December 08, 2008

Mad hatters wanted!

Guest Writer: Lynn Sullivan, Museology graduate student

When most of you think of the Burke you probably think of fossils and artifacts, but I want to let you know that if you look hard enough you might see a white rabbit that can lead you down a hole into your own version of Alice in Wonderland. My rabbit hole led me to the ethnology collection where, for the past quarter, I have adopted my own Wonderland-esque persona in doing my practicum with Collections Manager extraordinaire Becky Andrews. The role I chose was the mad hatter or more specifically the mad hat-mount maker! Many of the hats in the ethnology collection are stuffed with acid-free tissue paper which does not support the fragile hats properly or help them maintain their form while in storage so they need to have a “mount” created to keep them propped up. Following in the footsteps of another intrepid Museology student, I have sought to make as many hat mounts as is humanly possible over a period of 10 weeks. Was I foolhardy...yes. Did I have fun getting in touch with my inner craft person…YES! Did I conceive of a new standard for good days vs. bad days…yes (btw, a good day is one where you don’t cut yourself or glue your fingers together).

But what is hat mount-making you may ask… I shall tell you!


First one starts with collecting the necessary archival building supplies (ethafoam, coroplast, tyvek) and tools (gloves, pencil, tape measure, and utility knife). Then the side-kicks must be rounded up, because it just isn’t mount-making without…

Sticky (the worlds slowest-heating-has-more-glue-stuck-to-it-than-comes-out-of-it-glue gun), Cutty (the only ethafoam knife that you will ever need, so coveted that students have been known to rush out at 5am on Black Friday to buy their own), and Maki (the sushi knife of death, mortal foe to flat ethafoam that must be carved out).

With this ramshackle gang of characters as back-up, I begin the process of fitting a square peg in a round hole. First thing you should know, ethafoam sheets come in large rectangular planks. Northwest Coast cedar-bark and spruce root hats tend to be more…ahh…how to put it …ROUND! Yes, one must cut tapered circles out of square planks. After doing this several times, you should eventually manage to have your own leaning tower of ethafoam that must be glued together in exactly the right place so that it all perfectly supports the hat. Any attempt to glue more than one piece at a time will inevitably lead to disaster. Once your little beauty is perfectly glued you will realize that more foam must be shaved off the sides to actually make it fit how it fit about 2 minutes earlier. Without further delay, you must swath that baby from top to bottom in tyvek in order to keep the ethafoam from rubbing against the hat. Next cut a piece of coroplast mat to the perfect size and glue the mount on the mat. Place hat on mount, return hat to shelf, and repeat with the next hat.

What I learned most from this experience is that no, I’m not crafty, but that any time given to the Burke and its wonderful staff is a gift in itself. Working with staff at this museum teaches you more than you could ever learn in a book. The staff is smart, dedicated, and always willing to take time to help you get better at your job.

And if you are really lucky… you too may wind up making a hat mount that can also be used for next year’s Star-trooper Halloween costume.