Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts.

Every painter has their palette; every sculptor has their clay.  Eudora Welty had a typewriter, and a number of other tools to help her stories take shape.  How did Welty remember her ideas, create a space to develop them, and edit them down to the most effective expressions of her soul?  To find the answer, we must enter her bedroom at the Welty House.

Just off the second floor landing, the bedroom features a small wooden desk, set in a corner by white cotton curtains.  Welty wrote nearly all of her major works in this room, including the Pulitzer Prize winner The Optimist’s Daughter in the 1970s.  Working as history detectives, we can use the objects on this desk to piece together her writing process.

Welty understood that ideas strike us at inconvenient times: in the supermarket, on the freeway, or in countless other places where fleshing out an idea proves impossible.  She often scribbled down character, plot or setting notes on whatever she had handy—receipts, checkbooks, or small notebooks that fit in a purse.  Welty used the back of this checkbook to remember plot ideas, while she used this black datebook to record a series of names, some real (“Sondra and Wondra—twins”) and some fictional (“Booster” “Celida”, “Willette”).

Welty used checkbooks like this one to jot down story ideas when they came to her in public (reproduction).

Welty used checkbooks like this one to jot down story ideas when they came to her in public (reproduction).

With these ideas in mind, Welty needed the proper writing space to develop them.  Her desk sits before three large windows, where she could view the buildings of Belhaven University, framed between a pair of towering oak trees.  While Welty did not face the windows, she liked to sit sideways where she could see outside, “because I like to be aware of life going on…I couldn’t write with a blank wall in front of me.”  Pinehurst Street provided its fair share of sights, from cars to joggers to neighbors walking their dogs.  The quiet of suburban Belhaven allowed Welty to escape the hustle-and-bustle of city life, and focus on her craft.  In our next entry, we’ll explore how Welty turned words into prose.

View of Welty’s office.  The Belhaven neighborhood is visible behind the desk.

View of Welty’s office. The Belhaven neighborhood is visible behind the desk.

Time and Tide: The Storm Arrives in Jackson

On September 14, 2015, in Archives, by Timothy
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This post is part of an ongoing series, “Time and Tide: Ten Years after Katrina.” Special thanks to Preston Everett, Archives and Records Services, for writing this post.

The majority of MDAH Archives and Records Services Division staff works at the William F. Winter Archives and History Building in Jackson, Mississippi.  On Friday, August 26, 2005, MDAH employees went home for the weekend thinking Katrina wasn’t going to hit Mississippi directly since the hurricane was veering to the west.  Monday the 29 was a very different story. Hurricane Katrina made landfall as a category three at 125 mph.  When it arrived in central Mississippi, it had weakened to a category one hurricane at 95 mph.

Staff made preparations for the hurricane by moving everything away from the windows and covering furniture and equipment with Visqueen.  By mid-morning, heartbreaking and disturbing stories began reaching us.  The New Orleans levees were not holding, and the Superdome’s roof was tearing apart.  While Winter Building employees were making preparations, the world outside the building showed signs Katrina was close.   The Image and Sound section employees took this video around 10:45 a.m.   The light fixture fell one hour later, missing the building.

MDAH Light Fixture Katrina

 

 

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Time and Tide: Katrina and the Old Capitol

On September 2, 2015, in Photographs, by Timothy
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This post is part of an ongoing series, “Time and Tide: Ten Years after Katrina.” Special thanks to Nan Prince, Museum Division, for writing this post.

 Katrina: Old Capitol Roof Damage

 

Mississippi has been without a state history museum since Hurricane Katrina passed through Jackson on August 29, 2005, when high winds ripped off part of the Old Capitol Museum’s copper roof. With the roof peeled back like a banana, rainwater drenched the second and third floors of the museum’s south side, including exhibit areas and a collection storage room filled with artifacts.

 

Katrina: Old Capitol Roof Damage

Al McClinton and Museum Division director Lucy Allen stand on the roof of the Old Capitol after the storm.

 

MDAH staff arrived the morning of August 30 and immediately began pulling artifacts out of the wet collection storage room and exhibit areas and laid them out to dry in other areas of the museum.  Approximately 3,200 affected artifacts, including a large collection of Civil War battle flags and more than 100 Choctaw baskets, were moved to dry areas of the building, and several large dehumidifiers were placed throughout the Old Capitol to lower the humidity.

 

Katrina: Old Capitol Interior Water Damage

Katrina: Old Capitol Artifacts Moved to Dry

 

During the next several weeks, staff assessed each affected artifact for damage.  Approximately 250 damaged artifacts were sent to conservators.  Almost $88,000 was spent on artifact conservation with financial assistance coming from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mississippi Humanities Council, and FEMA. All 12,000 artifacts in the collection were moved out of the Old Capitol and placed in temporary storage.

 

Katrina: MDAH Staff Assessing Old Capitol Artifact Damage

Katrina: MDAH Staff Moving Dehumidifier Into Old Capitol

 

In addition to the extensive water damage to plaster walls and ceilings, the Old Capitol’s oak floors and twin spiral staircases were damaged. Katrina exacerbated existing problems with the building, including rising dampness, poor foundation, cracked walls and limestone, and other structural issues.

