The Explorers Club’s Lacey Flint is Rethinking Museums
Museums are a fundamental part of the creative landscape and society as a whole. Not only do they display great examples of creativity, but they also act as portals for us to enter worlds we may never see otherwise. Our guest today, Lacey Flint, is the archivist and curator of research collections at The Explorers Club, and she is passionate about making the artifacts at the space as accessible as possible.
In this episode, we learn about the interesting path Lacey took to work in curation. Being naturally drawn to history and education, she worked as a teacher. Through that she realized that it was important to make history more tangible for it to be a meaningful learning experience. She threw herself into the deep end and pursued a Masters degree in England and worked in various roles before the Explorers Club.
We also learn more about the fascinating history of the club and the mission it was founded on. It is easy to think that with technology now, we have seen all there is to see. This could not be further from the truth. There are so many corners of the Earth where we have not yet been, and part of Lacey’s role is to create a dialogue with the community about exploration.
Museums are not static places. Instead, they have to evolve and adapt to their audiences and be places of engagement. While this is a challenge, especially when balancing member’s interests, it is something that excites Lacey most about her job.
We also discuss the role of art and photography in expeditions and the incredible obstacles artists had to overcome to capture what they saw, how Lacey navigates displaying all the artifacts, and the importance of telling the other side of historical narratives. Lacey’s passion is contagious, and we took so much away from our conversation. Be sure to tune in today!
Key Points From This Episode with Lacey Flint:
- Learn about Lacey’s background and how she ended up becoming an archivist and curator.
- Find out the educational requirements necessary to work as a curator and Lacey’s studies.
- Lacey’s favorite area of study during her Master’s degree.
- Why it is important to rethink the role that museums play in society.
- The history of the Explorers Club and the people Lacey interacts with and works with.
- Some of the Old Guard, New Guard tensions Lacey faces at her job, such as taxidermy.
- What the Map Room in the Explorers Club is and the story behind it.
- There is so much of the world that’s still left to explore, so cartography is not dead!
- The art that’s exhibited at the Explorers Club and being an artist on an expedition.
- The evolution of photography and the role it has played in exploration throughout history.
- Find out more about storage at the Explorers Club and creative ways to display artifacts.
- Why Lacey is passionate about accessibility and what she’s doing to advance it in her work.
- How often Lacey finds bugs in the archived books.
Read Our Conversation With Lacey Flint Here:
Sourdough: Lacey Flint, welcome to Not Real Art. You have the dubious honor of being our first guest who's a professional archivist and curator. So, how does one become a professional archivist and curator?
How To Become A Museum Curator
Lacey Flint: Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here. And, what a question to start off with. Absolutely. How did this all happen? This crazy world that we live in. The reason that I wanted to become an archivist and curator… I will preface this by saying that in a larger institution, my job is probably six people, and that's not to say that I do a Herculean amount of things. It's just usually these are very specific specialties that individuals have, but at smaller institutions like the one where I work, you kind of have to wear many hats, which is very exciting because I never have to do the same thing two days in a row. But I didn't know that an archivist was a real thing or anything that you could actually become until I saw the movie, and you're going to judge, the movie “National Treasure” with Nicholas Cage. And it's not that I wanted to find a national treasure.
It was that the Abigail Chase character, she was the Director of the National Archives and she was actually touching the Constitution and I saw that and was completely baffled. Like somebody can do this, this is a real job. Someone can touch the Constitution. That's incredible. Who knew? Who had any idea and I was in high school and so I was like, okay, this is really awesome. And then I went to college and I went for history education because I thought I was going to be a teacher and kind of do the more traditional educational route. And then I was in the classroom and student teaching with my kids who I absolutely loved and loved doing that, I taught second grade and fifth grade.
We built the Erie Canal in my second grade classroom. It was awesome. Seeing the students react to those hands-on experiences and actually getting to be a part of history and touch history and do all of that, I thought, okay, how can we do this in an extra special way outside the classroom? So it really resonates and makes a huge impact on kids because they don't get a ton of history in the classroom, especially in those younger years because of the way common core and all of that is set up. And so I thought, okay, let's do museum education and kind of go that route. So I went on to get my masters in Museum Studies, went to the University of Leicester in the UK, which is right in the East Midlands and right smack-dab in the middle of the country.
