Saturday, July 14, 2012

Hey, did I sign on to a natural history museum or the BPRD?!

So, a little background on my museum work.  I'm being employed to help unearth, organize, and archive any information on a specific donor to the museum and his contributions to the collections.  Said donor's name is Daniel Hector Talbot.  And, not to put too fine a point on it, but the man was totally out of his mind.  In the best, most fascinating way possible.

Talbot was born in 1850, and while still in his childhood he decided that he wanted to be a doctor (not to cure anyone, mind you, simply for the knowledge that he could apply to scientific pursuits.  Translation:  He wanted to take things [read, people/animals] apart and see how they worked).  His father, however, fast tracked him into the family brick making business (which was probably just as boring as it sounds).  Talbot weaseled his way out of that job pretty quickly, it seems, because the next references one sees of him relate to him becoming a lawyer of sorts (where did this law degree come from?  No clue.)

Now at the same time that Talbot had moved into the law business, (1870 or so), soldiers returning from the Civil War were being given, as payment for their service, plots of land and 'scrips', papers which indicated that they owned said plots of land.  Said scrips/land were not to be sold or traded, but Talbot, being the clever and resourceful (amoral?) man that he was, dug out a loophole in the legalese which allowed land scrips to be bought, sold, and traded.  With this to his advantage, Talbot proceeded to amass quite the fortune.  Now wealthy, he proceeded to use his questionably gotten gains to finance all his stifled scientific dreams.  He went on umpteen collecting trips, from Labrador (in Canada), to Mexico (he went through Texas in the process, and can be credited with making some of the first jokes about the state), during which he engaged in the Victorian naturalist's passion of 'if it looks interesting, kill it, take it apart, and preserve it in formaldehyde/stuff it and mount it'.  In reading his journals one can find accounts of days where he and his team shot some forty birds (each!), and were still complaining that they weren't able to get more.  It's astonishing anything was left once Talbot moved on.  He also went to various scientific conventions in Iowa and elsewhere, which results in him essentially photobombing (newspaperbombing?) several important historical events, including the eclipse of 1878, where he rubbed elbows with Thomas Edison.

When he wasn't galivanting around the country doing his best to make things go extinct, however, Talbot largely seemed determined to become the genetic equivalent of Dr. Frankenstein.  He set up an experimental farm outside of Sioux City, where he proceeded to tinker with nature in some very strange ways.  Specifically, be began various breeding experiments.  Some of these actually made sense, such as his managing to develop a breed of 'mule footed' or solid hooved pigs, to combat the fact that pigs with cloven feet were falling ill and dying at the time.  Others, however, were pretty much the stuff of nightmares, such as genetic crosses between bison and zebras or bisons and regular cows, resulting in offspring so big that the mother had to be killed so the calf/foal/unholy abomination could be delivered.  Apparently there is one such mutant offspring stuffed and mounted floating around in Iowa somewhere, though I can't say that I really want to see it. 

But all did not stay champagne and caviar (and genetic anomalies) for Talbot.  In the bank panic of 1893, his bank recalled the loan he had taken out, rendering Talbot abruptly bankrupt with virtually all his possessions to be delivered to the bank.  Several years prior to this event, however, Talbot had bequeathed the whole of his collection and enormous library to the Iowa City University, to be delivered after his death, and this fact caused a legal battle of epic proportions as to who had the rights to the specimens, weird animals, and latin editions of the Necronomicon (I'm kidding about the last one.  Maybe.)  The University ultimately recieved the items, and Talbot slunk into the shadows, dying destitute in a shack in 1911 (he did make a valiant effort to sue the bank and regain at least some money, but this flopped.)

Then, as if this all wasn't dramatic enough, in 1897, three years after his library was absorbed by the university, the library where the books were stored caught fire (in the middle of a convention for firemen, proving that fate has a nasty sense of humor).  Of the multitude of volumes that were lost, Talbot's were some of the few to survive.  In point of fact, the book cases containing said books were the only parts of the library still standing.  (Cue Twilight Zone theme at this point.)

And this is the man who it is my job to research.  Every day reveals some new quirk or questionable behavior on Talbot's part, and every day I feel more like some kind of weird detective *cough* Hellboy *cough*.  I'm just waiting for a contract with Mephistopheles or a book written in some eldritch Elder Tongue to fall on my head.  And even if neither of those appear, there's never a dull moment in the company of Daniel Hector Talbot, the man who proves that truth really is stranger than fiction.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

In the Gallery of Bones

So today could have gone better, my darlings.  Nothing has gone spectacularly wrong, per se, but the general course of events have been liberally sprinkled with irritations, resulting in my currently pissed off and slightly unsettled mood.

It all started the night before all this.  I wound up in the clutches of one of my bouts of insomnia, legendary happenings that refuse to allow my brain to shut itself down.  I rolled, tossed, turned, kicked the covers off, pulled them back on, nearly fell off my couch-cum-bed, considered sleeping on the floor, and did all manner of other silly and inane things in an effort to convince my brain to put a sock in it and stop carolling the Hari-Krishna chant on an endless loop.  All for nought, of course.  I finally fell asleep, but by that point is was 5 AM and I what little sleep I had was uneasy and full of strange dreams that boded nothing but ill.  Naturally, I woke up feeling like I'd been run over by a truck, but still hauled myself in to the museum.  It would look bad, I felt, if I flaked out on my third day of work.

