History Detective: Light Fixture Edition

Did you ever watch the show History Detectives on PBS? I loved the show; it is all about uncovering the story of an object.

As Associate Registrar for the Center, I am working with our Director Gregory Wittkopp and our Associate Curator Kevin Adkisson on an ambitious project. We are reviewing all fourteen of our cultural properties collections (over 9,000 objects), reviewing the data already on file and adding as much additional information about each object as we can. How do we do this, when the people who created, collected, or purchased the objects are no longer here? It requires being something of a history detective!

The collection we are currently working on is the Cultural Properties Collection at Thornlea. Thornlea was the home of George and Ellen Booth’s youngest son, Henry Scripps Booth, and his wife, Carolyn Farr Booth, from 1926 to 1988. It is filled with antiques, artwork, furnishings, and personal objects. In Cranbrook Archives, there are multiple helpful records about the home’s collections: insurance inventories, an index card file of objects created and maintained by Henry, and receipts for items purchased.

Light fixture over front door at Thornlea.

The one object I wanted to feature today is the unique light fixture over the front door to Thornlea. This custom and distinctive iron and glass fixture is important to the architectural character of the house, but I knew next to nothing about it. It appeared in early images of the house, so I knew it had been a part of the house from the earliest years, perhaps since the house was built.

Henry Scripps Booth peaks out the front door of Thornlea, circa 1935. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

To learn more about the fixture, I first looked at the insurance inventories and Henry’s index card file. Nothing there.

Next, I looked at the receipts under “Electrical” in the Henry Scripps and Carolyn Farr Booth Papers in Archives. Eureka!

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To Protect and (Pre)serve

Our guest blogger this week is Kate Nummer, a Graduate Student in Eastern Michigan University’s Historic Preservation Program. She will receive her Master of Science in Historic Preservation in December 2019.

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Late in the spring, I was a part of the Eastern Michigan University Historic Preservation Field School hosted at Cranbrook (read about the amazing week here). That week I discovered what a magical place Cranbrook is, and was inspired to ask Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research Associate Registrar, Leslie Mio, about doing my graduate final project here. The Center agreed to have me, so after three years of working hard on my Masters, I’m finishing up here at Cranbrook. I have worked closely with Leslie two days a week since August, mainly focusing on the Smith House and “other duties as assigned.”

 

The Smith House is a beautiful Usonian Frank Lloyd Wright house (1950) that was owned by Melvyn Smith and his wife Sara. Cranbrook acquired the house by donation in 2017. The main project I have been working on is numbering objects and updating The Museum System (TMS, Cranbrook’s digital database of objects) as we go along. This has been a monumental job: not only did Cranbrook acquire the house in 2017, but also everything that was in it – over 1,800 objects!

 

Numbering a jar in Smith House. Photo by author.

Numbering a jar in Smith House. Photo by author.

Numbering objects isn’t for everyone, it is a slow and repetitive task. But, it gives me a chance to look over the object, confirm that the location is recorded correctly in TMS, make any additional notes about its appearance, and even appreciate the object itself.

Here I am working in the kitchen of Smith House. Photo by author.

My final report for my degree won’t just be about numbering, but about collection management. This is considered the development, storage, preservation, and organization of collections and cultural heritage. I am consulting resources like MRM5: Museum Registration Methods by Rebecca Buck, and Things Great and Small by John E. Simmons, and applying information gleaned to what Leslie and I are doing in Smith House.

 

Other duties I have had since August: helping prepare a disaster kit for Smith House, so objects and people remain safe in the event of a disaster (especially since it’s off the main campus); meeting with conservators who are helping to restore furniture in the house;  helping prepare for the Center’s fundraiser “A House Party at Cranbrook”; rolling textiles for better storage; and helping move and process new donations.

 

I say, “other duties as assigned” because one thing I’ve learned in my semester at Cranbrook: the work of a registrar is never boring. We may have our main plan mapped out, but sometimes you must go with the flow.

 

Kate Nummer, Eastern Michigan University Historic Preservation Program 2019

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