Tuesday, January 25, 2011

We laughed, we cried, we allegedly committed murder....

I had no idea when I agreed to go on a road trip with the Director and the Curator two weeks ago, that the trip would begin at the Police Station, continue with a hit and run, and end in Mexico.

Thursday morning, January 13th, started out pleasantly enough – I was super excited about the prospect of a peppermint hot chocolate from Starbucks (with whipped cream thank you very much sir, do you really need to ask?). In comparison, I may have been slightly less excited about the window sight-seeing tour we were about to embark on but then again I have never made secret my delight in all things edible and unhealthy. As our departure time was a bit fluid, and as the Director hadn’t arrived yet, I sat down at my desk to get in a little bit of work before we left. Reflecting smugly on my productivity and work ethic, I answered the ringing phone in my most friendly and engaging voice, albeit in a voice register somewhere between that of a pre-adolescent choir boy and Minnie Mouse.

Me: “Good Morning, Historic Cherry Hill. How may I help you?”

Caller: “You’re not going to believe this.”

Me: “Director?”

The Director formerly known as Caller: “My car has been towed. There was snow emergency parking last night and when I came out this morning my car was gone!”

Me: [Silence while an internal battle raged to suppress any unsympathetic sniggers or giggles]

The Director: [Panicked breathing]

Me: “Do you know where your car is?”

The Director: “No! I have to call the city…maybe we could rent a car for the drive.”

Me [slightly offended that the Director would rather rent a car and drive then let me drive us all in my minivan]: “We can take my car.”

The Director: [Long Pause] “I’ll call the city. Can you guys come and pick me up at my place.”

Me: “Okay.”

About twenty minutes later the Curator and I pulled up to the side of the road to pick up a very annoyed Director. The Director climbed into the van (whose “high-tech” handle proved too difficult for her to master on her first try) and directed me to our next destination. THE POLICE STATION!

As I parked the car in THE POLICE STATION! parking lot, the Curator and I eagerly exited the car and practically skipped to accompany our fearless leader inside the citadel of justice. The Director didn’t seem to appreciate our show of support, particularly because the support was offered with barely suppressed glee. We walked into THE POLICE STATION! with our Director leading the way like we were a couple of overexcited puppies she was trying to control. While she attempted to communicate (communicate = shout back and forth) through a tiny hole in a glass window with an officer in blue on the other side, the Curator and I sized up the space, eagerly watching as more miserable Albanians shuffled in, a rag tag group of snow emergency parking victims and…others. Unfortunately we were only there for a very short time, but it was long enough for The Director to sign some paperwork, obtain the location of the tow-company that took her beloved car, and weasel her way out of some overdue parking tickets Officer O’Malley discovered she owed during the whole process. I don’t think she was enjoying the experience as much as we were. I high-fived a man resembling Grizzly Adams on the way out the door, and shouted "Power to the People!" before we emerged into the sunlight to sniff the sweet smell of freedom, a heady mix of car exhaust and stale urine.

We hopped back into the van and made our way to free the Director’s car. We had to go inside the tow-company’s office where the Director once again “communicated” with someone through a tiny hole in a glass window and then paid the cost of the tow before being gifted with the location of her car - something along the lines of “It’s in the lot at the back of the building.” Into the car we piled again and I drove the director to the lot at the back of the building which we found to be filled with cars in varying degrees of burial under the snow. For a moment it looked like the Director’s bad luck was going to hold and we would have to play a game of Marco Polo with her car using the panic button on her keychain, but much to the disappointment of both the Curator and I, the Director located her car quickly.

So the road trip was on – but first we had to go back to the museum to drop off my car and climb into the newly recovered car of the Director. But once we climbed in – the road trip was on! To the first rest stop on the Thruway heading south where coffee and hot chocolate was purchased. But after that – the road trip was on!

