Do)? Investigate!

Turns out--after taking a peek at the original accessions sheets and matching a couple of artefacts to their new catalogue entries--the linens weren't in tatters at all.

This is a somewhat tattered shirt:

Credit: Paramount Pictures.
This is a tatted mouse:

Not in tatters. Image credit: Anya Baker.
Someone, suspecting a spelling error in the original accession sheets, changed "tatted" to "tattered" when they were entering the record into the database. Tatting, although a wonderfully quick and rewarding method of lace-making, is not really on the level of knitting or crochet in the world of hobbies. To the average person, even the average museum person, it is more obscure.

What's a museum person to do? Cataloguers cannot be all-knowing. Google is! But what if you don't have a clue how to start your search? This is where I find myself lately; mired in my own ignorance.

I'm interning at a very special museum this summer: it is a heritage museum inside of a hospital and long-term care residence for older adults. My main task is to do programming and small exhibits that help the clients at the hospital connect with their heritage. Its collection is largely made up of Judaica and artefacts that reflect the culture and history of the local Jewish community. It's a wonderful internship, and I am lucky to have the opportunity to learn in this environment. It is very challenging--I'm cataloguing objects that I have never seen before in my life, and delivering programming on pretty basic topics that require a long stint of reading on my part. I do a lot of research before I start typing or saying anything. As much as I am learning professional skills, I am getting a major education in Judaism and Jewish culture. That's not the point, though--I am not meant to be an expert or stand in for a curator. I'm there to facilitate a connection between client and heritage. Still, it's making me think.

One of the artefacts that I am bringing around for programmes is an intricately embroidered tallis bag--a tallis is a special shawl that is worn by some Jewish people to fulfill a Torah commandment to wear a four-cornered garment with fringes on the corners. My supervisor explained what the bag was, and pointed out all the clues that indicate what the bag was used for--the Star of David embroidered on the back, the velvet fabric, and a line of Hebrew that indicated that it was a Bar Mitvah gift. Even with the help of Google, I don't think I would have figured out how to connect all that on my own.

It was a good moment, to realize that even in the field of Textile Arts, I can be the bumbling ignoramus.  I can be the Nancy Drew of one museum, swooping in to smugly reveal my knowledge of an obscure hobby to solve the Great Museum Mystery of the day, and then be completely out of the loop at my very next job. I am not all-knowing, and that's okay! The more I work at museums, the more I realize how distinct museum jobs can be--I always considered becoming a jack-of-all-trades curator at a small museum. Now I'm wondering if I should narrow my focus. There's a reason why curators at big museums are so specialized--somebody has to be know enough to repair the tatters the database could be left in by an unknowing cataloguer (like me)!

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