 

Katrina: Old Capitol Ceiling Damage

 

In 2006 the Mississippi Legislature passed a $14 million bond bill for the full restoration of the Old Capitol and the design and fabrication of the exhibits.  The “new” Old Capitol Museum opened in early 2009 and hosted the opening day of the Mississippi Legislature.  Built in 1839, the Old Capitol building served as the seat of state government until a new capitol building was built in 1903. It then served as a state office building until it was renovated in 1961 and became the home of the state history museum for the next 45 years. Today the Old Capitol Museum interprets the history of the building and contains exhibits on government and historic preservation.

 

Katrina: Governor Haley Barbour at Old Capitol Restoration Groundbreaking

Governor Haley Barbour on site with a backhoe

 

A new Museum of Mississippi History is currently under construction along with the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and will open in December of 2017 in celebration of the state’s bicentennial.  After an absence of twelve years, Mississippi will again have a state history museum.

 

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Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts.
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When visitors enter the sitting room of the Eudora Welty House, an unusual sight greets them— a single white feather, encased in a wooden frame, sitting on a small wooden table.  Set against a blue vinyl background, the feather appears to float, a curious sight and natural conversation starter.  Why would anyone have a framed white feather?

A devoted fan acquired this wild swan feather for Welty in Coole, Ireland, a small village in County Westmeath, in recognition of William Butler Yeats.  Yeats, one of Welty’s favorite poets, wrote a piece entitled “The Wild Swans at Coole” in 1917, where he described the sight of swans taking wing:

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,   

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,   

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,   

Trod with a lighter tread.

Welty discovered Yeats’s poetry while studying literature at the University of Wisconsin.  In One Writer’s Beginnings, Welty describes taking refuge in the library from Wisconsin’s seemingly endless snow, when she stumbled upon Yeats and soon devoured his work:

It seemed to me if I could stir, if I could move to take the next step, I could go out into the poem the way I could go out into that snow.  That it would be falling on my shoulders.  That it would pelt me on its way down — that I could move in it, live in it — that I could die in it, maybe.  So after that I had to learn it…and I told myself that I would.  At Wisconsin, I learned the word for the nature of what I had come upon in reading Yeats…that word is passion.

The swan feather is one of many objects that showcase Welty’s favorite writers.  Instead of displaying her own accolades or accomplishments, she chose to celebrate the authors who inspired her.

MDAH received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in the fall of 2014 to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for more than 11,000 artifacts, including books and other artifacts at the Eudora Welty House and Garden. Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on this project.

Jarrett Zeman catalogs at the Eudora Welty House and Garden.

Jarrett Zeman catalogs at the Eudora Welty House and Garden.

My name is Jarrett Zeman, and I am the cataloger for the Museum Division of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH). Thanks to a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, I will be embarking on a three-year project to catalog the contents of the Eudora Welty House and Garden, one of the nation’s most intact literary house museums and a National Historic Landmark.  For over 75 years, it was the home of Eudora Welty, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Optimist’s Daughter and one of the South’s most prolific short story writers.

What exactly is cataloging?  Why are we taking on such an ambitious project?  Cataloging involves several steps,  categorizing artifacts, checking measurements, taking photographs, and writing detailed descriptions of an artifact’s appearance and function.  These steps are not performed simply for the sake of recordkeeping; rather, they allow us to become history detectives.  The detailed descriptions are a stepping stone to further research, as we investigate each artifact’s history and significance during Welty’s era.  New discoveries help us better interpret artifacts and their owners.

We can learn much about a person by walking in their footsteps and by holding the same objects they’ve held.  At the Welty House objects  pull back the curtain on a life and tell volumes about Welty’s tastes, passions, and dreams, including her preference for Maker’s Mark whiskey, her love of European travel, and her undying passion for books.

Indeed, each room of her home is filled with books in every available cranny and nook: piled onto the couch cushions, spilling over tables, and arranged in uneven piles along the carpet.  Welty’s guests had to move stacks of books off the couch cushions just to sit down.  In total, the home contained 5,000 volumes at the time of her death.

A glance at her bookshelves illuminates Welty’s diverse literary tastes. She seemed to own books on every topic imaginable, from Victorian fairy tales to American poetry to a six-volume set on Thomas Jefferson.  When I work in her sitting room, I like to imagine Welty reclining comfortably on the blue chaise-longue in the corner, set appropriately next to the bookshelf, where she entertained many visitors with the wry wit and astute observation for which she was known.

A short glass barrier sits between the public and me as I catalog objects in Welty’s guest bedroom.  Visitors will frequently peer in, rather like a human observing a zoo animal.

“Are you a part of the tour?” a visitor will sometimes ask, tongue-in-cheek.

“Yes, but I’m not original to the house,” I’ll joke, referencing a phrase visitors often hear on historic house tours.  This invites several questions:  What exactly am I doing?  What steps are involved?  And why am I wearing thick cotton gloves in the middle of summer? (Our gloves protect objects from the harmful oils secreted by human hands).

Although my interactions with visitors are often casual, their opportunity to observe MDAH employees in action serves an important purpose, showing that the Eudora Welty House and Garden is a working museum, where new discoveries are made every day.  It is not a shrine full of dusty glass cases in cobwebbed corners, or a home frozen in time with no new knowledge to impart.

As Eudora Welty wrote, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.”  As we gain a greater appreciation of Welty through her artifacts, we not only learn about an intriguing literary legend; we also understand her era, the city of Jackson, and the spirit of the South, encapsulated in a humble home on Pinehurst Street.

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