We traveled to Katonah, NY to visit Stepping Stones, a historic house museum. The house was the home of Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and his wife Lois, co-founder of Al-Anon Family Groups. The Executive Director of Stepping Stones greeted us, winter hat on head and guided us along a snow covered path, approximately the width of a single human foot, from the office building to the historic house. As I attempted to place one foot in front of the other on the path across what in my mind seemed more akin to a frozen tundra in northern Russia than a yard in Westchester County, I reflected for the 17th time in my life that my sense of balance was more suited to a one-legged clown than a two-legged Communications Coordinator.

Stepping Stones has recently installed exterior storm windows similar to the ones we are planning to install at Historic Cherry Hill. Our trek through the snow afforded us a lovely view of the house and its exterior windows. I dutifully snapped pictures while the museum professionals talked about UV filtration, window installation and things of that nature.

The exterior storm windows seen here at Stepping Stones are similar to what Historic Cherry Hill will install.
Close up of an exterior storm window at Stepping Stones

What did grab my attention after looking around the first floor of the house, (once again while the real professionals conversed), were the measurement instruments the Executive Director of Stepping Stones brought along to take some measurements with. She had both a visible light measure and a UV light measure. The Curator was instantly drawn to the measurement devices like a Communications Coordinator is drawn to cheese fries – picking up the visible light meter, she began figuring out how the device worked. It took some time to understand what the readings meant in terms of measurement of light (lux) but eventually she clued us in on the following:

Level A: 0-1999

x1 lux

Level B: 2000-19999

x10 lux

Level C: 20,000-50,000

x100 lux
The visible light meter - I will confess I was a little disappointed to find that the light meter was not similar in any way, shape or form to the lightsabers from the Star Wars movies.

These readings may not mean anything at all to anyone who isn’t holding the instruction booklet to the light meter in their hands, and even then, if you’re like me, it still won’t mean anything to you. However I was lucky enough to have the Curator with me and she being, (I think), a direct descendant of Mr. Wizard, was able to talk me through the process. We took visible light measurements in one particularly sunny room and were amazed at the difference in light measurement when a window was covered with sheer curtains versus when a window was devoid of  window treatments.  The amount of visible light that traveled through a bare window was reduced by almost 57% with just the addition of the sheer vurtains. 

Because visible light poses such a danger to collections, museums in general strive to keep lux levels low but in such a way that a visitor can still enjoy the full color of the objects they are looking at.  In the best circumstances, a person needs a minimum of 50 lux to still be able to see - it is a level that museums aim for.  Now, the lux requirement will go up depending on the conditions of the room and the needs of people viewing the room. For example, one would multiply 50 lux by 3 to accommodate the vision of an elderly person; one would multiply 50 lux by 3 if looking at a low contrast object in the room; one would multiply by 3 if there are dark paintings on view; one would multiply by 3 if there was fine detail on an object on view. So if an older person came into a room to look at a dark painting and also examine the fine detail of the painting’s picture frame – you would multiply 50 lux by 3, by 3, by 3 to get a necessary lux measurement of 1350 lux which a musuem would need for that older visitor to comfortably view the painting and all its detail.

Moving on to the next gadget: the UV light meter. The Curator took some measurements which I dutifully recorded. We took the UV light measurements in several different spots in the house. Since we weren’t as confident in our understanding of what the UV light measurements meant, i.e. what UV range was acceptable in a museum environment, we took the measurements home to analyze another day. We want to understand how effective the UV filter in the exterior storms is as we are relying on that to filter out UV light in our museum.

This picture of the Curator holding the UV light meter is going in her hand-modeling portfolio - we're hoping it will be her lucky break.
This is an example of an ancient Greek scroll...wait a minute, no...my mistake, that's got something to do with the UV light sensor.

