A single rat, a mischievous cat, and a very special mount for a tiny ark of animals
This is a story about toy boats, cats, a rat, religion, and mounts.
What are mounts? It's ok, I get that question a lot. My job as mount maker isn't a secret, but it isn't well known outside of the museum world. I've written and been blogged about to help the public understand my job as mount maker. Simply put, mounts are the structures that hold artifacts in an exhibition. And I make them.
Sometime in early 2016, I began attending exhibition team meetings for Religion in Early America, our first exhibition in the brand-new Nicholas F. and Eugenia Taubman Gallery. A new gallery, a new curator, and a bunch of borrowed objects: exciting all over the place. Katharine Klein is the project's die-hard collections manager (CM). As the CM, her responsibilities are to ensure the safe care and preservation of museum collections. (CMs are an intrinsic appendage of the museum, and if I tried to properly explain all they do, it would be another blog post!) Katharine worked with our Collections Management Services Office (which supports the accountability for and legal control of collections in the museum's custody) to determine the schedule of borrowed objects arriving at the museum. This was tricky, because some of the items were coming from sources where the object was on display and they wanted to keep it displayed for as long as possible. Or, an object might be precious and fancy and must be hand-carried by several tall men who might have scary weapons like a throwing star or a grenade launcher (you never know…).
With all those scheduling challenges, I also needed to work with Katharine to figure out, based on the proposed design and loan schedule, how to mount each artifact—and I needed a sense of how long this process might take. That's tricky when you don't have the object in front of you quite yet!
The list of objects requiring mounts included a wooden Noah's Ark playset, on loan to the museum from a private collection. It was handmade in Germany in 1828. Forty-five figures and one ark. Tiny wooden animals with tiny wooden appendages. I must follow the mount makers credo, something that maybe hasn't been codified until this very moment: "Keep the artifacts safe and keep the mount hidden." How does one do that with the tiny, tiny wooden creatures that one has not seen in person? The stability of each individual figure was a major question—and I didn't have a way to find the answer. Hmmmmm.
Several months later, the ark docked at the museum. I got a call from our Registration Services team that the little figures were ready to disembark in the mount shop—and I couldn't wait to greet them. I carefully unloaded the animals and Mr. and Mrs. Noah onto an archival board with the dimensions of my allotted space marked. This was the first time I'd seen them in person! They were so adorable, but—man alive!—they sure were delicate and lightweight. I marched them two by two along their invisible path to the boat. Two lions, two elephants, two platypuses, two monkeys, two aardvarks, one rat. Wait. Only one rat? He must be so lonely! Where is the other rat? Oh. There are two cats. One of the cats must have eaten the rat. Mystery solved.
With all the animals fit into their allotted space, I started to plan the mount. I thought about making tiny brass articulated mounts for each animal. But since they were so little, I worried that the mounts could be a huge visual distraction. Maybe plexiglass? If I used the plexi as a base, and routed out holes for their little feet, they could stand up in place. It would keep them stabilized (upright) while they are on display. Time to experiment!
Using one of the dogs as my guinea pig (see what I did there?), I carefully traced around each foot with pencil, and then drilled a hole in the plexi inside the mark. I took my flex shaft (a rotary tool I control with a pedal to polish, cut, carve, and drill) and a high-speed engraving bit and started to dig out a more appropriately shaped foot hole. I did this three more times, one for each foot, and gently placed the dog into his new mount. He was stable. However, I realized this was going to take a lot of time for 45 animals. And if I drilled one faulty hole? I'd have to start over. Maybe there was another solution?
I took my template up to the exhibition space and realized that our team's changes in the case layout gave me less room for the ark. Luckily, I hadn't drilled 148 specific and exact holes for tiny feet. Back to the mount shop! I drew a new footprint of the smaller space available and thought about the problem. I did some other mounts and thought about the problem. I went home, ate dinner, and thought about the problem. I went to sleep. I woke up and I had an idea: Apoxie Sculpt!
Apoxie Sculpt is a two-part (resin), self-hardening clay. When it's dry, it's completely inert (chemically inactive), and therefore suitable to be used around artifacts because it won't melt their hooves off. In 2015 at the Cincinnati Art Museum, it passed an Oddy Test measuring its safety for use on museum objects. The test involves science, patience, and large multi-syllabic words such as "non-homogeneous," "chromotropic," and, my favorite, "phloroglucinol." In any event, it passed its Oddy Test and was therefore safe for me to use on the delicate paws of a tiny aardvark made in Germany in 1828.
I mixed and kneaded the two parts together and started making a flat, organic shape for the animals to stand on. I then placed two layers of plastic wrap over the Apoxie Sculpt. After washing my hands and putting on a fresh pair of gloves, I started laying out the animals. I very gently pressed each animal into the clay to create a small mark indicating the exact size, shape, and placement of each foot. When all the animals were finished making footprints, I removed the plastic wrap and used a highly sophisticated tool (a broken plastic fork) to make the foot holes deeper and slightly wider. Voila!
After a few days the clay had cured, so I checked my animals and they fit perfectly. I love it when a plan comes together. Once the mount was painted with acrylic paint to match the case furniture, it was ready to be installed into the exhibition. I was very pleased how the mount turned out, because it disappears and you focus on the object and the story the object is telling. When I do my job correctly, you don't see my work; the mount fades from view. In my most successful work, all you see is the real star of the show: the artifact.
This object has some interesting things to say. In preparing for this blog, I spoke to Curator Peter Manseau about the significance of the artifact. He told me the ark is a "Sunday Toy," a toy that would be played with on Sunday, making it special. Toys like certain dolls or a Jacob's Ladder told a specific story or referred to Biblical imagery. It was important to Peter to include artifacts that would be accessible to our younger visitors (or adult museum staff who are super into cats). In this corner of the exhibition, there are actually three animal-related artifacts for critter fans to enjoy, including the Fraktur birth certificate (a traditional type of folk art that combines imagery and calligraphy), the ark, and a reproduction of the beautiful Edward Hicks painting "Peaceable Kingdom."
I also asked Peter what his theory was on only-one-rat situation. He thinks there was only one rat made. Interesting. All theories are welcome. Perhaps the other rat found its way to the place where lost things go 100 years ago, hanging out with all the Barbie shoes I lost between 1983 and 1987. I still think one of the cats ate it. Because cats do what they want, which is to be awesome, sleep a lot, and stalk rodents.
Laura McClure is our mount maker and a dedicated cat aficionado. She has also blogged about cats on cash.