When a Registrar/Soviet Studies major examines Faberge…

Although it seems like your friendly HMNS registrar has gone missing, it’s truly been a very busy few months for the Collections and Exhibits staff with all the exhibits going up and down and the opening of the new Sugar Land campus.  Condition reporting has always been one of my most favorite registrar’s duties but even I’ve been telling my colleagues “My eyeballs are full!”  There’s been literally hundreds of objects to closely examine under magnification, measure, photograph, document, then re-pack, re-house or install.  And all of this handling of objects must be done cautiously, securely and gently, no whipping through just to be done with it.  Looking at that many objects in such a compressed amount of time can kind of cross your eyes and perhaps dims your ardor for ‘cool stuff.’

But then along comes another batch of objects or specimens, your interest is revived and you can’t wait to examine the next item.  This was precisely my experience when I condition reported (a.k.a. cr’d) some of the Faberge objects currently on exhibit.

I’ve posted before about the connections between people and objects, whether it is the one object you always stop to see at a museum or the many you have in your personal collection.  It’s fascinating to examine why we’re drawn to things.  However, my enamorment with the Faberge lovelies is fairly straight forward.  Many lifetimes ago in college my concentration in political science and history was Russia; or more definitively the USSR (yes, I was an undergrad long, long ago).  The historical era I most enjoyed studying was the late nineteenth century through the 1917 revolution; pretty much the same era when the Faberge workshops thrived.  My registration duties for a natural history collection and the degree on my college diploma have about zip in common so I was thrilled to work with objects for which I already have context.

Inspection 574Usually as I examine and report objects I’m very focused and detached.  Ideally a condition report description should be exact and detailed enough that anyone reading it will immediately recognize the object and its current state.  The terms used are also precise.  A gouge, a chip, and a dent are not the same thing.  And proper left center is nowhere near proper right upper corner.  Yet I couldn’t help but linger over many of the pieces I examined.  Provenance on many Faberge objects is often quite good but due to the tumultuous events of the Bolshevik revolution the identity of an original owner of some things may be forever lost.  So I found myself wondering about the first owner of my favorite small egg, a beautiful combination of pink-lilac enamel and amethyst stone.  Did the owner receive it as a gift or have it made specially?  How many glamorous evenings has the multi-colored sapphire necklace witnessed?  What piece of music is that engraved on the back of the cigarette case given to a favorite niece from an obviously doting aunt and uncle?  What stories could these things tell of their journeys out of what had so recently been Tsarist Russia?

HMNS 1 – Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Marius Lardizabal
This photo was taken during a Flickr photo meetup
held at HMNS. Photography is not allowed in the
exhibit during normal operating hours.

In addition to my musings, it was hard not to be repeatedly awed by the superior and painstaking artistry of every one of the objects in this exhibit.  A century or more later, the work continues to be stunningly exquisite.  I also enjoyed the challenge of the visual sleuthing needed to find the maker’s mark and Faberge hallmark hidden on the pieces.  It was quite a fun game actually.  Besides his mark, each Faberge artist left behind a bit of himself in the object.  For instance, on the necklace with thirty-five multi-colored sapphires (seen left) the maker’s mark is on the bottom of every fifth stone’s bezel, starting from the tenth stone away from the latch, except that the twenty-seventh stone also has a mark.  The necklace has never been taken apart so is it possible that the twenty-seventh stone was originally meant to be the fifth?  Did the maker change his mind about the order of the stones?  Impossible to know, of course, but fun to speculate!

The objects in this exhibit were so beautifully wrought by the Faberge artists, in such a wide array of minerals and metals, that it makes one’s head spin to realize that those materials originally came out of terra firma.

To fully appreciate our Faberge: Imperial Jeweler to the Tsars exhibit I encourage everyone to head upstairs to the Cullen Hall of Gems & Minerals to examine the stellar mineral specimens so that you comprehend the beginnings of the wonderful Faberge objects.  Seeing the beauty of natural minerals will only enhance the enjoyment of objects fashioned by human hands and now imbued with so much history.

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Perhaps you’ve heard HMNS is celebrating its centennial this year?  Well, ok, we’ve been mentioning it a LOT!  After all, it’s a pretty big deal and it’s quite a bit of history to cover.  So throughout this year you’ll learn about all the major highlights of the museum’s past.  But sometimes, there might be quirky little bits that will sneak in, courtesy of me.

One of the many fun parts of my job as Associate Registrar is that I have easy access to the museum’s history files.  Usually I dig into them to research an object or specimen from the collection or occasionally a long-ago donor.  Nearly always, I come across some odd fact I didn’t know or realize about the museum or the city of Houston.  Since I grew up here, I find it all interesting.  But I’ve also been at HMNS such a long time that sometimes my personal memories prompt research into the files.

All of the HMNS staff is very aware of the museum’s centennial year so it’s not surprising that a lot of us have been doing a stroll down memory lane in regards to this place.  I don’t have any particular fondness or nostalgia towards miniature dollhouses, but for some reason I’ve been remembering an exhibit from my first year at HMNS.

 Pamphlet cover for
the dinner and auction

From what I’ve been able to dig up in the archives during the early to mid-1980s the HMNS Guild, along with the Houston Area Miniaturists Society, sponsored brief exhibits, lasting about three weeks in the Brown Hall, of miniature dollhouses and miniaturist scenes.  There was a small fee for the exhibit and the funds went to the Guild.  (A portion also went to the Miniaturist Society.) 

I know, you’re thinking HUH?  But these exhibits were quite popular and brought in thousands of visitors during their brief time on view.  The scenes ran the gamut from historical to fantasy; hospitals and farmhouses to Santa’s workshop. 

In 1984 one “room box” was a depiction of Prince William’s nursery.  So popular were these miniatures that the Guild had one in the live auction at the 1985 Wild Game Dinner. As it was described in the program:

“A Miniature Mansion: The two-story plus attic, electrically wired, Williamsburg Colonial dollhouse is guaranteed to enchant adult and child alike.  Each room is lovingly and individually furnished by creative Guild members.” The winning bid was $3200.00 and was written about as the first item in Betty Ewing’s society column in the Houston Chronicle.  (For you youngsters, 1985 was an economically tough time for Houston, so that winning bid was a pretty good sum for a dollhouse.)

 Dollhouse of Prince William’s nursery

My hazy memory of a dollhouse exhibit is from 1987 – I’m fairly certain it was the last one.  I can’t find anything beyond that year in the archives and I don’t remember another one.  Alas, I also can’t find any good photos – just a few black and white news clippings – although there is a mention of Channel 13 doing an on-air story.  So this was just one of those fleeting events that ran for a few years, a miniature moment in the museum’s century-long history.