Monday, May 28, 2018

Museum fundraising one EBay sale at a time

I may have mentioned that one of the revenue streams -- or, more accurately, feeble trickles -- for the museum where I volunteer is EBay sales. As we go through things, get stuff cataloged and organized, whether it's a box that's been hiding in the storage building for 15 years or a donation that walked in the door last week. we inevitably find things that do not fit the museum's mission. We also find items that are duplicates, like multiple wooden ironing boards or several sets of curtain stretchers. When that happens, the item in question meets one of three possible fates: we pass it on to another institution that can use it, we toss it, or we try to sell it. We sell used books through, we sell bulky stuff through a local Facebook group (Baraga County Stuff for Sale), and we sell miscellaneous collectibles on EBay.

Sometimes we get lucky with EBay items, like the time we stumbled across a first edition of an early William Faulkner novel that was in excellent condition. I think it set a record for the most we've ever gotten for one item. More typically we sell collectible postcards for a couple bucks each. As long as it sells, though, and we get more for it than it costs us to package and mail it, it's found money. Every little bit helps when our annual budget is just barely four figures.

Anyway, a few days ago I thought we might have gotten lucky. Another volunteer and I were looking around in the storage building for stuff that might be sellable on Baraga County Shit Stuff for Sale and pulled a folio-sized book off a shelf that had obviously been gathering dust for awhile. It was a huge volume, probably a good two inches thick, maybe more. I had glanced it before and knew it had art prints in it. (I had in fact been thinking about pulling those prints to sell individually.) This time we took a closer look. First, I got excited because the cover was embossed with a name, and year, Florence E. Jenkins 1895. My first thought was to remember the recent Meryl Streep movie and get hopeful it was connected in some way with that Florence Jenkins. Second thought was that maybe it would be worth something on its own if it turned out there was no connection.

So I did some Internet sleuthing this morning and discovered that sadly there is no connection between the Florence Jenkins on the cover of the book and the Florence Foster Jenkins portrayed in the film. So much for any value it might have had as a collectible curiosity.

Then I looked into the value of the book as it stands. Turns out it would be worth a shit ton of money if it was in good condition. Copies in good to excellent condition are listed at anywhere from $595.00 to $800 on Unfortunately, the one we have looks like it was tossed off a truck and run over a few times. Calling it "well read "is a bit of an understatement. Selling it on Ebay is probably not going to help the budget a whole lot.

Okay, so it doesn't really look like it's been run over by a truck, but the binding is shot, it has loose pages, and there are water stains on the margins of some of the art prints. But who knows? Maybe there's a passionate graduate student majoring in art history somewhere out there whose life will not be complete until he or she has a personal copy of Sheldon's Recent Ideals of American Art, especially when there's no way the typical grad student (or even struggling assistant professor) could afford to drop $600 or $700 on a copy that qualified as "good." Now all I have to do is figure what a fair price for it might be. Wish me luck.

I wonder what the media mail rate is for a book that weighs almost as much as a small car?

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Girl? Boy? Shetland Pony? A few thoughts on the social construction of gender identity

An acquaintance was second guessing herself recently over the name she'd given her youngest child. The name is one that is usually associated with being female, but the child is currently "presenting as a boy."

Holy wah. I knew gender identification issues have gotten weird in the past few years, but we're talking about a preschooler, a kid that probably can't tie his? her? their? own shoelaces yet. If a 3 year old wants to refer to their self as one gender or another, fine. And if ten years later that child is still preferring one gender over another regardless of perceived biological sex, also fine. (I say perceived biological sex because physiological sex is a lot messier than the average person realizes, but that's a subject for a different post.*)

As a social scientist I know that gender is socially constructed, not biologically determined, and can be fluid. I personally believe that in this particular case there's been a whole lot of unconscious in-house social conditioning to make the child prefer being a boy (two older brothers extremely close to the child in age, for example), but when the parents are doing their best to let the child be who the child wants to be, also fine. I'd much rather see parents let kids dress in what the children prefer and play with what they like instead of doing the usual freak out that occurs when a little boy decides to play with dolls or a little girl announces she hates wearing dresses.