Hindsight, however, is always 20/20, and in this case it might have served me better to have stayed on my couch in hope of finally getting some real rest, as once I arrived at the museum I blanked completely as to what I should be doing.  I knew I should be researching my mad scientist, but my brain just would not play ball.  I was bleary as I ran google search after google search in hopes of finding any shred of information.  To cap it off, while I normally would spend minimal time in the office before heading off to the archives, today I felt compelled to stay as I had been informed that a sortie would be heading to the State Historical Society, who were in possession of papers regarding my man.  So, while waiting, I tried to generate anything helpful, which provided some intelligence but not enough for me to really sink my teeth into, and in the end I discovered that the sortie was not to happen anyway.  I'd sat around chewing my cud for nought (note, I do not lay blame for this - sometimes things just don't work out).

So, in a bit of a snit, I decided I'd go walk through the parts of the museum I had yet to see and try to get my head in the game.  I made my way into the main portion of the museum, clambered up several flights of stairs, and found myself standing before a large pair of wooden doors that, the map had indicated, would lead me to the rest of the museum.  I grabbed the handle of one, which sported a latch, and tried to open it. 

And that's when everything went to hell in a handbasket.  The doors started opening but were refusing to disengage, and to hasten the process I grabbed both handles and tugged the sluggish things wide.  This did open the doors fully, but had the unforeseen consequence of slamming one of the door panels into my right foot which I had neglected to move back when I grabbed both handles and tugged. 

There was a moment of realization, where my brain caught up with the fact that a huge piece of oak had just badly jammed several of my toes, and then the phosphorescent relay of pain began dancing up and down my nerve endings.  I will say in my favor that I did not cry or scream, though both of those were mostly because I was processing too much pain at the time to do either.  Instead I gasped, clutched my foot, and began cursing in every language available to me even as I backed away from the doors and gripped the nearby wrought iron banister, balancing against it as I waited for the pain to subside.  Once it had to some degree I managed to limp through the doors, only to discover I was on the wrong floor altogether.  Bristling at the irony I forced myself up one more flight of stairs (I am nothing if not stubborn), and stumbled gamely into the hall of mammals, and thence into the portion of that collection that is composed entirely of bones, where I collapsed on a bench.

That particular sector of the museum is equal portions elegant and slightly offputting.  I am a collector of bones, and even I couldn't help but feel a little unsettled with all the denuded tibias, fibulas, and humeri around me.  The huge right whale skeleton that hangs over the entire section does nothing to help with the memento mori sensation, and when you have just badly damaged yourself the last thing you need is more of a reminder of your mortality.  Even so, it is a beautiful, albeit grim sight, one which I alternately enjoyed and felt slightly disturbed by as my toes ceased to shriek in agony, giving their efforts over to a dull throb that has continued for the rest of the day.  I left both the exhibit and the museum shortly afterward, limping my broken self to Prairie Lights, where once again I am sipping a La Croix....though this one I am more apt to hold against my foot than forehead.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Hotter than the hinges of Hades

The wrath of Helios. The merciless, withering arrows of Phoebus Apollo. The sun in all it's drought inducing power, which is currently beating down on Iowa City with no intention of stopping till the weekend. Maybe. The corn and the soybeans wilt, the animals hide, and the people of the city scuttle from point A to point B with as little delineation as possible, knowing full well that, as in The Waste Land, 'the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief', and even Thomas Stearn's red rock is no help, for shadows are only marginally cooler than the blaze outside it.

So I retreat into the dark of the museum. Hidden in the basement or the archives, I rest easy for a time, even as the heat stalks abroad. But i cannot dodge it forever. Yesterday, while dressed in my best (as it was my first day of work,) I damn near fainted, managing to run into a cool shop and get my breath back just in time to prevent myself collapsing face first onto the baking concrete. The air sometimes seems too hot to even breath it, scalding a person inside and out.

For the moment, however, I'm holed up in Prairie Lights, sipping a can of La Croix that I alternately gulp from or hold its frigid, perspiration beaded container against my head. I will have to reenter the veritable auto-da-fe of the outdoors at some point, but here surrounded by books, cold drinks, and air conditioning, I can remain in denial a little longer.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Museums and Mad Scientists

This entry will be a bit more impromptu, my darlings, and will recount (in stunning blow-by-blow detail) my first day at my new job. Said job is actually an internship, in specific terms, but for me it's a job of near-sacred importance.

Simply put, I'm working in a museum.

And what led up to me sitting in a temperature controlled room awaiting my boss/the head of collection's arrival? Well it was preceded by several months of the most exhaustive job/internship hunting imaginable. I cast a wide net, emailing internship queries and filling out applications in museums across the country, ranging from the Big Apple itself to the baking heat of New Mexico. No museum or collection was too mean, no job too small, no preservation task too exacting. So out the emails went, and, as to be expected, in came the rejection notices, till at last I received a message from the University of Iowa, asking of I'd be interested in taking on an internship in their natural history collections. I jumped on the offer (and a plane) and thus it came to be that yours truly is here today.


So I now have my marching orders. I will be doing archive work on one of the museum's many contributors, hunting up information on him and the items he donated. Essentially i will be pulling a Mikael Blomkvist/Lisbeth Salander and dredging up all the details on this man. And not to give too much away at this stage of the story, but he seems to be quite the 'I wonder what happens if I do THIS?' type. As such I'm currently sifting some basic documents and writing up some core notes on my very own mad scientist, and waiting for my boss to get out of a meeting so she can introduce me to the library archives and archivists. Wish me happy hunting, my darlings.

~ Victoria

P.S. I find it ironic how while almost every American-based tale of going out into the wide world to seek one's fortune features the lead character departing Iowa (or somewhere else in the Great Plains), I chose to come here instead.