What’s in a Name?

My newest post on the Pink Palace (long may the name live) blog:

The Pink Palace

Owners name buildings to give them identities and personalities. Once a building becomes part of the public domain, however, control over both the name and the character of the structure are largely out of their control. This occurrence is made clear in the case of this museum’s name. When Clarence Saunders planned his behemoth mansion, he christened it Cla-Le-Clare. The moniker was a combination of the names of his children—Clay, Lee and Clare. Memphis legend tells us that locals renamed it the Pink Palace as soon as the Georgia marble was added to the mansion.

Picture Taken on Sunday of Daffodil Show 1953 1
The Memphis Park Commission was later tasked with turning the empty home into a museum. The commissioners decided to rename Cla-Le-Clare the Memphis Museum of Natural History and Industrial Arts. Before the museum opened to the public, members of the Museum Advisory Board began making recommendations to shorten the clumsy name. They got their way…

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Whatcha readin’?

For a brief moment this summer I was doing the impossible. I was only reading one book at a time. That may seem both unremarkable and exceedingly ordinary, but I am one of those readers who likes to cast my mind in multiple directions at once. I also tend to get on odd reading tracks. Last winter it was a spate of books about LDS. Or the summer before last when it was novels set during WWII in Britain. I never plan these things, my brain just goes there on its own.

The solo book streak is over, though, and I am back to my version of normal. I read (a lot) at work. My museum reading is currently Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages by Neil Harris, which deals with the “lifespan,” in human terms, of buildings. Basically, it’s about buildings’ biographies. I’m also reading Fever Season: The Story of a Terrifying Epidemic and the People Who Saved a City by Jeanette Keith. This one is about the yellow fever epidemic that hit Memphis in 1878, an event which had profound repercussions for the city over the next several decades. It’s the foreground to the narrative that I’m working on for our new exhibits, and I’ve been working on it for months. I mostly read it when I’m eating lunch alone, which thankfully doesn’t happen very often.

On the home front, I finished Augusten Burrough’s Possible Side Effects this morning. I love humor essays, and I’m glad to have very belated discovered him. I am working my way through Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. I have never read a history quite like it, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. It is also a massive tome, so I anticipate that I’ll be reading through it for quite a while. I’m also reading Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities by Michael Lesher. Quite the departure from the other books, no? I received an early reviewer copy from LibraryThing, and, while heavy in both a legal and tragic way, it is also very interesting. Lesher is moving beyond the descriptive works that came before his and offering analysis about why there are problems with reporting child abuse in these communities. The topic is quite removed from what I normally read, and I like it.

To sum it up, I read a lot. I like to jump topics, and I’ve never had any problems reading more than one thing at once. Consider it a byproduct of all those years of formal education. What’s the difference between reading a book for English class as well as one at home and choosing to read more than one at a time? Someday I’ll be down to reading one book again, but my guess is that it will be a while.

Writing about writing

I sit down to write, and it seems completely impossible. I am good with words. In fact, I love them. They string together in remarkable and brilliant ways. There is no need to write a boring sentence as long as adjectives like explosive and presumptive exist. There are no shortage of verbs and nouns to combine to say interesting things in impressive ways. And then there is punctuation. Like all good improvisation, you learn the rules so that they can be broken, and you can push grammar to encompass new forms of expression. You can write in fragments and be liberal with commas and end sentences with prepositions and create massive run-ons. Because sometimes it fits the flow and communicates your ideas better than all the eighth grade rules.

And then there are synonyms. There is never a need to use the same word more than once to describe your point. Even the most mundane sentence about the boringness of a task is elevated by words. I vehemently dislike taking care of malodorous garbage, but it beats saying that I hate to take out the trash. The words exist to be molded into something new, to be pieced together to express those inner thoughts that I cannot reach when I am speaking out loud. Writing allows the nouns and verbs and modifiers to be crafted and punctuated. Edited and reworked. Passed on for consumption or consigned to the trash.

Then I sit down to write and all the stories I can imagine while going about my day disappear. All the lessons I’ve learned from reading great and terrible books dissipate, and I am left staring at a page, wondering how to have the discipline to think of something new and translate it into something readable. I know that writers create themselves, but I am constantly boggled by the how. I always have something to say. Except for when I try to write. Then I write about writing and hope that next time, something new will come out of the words.

Lingering

Mmm I want to linger…

Some days are hard. And sometimes a string of days are hard. And sometimes the last thing I want to do is spend ten more minutes with a crying baby. If I lose mom points with you for that, you should probably reevaluate why you have decided to waste your time assigning mom points.

Mmm a little longer…

But sometimes, what I need at the end of a string of tough ones is to have that tired baby, the one with the growing bruise on his cheek from trying to cruise a little farther than he has before and the sore mouth from pushing out teeth, need me.

Mmm a little longer here with you.

The nights I want to linger over bedtime surprise me. It always seems to happen when the baby has had a long day and his mom just wants him to go to bed so she can be an adult and not play peekaboo.

Mmm it’s such a perfect night…

It’s the nights when he decides that he doesn’t want to nurse or be read to. When he wants to flop all over my lap and cry until I give him his pacifier. When all he wants is for me to sing him his song. Loudly. No whispering; he wants it belted.

Mmm it doesn’t seem quite right…

Those nights are when I sooth him. When this unnameable and powerful and giant love that we have is all that he needs to feel safe and calm.

Mmm that we should have to bid adieu.

To steal a phrase from Nancy Tillman, our love is so wide and so deep that it is impossible to understand the feeling I have when I hold him in my arms and he finally stops climbing and crying and lets me make him happy.

And as the years go by,

And those nights are when I get a tiny glimmer of understanding that this is a feeling that I should try to pocket. That I should hold it in some part of my memory so that it will be there when he is not my little baby anymore.