Royal Collection Trust
Lacey Flint: I had never actually been out of the country before. My first stamp in my passport was when I moved to the UK. I took a red eye and I very distinctly remember landing in Heathrow because of course, my visa was delayed, so I had already missed a week of classes. Landed in Heathrow. I was so overwhelmed because I had to move literally within 24 hours, I called my mom and it was like…what just happened? I just moved to London. I'm like, Mom, why did you let me get on this plane? But anyway, I went to this amazing program and like I said, I got my masters in Museum Studies and I specialized in Gallery Education, Communication and Design and then did a sub specialty in Archival Management. I worked over there for a while with the Royal Collection Trust in their collections management department.
My office was in the round tower of Windsor Castle, which was incredible. I was at the bottom of the totem pole. They were lovely, but it was not like I would have gotten any type of corner office in the round tower anyway. But my visa expired. I moved back and I was searching for anything and everything and came to what I thought was a networking meeting here at The Explorer’s Club which ended up being a job interview. I was really glad I wore a suit that day and I was hired pretty much on the spot. And I've been here for six years now. So that's how it happened. I don't know if that's the most direct route that people take to get a job like this. But that was my journey.
Sourdough: Well it sounds like it might be the scenic route. And, there's a lot there I want to unpack because before you and I met yesterday, if somebody had asked me, ‘What is Museum Studies?’ I would have only guessed.
Lacey Flint: Sure, absolutely. So there are a few programs at the Bachelor level in Museum Studies and they might be called something different, you know, Museology, which is just kind of a fun word to say. So there are a couple of universities that do have that as an undergraduate degree, but you typically do need extra years of education.
Sourdough: So on a Bachelors degree, you're probably not going to get an entry level job at a museum with just a Bachelors. A Masters is required.
Lacey Flint: You absolutely could. I don't want to say never. You could get a great internship and kind of grow from there, but you look at these positions and a lot of them are Masters or higher. You become a curator or you work in this field, and I think I said this to you yesterday, you either become a curator because you're the only person in the world who is this expert in this one really obscure thing. Or you know, you're the world expert in slugs and you can speak Russian or you become a curator and you work in museums because you're more of a generalist and you get hired because you know how to handle the stuff, for lack of a better phrase there. And so it just kind of depends. So I don't want to say that you can't do this job with just a Bachelors, because you definitely can, but they are certainly looking for either a lot of years of experience or the extra years of education.
Sourdough: So at the Masters level, that's a two or three year course.
University of Leicester
Lacey Flint: When I was applying for my Masters, I applied to NYU, I applied to Brown, I applied to GW and I applied to the University of Leicester. The three schools that I applied to in the US were all two or three year programs, but in the UK it was a one year degree and it was much cheaper. And so when I got accepted to Leicester that was my number one choice. Anyway, that's where I wanted to go. I wanted to kind of jump in with both feet and do something that I had never done before and kind of just go into this really, really immersive program. I mean, we were in class, it was a full time job. It was Monday through Friday nine to five and one Saturday a month. They would drop us off at a museum in the UK, and I'll never forget it because it's the most intimidating course title that you can ever have.
It was called guerrilla consultancy, like guerrilla warfare, and they dropped us off and they said, okay, you're going to meet with the team of curators. Here is the team of museum educators and they're going to present you with real life problems that this museum is facing. You have to solve them. So you spend the morning with your group going around trying to figure out ways to come up with solutions to whichever problem you faced. And it could have been in any category. It could have been a younger engagement. It could have been trying to create hands-on activity packs for junior high students. It could have been adult engagement, it could have been exhibition design. So you didn't know. Development. You didn't know what specific category you were going to get. And then you had to solve it and then you presented your ideas back to whatever team you met with in the morning who gave you the initial problem.
And it was incredible. It was really overwhelming. But also you learned so much so quickly because you got real-time feedback. And a lot of times they actually implemented some of these changes. You know, if we designed a kid's pack or something for a museum, they would try it out. They would beta test it, which was really exciting to see happen and see what worked and what didn't. And so it wasn't just ideas, it was actual on the ground practical art. So that's why I ended up at Leicester and that's kind of how it happened.
Sourdough: That's right. Sorry to focus on this, but I'm just so fascinated. So that year it sounds like it was an immersive full-time job kind of approach and you've got these different areas of focus. What are some of the areas of focus that were your favorite?