We left Stepping Stones to head to our next destination, Olana State Historic Site, in Hudson, NY. Our plan was to check out the “screeney blinds” Olana used on their windows, to see what our opinion was of them. Instead of taking the Thruway north we made our way to the Taconic State Parkway, deeming that the faster route. Little did we know what horror awaited us halfway to our destination. Driving along, the Director and the Curator in the front seat, myself in the back, things seemed to be going well. We were a little bit ahead of schedule and congratulating ourselves on that feat. Only another hour or so and we would be to Olana. Then the unthinkable happened. A blur in the sky, a thump on the front bumper of the car. The Director kept driving while I sat in the back seat, gasping in horror, my eyes wide with the realization that I had just witnessed a hit and run. Leaning forward, trembling hands clasped as if in supplication to the almighty Director to “say it ain’t so”, I stammered out the question – “Did you just hit a bird?” to which the Director replied, “Yeah….I did.” And there the three of us sat, all guilty of taking the life of a harmless little bird. The weight of our guilt weighed heavily on us for a couple of seconds, but then the Director said, “I think I just stunned it.” And, call me crazy, but I believed her – sure we were going over 60 mph and the thing took a kamikaze dive into the hood of the Director’s car but gosh darn it, yes, I agree, the Director probably just stunned it.


Arriving at Olana, after taking a solemn blood oath to never breathe a word of our heinous deed to anyone on pain of immediate termination of employment (the Director’s idea), we were greeted by Olana’s curator who brought us into the house to view the “screeney blinds,” although she just called them solar shades. The thing about Olana, in case you aren’t aware, is that this house was built for the views out its windows, and those views are stunning. I was skeptical, thinking that the “screeney blinds” would intrude too much into my personal enjoyment of those views. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. Of course nothing can compare to an unimpeded view of the Hudson River from Olana’s hilltop perch but the view through the “screeney blinds” was acceptable. We left Olana rethinking our previous stance on the “screeney blinds” question and took a quick drive across the Rip Van Winkle bridge to take a look at Thomas Cole House which had the same “screeney blinds” but in white to see the different options available to us.

Olana State Historic Site - it sits on a magical hill that has flowers and blue skies even in the middle of January (at least that's what I am pretending, having lifted this picture off its website)

After all of the “site”-seeing ( a little historic house humor for you) we were ravenous as we hadn’t stopped for lunch and it was about 5pm, so we crossed the Rip Van Winkle bridge one more time and took the road to Mexico. To be a little more precise – to Mexican Radio a great Mexican restaurant in Hudson, NY which incidentally serves phenomenal pitchers of raspberry/blackberry margaritas – not that I know that from first hand experience – a little birdie (recovering from severe head trauma as the result of a car accident) told me.

People whose conscience weighs heavily on them for some crime they have committed will often turn to drink.  I know when an evil deed has stained my soul I prefer to drink something fruity and colorful.

Thus ended our road trip, although the Director and the Curator went on another trip the next day to The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY to take a look at what that site did with their window restoration. They used tinted Plexiglas on the interior which they covered with sheer curtains that made the tint practically invisible. The Light Guru created a complicated and extensive artificial lighting system in their rooms that was so genius it is difficult for a visitor to tell where the light in the room comes from.

As of now, taking in all of the observations made on the trips to different sites as well as the opinions of different experts in the field, the Curator is leaning heavily toward blocking the visible light in our museum with shades. There is a meeting scheduled for this Wednesday with our architectural team and a “Shade Lady” after which a final decision will be made as to how we want to tackle the issue of visible light.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The visible light is so bright....I gotta wear shades (or tinted Plexiglas or fiber mesh screens, or...)

And here I thought tinting glass was just for the cars of male teenagers and diplomatic envoys - turns out I was mistaken. Apparently tinted windows are all the rage in the museum world. I found out more than I ever wanted to know about light filtration options for windows this past week.

But I’m confusing you – let me start from the beginning. I talked with the Hammer last week for updates on the progress of the restoration work. He has been working on shoring up the south side of the house – C channels, needle beams are in, most of nogging is out. Hey (Jude) was expected on site to take pictures of the exposed sill to share them with the architectural team so that they can make a determination about what type of sill and post repair is most appropriate. Until the architectural team makes that determination, no sill or post work can be done. Hey (Jude) was also supposed to bring a storm window mock-up for the architects’ approval as well.