Mmm we’ll both look back and sigh

And when I have that glimmer, I find that I can’t put him down at the end of his song. I can’t get up and put him in his crib, turn out the light and close his door. Those nights deserve to be lingered over. So on nights like tonight I sing him an extra song. Not for him. He doesn’t need it. For me. Because I do.

Mmm this is goodnight and not goodbye. 

Undercover Bird Man

A story about one of the Pink Palace’s oldest collections:

The Pink Palace

When the Pink Palace opened its doors in 1930 as the Memphis Museum of Natural History and Industrial Arts, there were not a lot of objects in the collection. In fact, the museum opened on March 8, 1930 with little fanfare other than two small news articles. Only three rooms had partially finished exhibits. The “most interesting collections” were an Arctic wolf, Kodiak bear, Sonora grizzly, glacier grizzly, sea otter, California heads and a musk ox head. The commissioners said “It is the idea of the commissioners as well as the advisory board that the utmost care be taken in its acceptance and placing of exhibits in this museum…This care on the part of those in charge of the museum we hope the public will appreciate and by doing so thereby understand the small amount of space occupied at this time with exhibits.” In an effort to fill out the…

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What exactly do you do?

Other than questions about how old my baby is, the most frequent thing I get asked is, “What do you do?” I generally assume that people mean “what do you do to make money” so I generally leave out the part about being a mom and cooking and raking leaves and reading books and playing peekaboo.

I do a couple of different things. Sometimes I teach classes. I’ve taught history and museum studies classes at three of the universities in Memphis where I’ve taught online and in the classroom. My favorite class to teach is introduction to museum studies. It’s one of my favorite subjects, my students generally have great ideas and it is lots of fun to share something I’m passionate about with people who mostly feel the same way.

My main money-paying gig is as a museum professional. I work in exhibits, and I’ve spent the past several months doing primary research for a major redesign at my museum. I’m compiling a massive narrative that we will use to write the panels and labels. I also find photographs and other images that we can use and secure the use rights for them, which includes figuring out who owns them. As an offshoot of this ongoing research, I’m reorganizing our staff library and museum archives and digitalizing the card catalog so that it’s usable. (I say “I,” a volunteer and amazing intern are helping tremendously.) I also use a lot of my research to write the museum’s blog, which I repost here when the posts go live because I’m proud of them.

I also help install and deinstall exhibits. Since I’m not super strong and my coworkers are much better at using power tools, I tend to help condition report artifacts when it’s time for a new exhibit. I can mount labels, and I’ve been known to have curatorial input. I firmly believe that I have the best job in the museum.

While both of those jobs are personally and financially fulfilling, I also love the job that pays in smiles, slobbery kisses and drool. Museums are great. And so are babies.

Alice + Freda Forever by Alexis Coe

Alice + Freda Forever: A Memphis Murder was a dual purpose read for me. I bought a copy for the museum’s library for some obvious reasons. It happened in Memphis and is relevant to our mission to education the public about the cultural history of the Mid-South. We are also trying to pump some new life into our staff library by introducing some new material. I imagine that many people who read the book will be learning about Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward’s story for the first time. I’ve known about them for several years since I first found about Freda’s murder while doing research for the museum. Honestly, since I am a historian who works in and on Memphis, it would be a little weird if I hadn’t found out their story before this book. So I read it for work. I also read it because it’s interesting. There aren’t many LGBT histories about Memphis; off the top of my head, this book brings the total up to two. It’s also written in an interesting manner with a healthy dose of illustrations and contextualized letters from the two principle actors.

I thought Coe researched the book well. She definitely utilized the Memphis’ rich archives, which shows clearly in her extensive bibliography. She also does a good deal of racial, gender and class analysis, which I particularly liked as a social historian. At points, the illustrations border on distracting. However, there are a few key points in the narrative where they serve a real purpose, specifically in the section about the trial to show the difference in how Alice was portrayed by the newspapers.

There is one glaring problem with the book that I am surprised neither Coe nor her editors caught. At more than one point in the narrative, she mentions that Memphis is in East Tennessee. Absolutely not. Not even a little. Memphis is the largest city in West Tennessee. It might not seem like a big deal, and the first mention I shrugged off, but it kept happening. At one point she even talked about a doctor from “nearby” Knoxville. Other side of the state. The reason this matters is because Tennessee is a very long state, and the historical realities of East Tennessee are different from West Tennessee. To put it in context, Memphis is closer to St. Louis, MO, than it is to Knoxville. This lack of geographical understanding gave me serious pause and made me question Coe as a writer. I think that her analysis of the facts stands up, but as a local historian, I’m disappointed that no one looked at a map.

Admittedly, this is a small quibble in the light of an otherwise well researched and interesting book.

Hunting for Memphis

The museum has had an interesting relationship with hunters. Here’s some info about one of them:

The Pink Palace

Pink Palace visitors from 1948 to 1975 were fond of visiting the Berry B. Brooks African Hall. Brooks was a respected Memphian with a reputation as a huntsman, naturalist and conservationist. He was also a civic leader who was generous with his time, finances and big game trophies.

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Brooks was born in Senatobia, Mississippi, in 1902 and moved to Memphis when he was 12. He attended Washington and Lee University and then worked as a clerk before starting his own cotton company in 1929. During his 53 years in the cotton business, Brooks served as king of the Cotton Carnival in 1957 and as two-time president of the Memphis Cotton Exchange. Cotton gave him the resources he needed to engage in his favorite activity—big game hunting. In 1947, Brooks took his wife and daughter on his first of four African safaris. In addition to his hunting, Brooks also made films…

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