Lacey Flint: Oh my gosh. So the course was broken into three modules and then the fourth module was your specialty and then the fifth module technically was your dissertation. It was kind of like the Hunger Games. They gave us these random artifacts that you had no idea what to do with and you had to curate exhibits from them and you had to curate a display from them. And that was incredible too because you had to then find the theme. Typically, with exhibition design you have an idea, or you have a really great artifact or a set of artifacts or a collection and you go from there. And that sort of builds together. But with this particular task we were given, my group was given a set of rocks, literally rocks. And they were beautiful rocks.
It was a rock collection, but we had to come up with something to do with them. Most of them were from different mines. And we went about it with this fragile earth perspective and said – is mining these diamonds in these gems…are these beautiful rocks from wherever they're being mined from, worth destroying the surrounding landscape? Because we had found these really incredible and really dramatic aerial images of these mines that had kind of caved in and collapsed. So to come up with that thesis though – none of us were rock experts in any way, shape or form. And so that was one of my favorite things to do because you really had to not only think about the practical side of what type of gloves should you wear when you're handling these rocks, but also, what are your displays going to look like? What is going to be the most structurally sound way to display them? How are you going to make sure that all of your environmental monitoring is going to work out when you know there are different types of rocks and could potentially need a little bit of a different micro-climate to not decompose.
So you had to think about all of these things, which was so interesting because it was the culmination of everything that we had been learning. That was really fantastic and one of my favorites. My specialty was in gallery education, communication, and design. That was the specialty module that I had taken – working with all levels of audiences, whether it be adult learners or younger kids and designing relatable and functional and meaningful packs or activities or forms of engagement for them in museums to keep things relevant. Cause that's constantly the question. Another thing that was really interesting was that we constantly questioned what a museum is and what makes a museum, and what is the responsibility and role of a museum today.
So many people think of museums as these big old buildings with lots of dusty old stuff in it. And for a long time that's what museums absolutely were. They stemmed from cabinets of curiosity and the Renaissance and you showed your wealth by the size of your collection and all of that. And that's how museums ultimately came about. But today it's so much more about how can we effectively engage with the audience and the communities with which we are working and how can we serve these communities to make not only the museum relevant, but the discussions that we're having within the museums. It’s asking how can we bring that forgotten history back to life and how can we tell a more complete story. So I love that aspect of it as well, bringing that sort of untold aspect of history to tell one story, using sometimes the very same artifacts that had been on display for years and years, then using them to tell the other side of the story, which I think is a really, really interesting component of what is going on in museums.
Sourdough: Well that must be one of the greatest challenges – deciding or choosing the story you want to tell because there are so many potential stories.
Lacey Flint: Exactly. So much of the time your initial instinct is, okay, I want to tell the whole story. And that is everybody's goal of course, to show things in the most truthful way you can. But then it's, you know, narrowing things. It's like how it's much easier to write an essay on one of the more obscure presidents than it is to write an essay on George Washington because there's so much information on George Washington. How do you write a three page paper on him?
You want to be able to tell a complete story but you don't want it to become muddled. And so the question that is really interesting to me as well is how do you tell a truthful story without sort of regurgitating facts and just sort of throwing things to your audiences with just too much information.
Sourdough: You’ve touched on so many things there because I mean, you mentioned the word relevant, right? So, I mean, libraries are struggling to be relevant in our technology, information age, digital age, and I know museums are having a similar challenge, and attendance is down in many museums. So how do you leverage the archives? You have the stories you can tell in a way that is compelling to your community, to your audience. I'm guessing there's a lot of curatorial directors wringing their hands over this issue as we speak.
Lacey Flint: Yeah, absolutely. Every museum should be talking about how do you stay relevant? And believe me, I'm not saying museums are irrelevant. I mean it's my life. It's my job. It's all fantastic. It's a matter of getting creative and it's a matter of asking yourself as an institution, whether you're a large institution or a smaller one, what is your mission? Who are the people that you're trying to talk to and how are you going to go about making that dialogue happen? Because now the really, really important thing in museums is not, as I said, regurgitating information. It's creating a dialogue and that's how you stay relevant – engagement 100%, and that means something different for every single museum across the board. There's no perfect formula to do it.
You know an art museum is going to be much different than a natural history museum, although the basis and the foundation of what they do and how they start those dialogues is going to be the same. But the dialogues that they want to have and how they actually bring about and create that engagement is going to be really different because you typically bring in different audiences, different types of artifacts, artwork, all of that. And so it really is about figuring out your mission for your museum and your strategic vision and planning and kind of creating a meaningful dialogue with people within your collections.