View of the South Parlor - site of the next phase of structural work.

Scaffolding in place, check!

C-beams and needle beams in place, check!

Exposed sill in need of some type of repair or replacement the extent of which is not known at this point, check!
 I figured – ‘Whew! This is going to be a short and sweet blog this week!’ Had I talked with The Hammer alone it would have been, and I would have remained blissfully ignorant of The Great Glass Dilemma of ’11. However the Curator accompanied me on my fact-finding mission and when The Hammer mentioned storm windows, she began to ask questions. The questions revolved around the advisability of tinting windows. But the bigger story is UV A, UV B and visible light. I’m well aware of UVA and UVB – they are the reasons that when at the beach I slather on the SPF 107 sunscreen, wear a sweat suit under my bathing suit, and make my children walk around in their snowsuits while they build castles in the sand. Visible light – not as afraid of, mostly because it allows me to see. But visible light is not the innocent little range of electromagnetic radiation that can be detected by the human eye it tries to make itself out to be. While it is true UV A and UV B light causes degradation of material, visible light does its fair share of damage – it fades things.

According to the Curator because we do not need UVA or UVB light to see it can be eliminated almost entirely (hence the SPF 107 and the sweat suit under my bathing suit – my family thinks it’s overkill, I think it is a safe way to enjoy the sun). However we need visible light because without it we can’t see. The museum’s goal then is to reduce the amount of visible light that enters through the windows into the house to the minimum levels necessary to see. The good news is that it seems like any glass will block UV B radiation while applied filters will block UV A. But what to do about that pesky visible light?

Well, what are the options? Aaaah…ha ha – if only that were an easy question to answer. One option is to apply a tint to the exterior glazing of the window to filter out visible light. The percentage of visible light filtration you want dictates the amount of tinting necessary. And don’t think there is only one tinting option out there for glass – there are more, for example, bronze tinting or gray tinting – and I have no idea what either of those two things would look like. Tinted glazing for controlling visible light is usually done in the museum world on interior storms made out of Plexiglas. But the museum is not mounting interior storms, it is mounting exterior storms. And regular glass will not be used in the exterior storm windows – instead the exterior storms will be made with safety glass. The reasoning behind this is simple – we want to protect the historic fabric of the house that we are currently spending mucho dinero to restore. In other words we don’t want a thousand black birds to fall from the sky dead and have a portion of those dead black birds crash through our windows damaging any of the historic material of the house. (Actually we don’t want a thousand black birds falling dead from the sky period – that’s a little too end-of-times for me) Safety glass will break but it won’t shatter all over the place. Besides, the Plexiglas is easily scratched – that’s okay when it’s on the inside, but it would start to look pretty bad on the outside what with its exposure to dead birds falling from the sky, etc.

Darn those Mayans and their calendar!

One of our concerns with tinted exterior storms is the way the house will look with all of that visible light reflecting back off. Sunglasses can make movie stars look cool, or State Troopers look intimidating, but in the case of Cherry Hill it will only succeed in blinding anybody who looks at the house on a bright, sunny day. Rule number one in the Dummies Guide to Historic House Museum Interactions with the Public – do not blind the public. The Curator did wonder if there was an option of applying an anti-reflective coating to exterior tinted storm windows that would reduce the amount of reflection/potential blinding of passerby.

Long after the interrogation of Joe the Hammer had ended, the glass discussion carried on (and on…and on, I’m not kidding – like for the rest of the week). The Director and the Curator mentioned that there are fiber mesh shades that can be mounted on the interior of the window to reduce visible light. Actually, in the interest of full disclosure and since this is supposed to be a helpful and informative blog, the Curator and the Director used their “official” name for these shades: “screeney blinds.” The plus of the “screeney blinds” is that they will block visible light in a non-permanent way; the negative is that they provide a less clear view out of the window they are mounted on. Some staff members (the Curator) were open to the idea of exploring the option, other staff members (the Director) were vehemently opposed and then there were the staff members (the Communications Coordinator) who were stumped over how to spell “screeney” - (“Do I put the third ‘e’ in or do I leave it out?”).