I am, however, curious as to how a 3 year old can "present as a boy." Clothing? Have clothes really become so gendered that it's now automatic that if a child with a girl's name is not in a princess dress or midget hooker outfit from Walmart the assumption is that only boys wear pants and tee shirts? Toy preference? Doing what I do and demanding the boy toy in Happy Meals at McDonald's? Unless there's a movie promotion going on, the boy toys are always more fun, more likely to be action toys than the cheesy midget Barbies girls get stuck with. It's pretty easy to see why some girls would much prefer to be boys -- boys get to wear the comfortable clothes and play with the fun stuff.

There was a time in our not so distant history when up to a certain age there was no real way to tell at a glance whether a child was a girl or a boy. All preschoolers wore dresses. The child in the photo above? That's future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt presenting, I guess, as a girl. (His mother reportedly cried when those curls got cut.) There were certain rituals associated with a child growing older. At some point little boys would suffer through their first real hair cut, the dresses would be lovingly packed away in a steamer trunk in the attic, and the little boy would find himself in short pants. Not long ones. Long pants were associated with getting closer to adulthood. Little girls stayed in dresses, albeit ones that with shorter hemlines than the ones adult women wore.

I'm not sure just when the unisex dresses for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers vanished, maybe around 1920 or so. We have family photos of men born in the 20th century wearing those cute little toddler dresses for formal portraits, so in historic terms it wasn't that long ago.

Anyway, I can understand why strangers seeing a child for the first time dressed in a non-princess outfit could mistake that child for a little boy. Both of my kids were treated to that assumption when they were 3 or 4 years old -- it's like we're such a patriarchal society that male is the default setting for everything. No cute pink headband on the infant? Has to be a boy. No ruffles or a unicorn on the tee shirt? Must be a boy. Short hair? Would rather be outside looking for bugs and snakes instead of inside playing with Barbies? Must be a boy. . . There was a time when toys were also relatively nongendered: girls played with hoops and sticks like the boys did, boys had no problem having tea parties and playing house with the girls. Now some adults are so trapped in toxic masculinity and homophobia they don't even want little boys to have stuffed animals because cuddly toys might turn the boy gay. Seriously.

But, circling back to the specific example of the child who got me thinking about gender fluidity, I tend to discount the fact the child who was assigned a biological sex of female is now declaring that he's a boy. There is a possibility the child will turn out to be genuinely transgender, but the odds are against it. Gender identity can be remarkably fluid in children; researchers have found that little kids can move back and forth between saying they're girls and self-identifying as boys several times before puberty hits and adds hormonal pressures to the societal ones. Given the rich imaginations of small children and also allowing for the fact that this particular self-identification has received a good bit of positive reinforcement (if only in the sense of the parents telling the child they can be whatever they want to be without trying to express a preference themselves), I tend to view it with the same bemusement I felt when my cousin, a preschooler at the time, insisted that she wasn't a girl, she was a pony. That particular obsession didn't last long -- it turns out ponies eat a rather boring diet (no ice cream, for example) -- but part of me thinks that if something similar happened today there would be earnest young parents so desperate to respect the child's autonomy and sense of self that they'd be cleaning out a stall for her and saying it was fine to sleep in the barn.

As for the name, that's the least of the worries for the parents. Between parents getting creative with spelling, following feminist advice to give girls traditional boys' names so the kids won't be discriminated against when they go job hunting, and just making stuff up for the heck of it, a name really isn't much of a gender signifier any more, if it ever was. Plus, of course, within a few years no matter what gender identity the child prefers long term, the kid is going to hate the name on the birth certificate. If it's a common name, it'll be hated because it's too common -- I'm still annoyed with my parents for naming me Nancy. Supposedly it was only the 7th most popular girl's name the year I was born, but I swear the statistics are wrong because any time there's a group of women close to me in age there will be at least one other Nancy. If it's not at all common, the child will hate it because it's too different. If it's not an unusual name but you got creative with the spelling, they'll hate it because they're always having to correct other people who want to spell Lynnda as Linda or DuWayne as Duane. There are some things where the parent is always going to be the loser, and naming the baby is one of them.

Thinking about the social construction of identity, the whole getting enculturated with the prevailing norms and role expectations package, reminded me of another case, a kid who, to use a contemporary buzz word, presented as a beagle. Or maybe a collie. I'm not sure what type of dog the family had. The child was the first born of an introverted couple, a pair of soft-spoken quiet people who apparently did not engage in much small talk at home and had never been told there's a reason people "baby talk" to infants. Language development in the child was a tad slow -- and it turned out his first words were barks. When the child barked at the doctor during a routine check-up it became obvious  the family pet spent more time talking to the baby than the parents did.

