Monday, July 11, 2016

And Sometimes it Doesn't Work Out: Hannover & Hazardous Chemicals

So this one is a doozy.  I had an appointment in Hannover at the Museum August Kestner.  This meeting was a long time coming, since I had started emailing with them back in April.  The Kestner has an important collection of medieval embroideries, but they are no longer on display in the museum-- they are all kept off-site in the museum storage depot.  Because of this, special arrangements had to be made.

At first, the museum just told me, "No."  The textiles were in storage, difficult to access, there was no room to roll them out to view and/or photograph, and they had all been treated with hazardous chemicals for conservation reasons.  After some negotiations, they agreed to meet with me to show me the space and see how we could move forward.  The plan was to find the items in storage, see if we could get them out, decide where I could photograph them, and plan a time to do so.

I had to wake up at 5:00am (or at least begin the waking up process-- snooze, etc.) to catch a regional train at 7:00am from Wolfenbüttel to Hannover.  I pulled myself out of bed, put on the clothes I had chosen the night before, grabbed the essentials and headed out the door.  Picked up a cup of coffee and a croissant on my way to the train station, and planned to get cash from the ATM.  I realized I forgot my debit card, which is kept in a separate wallet...  Did a quick inventory of my cash, and decided to try to make it work instead of going all the way back home.  Got to the platform to buy my ticket.  The machine only takes fives and tens, and I only have twenties.  Asked a nice girl if she had smaller bills, and she did!  Went back to the machine to buy my ticket-- the machine is not taking cash at all currently, only card.  My card is back in my room in my other wallet.  And my train is pulling up now.  I checked the schedule and there was another train at 7:26am.  It was more expensive than the 7:00, but I didn't have a choice now.  I speed-walked home, grabbed my wallet, and speed-walked back to the station, barely making it in time for the train!  Whew!  Way more excitement than I am used to before 7:30!

So I arrived at the Kestner storage depot at 9:00am on Wednesday June 22 to meet with the lovely and extremely helpful conservator, Sigrid, and her assistant.  As soon as you enter the facility, you can smell the acidic odor of whatever was used to "treat" the textiles (sometime in the '80s, is what I am told).  I was given a full-body hazardous materials suit, a respirator mask, gloves, and booties to put over my shoes.  Needless to say, I looked and felt awesome.  Here I was, trying to assure the Kestner Museum I was a trustworthy scholar, worth all the trouble required to access these textiles, and now I was wearing a paper onesie....

Serious Art Historian Work
Surgeon?  Art historian?  Same thing...
We entered the textile room-- Let me set the stage for you.  It's basically a large storage closet lined with file cabinets (housing smaller textiles that can be laid flat in shallow drawers) and enormous racks lined with rolled textiles (think upholstery fabric section at Hobby Lobby).  The rolled textiles have plain linen between their layers, and are wrapped in linen on the outside, then tied up.  So basically, all we can see are the white walls, gray cabinets, and white linen rolls.  Most of the rolls have the museum inventory number written on them, but not all.  The racks stacked the textiles about five layers high and four layers deep-- So if something were on the top row and at the back of the rack, it is basically impossible to reach.

Something a bit like this...
Sigrid had printed the info for the textiles I had asked to see, and we were going to try to find them all and see if we could access them for a future photography appointment.  We basically just crawled around the room, looking for the inventory numbers, which did not seem to be in any sort of order...  We found most of them, and a couple were going to be easily accessible.  Not exactly the results I'd hoped for, but at least I would be able to see some of them.

After trying to locate the textiles, we walked around the rest of the storage building trying to decide where would be a suitable place to photograph them.  The main restriction is that is needed to be a large enough floor space to lay out these large embroideries and leave enough space to walk around them and set up a tripod.  We finally thought we had that much figured out, so we took off all our protective gear and drove to the museum.

On the drive, Sigrid and I talked a little bit about the differences between American and German museums and the state of conservation work, etc.  In Germany, unlike America, most museums do have a conservator on staff.  However, they often do not have all the resources necessary to really do their work; this work requires years of education and training, and still pays very little.  She had a lot of insight into the field, and I really enjoyed getting to know her throughout the day!

Once at the museum, we were going to see where the textiles "on display" were kept.  I thought this would be good, because textiles on display should be easier to access and photograph.  However, I quickly realized they were really "on display" at all.  The temporary exhibition had spilled over into the medieval exhibition, forcing most of the medieval objects to be shoved back into a corner, and covered by a temporary exhibition wall to make room for the special exhibit.  The textiles were in a vitrine, behind a wall, crammed in with other medieval objects...  Impossible to access without moving everything in the room.  But I still had hope we could work out a path for me to get in and take some photos.

Slight hiccup in the plan....
I thanked Sigrid for all her work, and she went off to a museum meeting where she would bring up my needs and their restrictions and try to work out the logistics for my return visit.

I decided to explore some in Hannover before returning to Wolfenbüttel.  The Rathaus was lovely, and had a great little pond and park behind it!  So I hung out there for a minute, still recovering from my traumatic early morning escapades and pondering the obstacles of the museum.

Next, I took a couple buses over to find a small church which happened to be closed.  The outside was quite charming, so I took a couple photos anyway.

Then I had some bus trouble.  (Recall that this is a recurring problem: link)  There is a lot of construction in Hannover, which changed some of the bus stops and routes from what my app tells me is true.  I took at least three of the wrong buses (or the right bus headed in the wrong direction) before finally finding the right bus and heading to another church that was also closed.  By then I had a headache, was very tired, and decided to cut my losses and head home!

On the train home, I received an email from Sigrid that in her meeting she learned I would not be able to see or photograph any of the textiles, because the obstacles of the museum were too great to overcome.  There was not enough space, they were worried about the toxic chemicals, and the objects would be too difficult to access.  She did offer to share any of the museum's photos with me free of charge, and at least that is something since I had never even seen color images of the textiles in their collection.  Total bummer.

I woke up at 5:00am, ran around like a mad-woman all morning, was denied access to the textiles at the Kestner Museum, the churches I tried to visit were closed, my trains home were delayed, and to top it all off it was hot and I had a headache.  So by the time I finally made it home, I took off my pants and took a very long nap.

But all was not lost.  After my nap, I got up and went to a potluck that had been planned by some of my fellow fellows and it was lovely.  The food was excellent-- even the German version of my family's favorite "Weight Watchers Pie" was good!  I was able to share my terrible day, and we all commiserated.

When you do what we do, occasionally days like this are bound to happen.  Only one awful day after more than 260 days abroad is pretty good odds...  And when it's all said and done, no day is wasted if you wore a haz-mat suit.

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