The other option is to continue the method currently in use at the house - blackout shades and UV shades that staff members have to remember to raise for a tour and then lower after tours are over. A little more manual effort certainly but it does the job, once again in a non-permanent way.

Just when we thought we would continue to wander in a forest of UV and visible light uncertainty we found enlightenment. The Curator contacted The Light Guru. The Light Guru answered her questions and gave her a sense of calm where before there had been only a tinting tizzy. The Light Guru is a private conservator who happened to design the HVAC system for the museum’s collections center. The Light Guru explained that the tinting levels we would need might not be available in laminated glass. He explained that if we wanted to go the tinted route that we should get Plexiglas tinted to whatever percentage of filtration we wanted and install that between the historic glass and the exterior storm – the thought being that the exterior windows might look better this way. He suggested that the museum measure the light levels of the windows using a footcandle sensor device or a light meter. (Light is measured in footcandles or lux.) Once we know what amounts of visible light we are dealing with, we will be able to make a better informed decision.

But not to be outdone by the Curator’s window nirvana, the Director pulled a card from up her sleeve and contacted another conservator who has worked with the museum before, via a mini-teleconference (in the interest of protecting her privacy we will refer to her as the Conservator Extraordinaire). The Conservator Extraordinaire actually suggested we contact The Light Guru in the first place and when we talked with her after The Light Guru’s enlightenment, she gave us some food for thought – she suggested the use of tinted Plexiglas on the interior which would lower the amount of light coming in the window, make window treatments last a lot longer and prevent an Apocalypse Now (unless you are a black bird in Arkansas) if a staff member happens to forget to shut any of the blinds or shutters. It is an option of continuous protection that takes the manual labor associated with the UV and blackout shades option out of the equation, and lowers the baseline of visible light that enters a given window.

The Curator, whiz kid that she is, is currently thinking about a different approach to visible light management. The museum could use pull-down blackout shades when it is not open, and when it is open to tours (an optimal time to let visitors have some visible light so they can appreciate their surroundings) the blackout shade would be fully raised. But what about the visible light and the UV A light?!?! Never fear – in addition to the blackout shade would be a fully closed semi-translucent shade which would allow light to enter the room more evenly but in a reduced amount. The museum would use reproduced historic window treatments or adaptations of them for further reduction of light. But just to complicate what seems like a simple straight forward method to deal with visible light, the Curator will explore different options in different rooms of the house. Perhaps in one room, like our Guest Bedroom where the view out the window is part of the tour – maybe tinted Plexiglas would be installed there. All those light measurements The Light Guru suggested will come in handy making these decisions.

After all of the talking and after the advice of the conservators, it became painfully clear to the Director and the Curator what needed to be done……..Road Trip!!! Obviously in order to make the most informed decision possible, in addition to light measurements and advice from the experts, we need to see how these different options look in the real world, or at least the real world of historic house museums. And we also need to buy some snacks for the road. I’m thinking Slim Jims and Cheetos. But no coffee – can you imagine how many bathroom breaks the Director and Curator would have to take on a road trip where they were given coffee in the car? To this end the Director and the Curator have set up some visits to sites this week to help with their research. I have been invited on the trip, and if weather and childcare conditions allow, I will go along for the ride. The only thing I have left to say is “SHOTGUN!” (Sorry Curator but it’s an unspoken rule of the road – whoever shouts SHOTGUN first gets the front passenger seat.)

***Updated Information – We have since found out that it is possible to get laminated glass that is tinted dark enough. The catch is that the extra layer of tinting to the laminated glass “sandwich” may not look well and it may end up being too thick to be physically feasible for the museum’s particular windows.***