*Perceived biological sex, aka the sex you're assigned at birth, is based on the external appearance of genitalia. Definite vulva, you're a girl. Definite penis, you're a boy. If you have ambiguous genitalia, you can be assigned a sex that does not match up with reality as you get older. Back when I was reading academic journals, I read an interesting report on intersex issues that posited that there might be as many as six distinct sexes based on endocrinology and genetics in addition to external physical appearance. Biology is messy.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Will the weirdness ever end?

I've been volunteering at the local county historical museum for about six years now. Shortly after I began volunteering back in 2012, I asked the historical society president if it would be okay for me to work on organizing the archives a little. The museum didn't have any finding aids for the documents in its archives, and a finding aid -- or even a simple index -- is always useful for researchers. Being able to see at a glance whether or not the collections include material relating to the researcher's interest saves everyone a lot of time.

So I got started on figuring out the filing system. Turned out there wasn't one. There were five filing cabinets in the file room. One 4-drawer cabinet had a couple empty drawers, even though they were labeled "scrapbooks," and a couple drawers with some odd stuff in it (a softball scoring book, a couple unlabeled photo albums). Two 4-drawer cabinets appeared to duplicate each other. Lots of folders with similar names and similar material. One of the other volunteers explained that one cabinet was "Jim's stuff." Jim was the Society president. Okay, so I wouldn't touch Jim's stuff. The last two cabinets, a 2-drawer sitting on top of a 3-drawer, were also an odd mishmash of papers, books, and stuff that made little or no sense. But I got started, and gradually it all came together, more or less. It is definitely still a work in progress.  On the other hand, at least now things are generally in alphabetical order.

Of course, the archives keep growing because it turned out the filing cabinets probably contained less than 20% of the documents hiding in the museum or the storage building. As time passed, after we were able to purchase a new computer and I began inventorying the objects that were in the various display cases, more archival material started crawling out from odd spaces. We had a display devoted to Bishop Baraga: the bottom area of the case had several framed items (a lithograph of Baraga on his deathbed, a matted letter from Baraga to Captain Bendry, a portrait of Baraga as a young man) leaning against a shelf positioned maybe 8 inches up in the case. When I opened the case, I discovered the area under that shelf was stuffed full of documents of various types -- and when I say packed full, I mean stuffed to the point of practically bulging. There was enough stuff crammed into the space to fill a banker's box. And it was all material that anyone coming in to the museum hoping to use our archives to do some research on Bishop Baraga (a local high school student, for example) would have found extremely useful.

Banker's box: 24"x15"x10"
In the meantime, our "file" on Baraga in the filing cabinets, the actual physical archive, was maybe 1/4 inch thick. We had a treasure trove of Baraga material, but odds are that anyone coming in to ask about it would never know.

Now take that Baraga experience and multiply it. A lot. I opened a drawer on the Bendry desk and discovered every drawer was stuffed full of material, some of which related to Captain Bendry and most of which didn't. Stepped behind the railroads exhibit and found a Rubbermaid tote crammed full of material about railroads. Checked the storage area under a display case and found another stash of archival material. It took a few years, but I had finally reached a point where I figured all the unaccounted-for weirdness had been found. Oh, there are still boxes in the museum that need to be gone through, like that tote filled with railroads material, and for sure the storage building still has a couple dozen mystery boxes, but I was confident there were no more surprises lurking in the exhibit area.

I was wrong.

Does it look like it would have a secret compartment? 
As part of the ongoing painting project, we had to move a display case that contains items relating to schools and education in Baraga County. As long as we were moving it, I told the S.O. we should pivot it so it's oriented right. For some odd reason, maybe for ease of access, it was sitting backwards. What should have been up against the wall -- the side with the unlockable sliding doors -- was positioned as the front. Pivoting it meant taking out the objects in it so they would be turned around. The case had one shelf about two-thirds of the way up and one shelf sitting, for some odd reason, almost on the bottom. It was propped up by a couple inches but not much.

I get the case emptied and go to move the bottom shelf back to where it needed to be if we were going to pivot the whole thing. Oh f. . . .

You got it. That tiny space, that section that was less than 10 inches wide and only a couple inches high, was full of stuff.

Shoot me. Just shoot me now. The weirdness is never going to end.

On the positive side, such as it is, the weirdness this time included a nice 1903 8th grade diploma.