Change is Hard
Sourdough: In so many verticals, industries, communities, and businesses, there's this sort of tug of war between the old guard, the new guard, and some folks who are resistant to change; whereas other people really want to be progressive. And what happens when, dare I say, younger, hipper, cooler archivists, and curators such as yourself, bump up against some sort of more staid status quo, protectionist kinds of folks. Talk about some of the struggles that you've had in terms of trying to innovate in your space, either in the UK or here. I guess what I'm getting at is technology. So for example, you've specialized in exhibition design, and now we can do so many great things with technology that could be the shiny new thing that's very trendy, but may absolutely not be appropriate.
The Explorers Club
Lacey Flint: So I work at The Explorer’s Club, and it's a private membership club. We were founded in 1904 and we were founded by seven Arctic explorers because essentially what happened at the turn of the 20th century was the equivalent of the space race. But it was the race for the North Pole. Everybody was pushing the boundaries of further North, wanted to be the first person to get there. And so all of these societies had cropped up with the intention of bringing together these Arctic explorers to learn from one another and build on what each other had accomplished. And so one of those societies was called the Arctic Club of America, and our seven founders were all part of that Arctic Club and essentially said to themselves…well wait a second, there's a lot more to explore than just the Arctic. Right? So their ideas became the foundation of our mission, which today is to explore land, sea, air and space. And our members have been very busy in doing so. We were the first to the North and South Poles. We were the first to the highest and lowest points on Earth and first the surface of the moon. So really exciting. Today we have about 3,500 active members.
Sourdough: I don't want to brush over what you just said. What you just said is incredible. It's part of your job. You're dealing with astronauts, you're dealing with explorers who have been in the bottom of the ocean. You've been talking to people who have been to the North and South Pole?
Lacey Flint: Oh yeah. My days start like a really bad joke. An astronaut and an underwater roboticist and a geologists walk into the club… and yet it's so serious. I mean, I don't wear jeans to work anymore to clean the archives, which is a dirty job as you could imagine because the first time that I did it, I was behind the stacks and kind of dusting and you know, doing some conservation and preservation checks and found some different documents covered in red rot, which is that stuff that comes off of old books. The old dust, it's called red rot. Luckily it’s machine washable. And I'm just covered in archival grime and dust. And I get a knock on my door and I come around the corner and there's this guy in this three piece suit and he's like, hi, I'm the former president of NASA.
And I'm like…oh great. Perfect. So that's an occupational hazard. You just always have to be prepared. You never know when these really cool people are going to show up, which is makes it a really inspiring place to work. And also just kind of one of those things where my coworkers and I always say, you know, we work in this really strange bubble that's kind of not real life cause we get this incredible exposure to these people who are groundbreaking pioneers in their fields. It's really fun.
Sourdough: Turns out they're human beings and normal people who like coffee and whiskey, too.
Lacey Flint: Exactly. And they are members. As I said, we have about 3,500 active members. We represent over 60 countries and they go on upwards of 600 expeditions each year. And so my job is to take care of everything that they are bringing back from those expeditions, which is very exciting. You know, I get some really strange things in the mail.
Sourdough: What's something strange that you've gotten in the mail?
Lacey Flint: A tiger. I’ve gotten tiger pelts in the mail. We do have a taxidermy collection, which is not something I ever thought I would have when I was in undergrad. My history specialty was World War ll, but I did get a tiger in the mail. And that's one of the interesting things, going back to that initial point of that old guard versus new guard conversation… is that taxidermy's very taboo right now. Rightfully so. You know, especially with an organization such as ours where our members are so focused on conservation, our members are the people who guard the rhinos. That's them. So it's this really incredible group of people who are giving of themselves to save the planet.
And so to have a room full of taxidermy seems like an incredibly polarizing and confusing dialogue to have and conversation to have. We don't accept any new taxidermy, but the tiger was an exception that we made. And so I did get the tiger in the mail. She came from Florida, but originally was from Nepal. But the reason that we do still display the taxidermy and made the exception for this tiger in particular is because ironically, Carl Akeley being the father of modern taxidermy is a club member. The Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History is named after him. Back in 1910 – 1920, you can't bring the public into the fields.
You can't bring people on Safari. You can only bring a limited number of researchers. And so it was Akeley who said, wait a second, if we are taking these animals to bring them back to museums and to universities for further study, whether it be for scientists or the public, then we need to make them look as they did when they were alive. And so he's the person who sculpted every single specimen before he ever stretched a pelt over it. And turned it into this pseudo art form, which is really interesting to kind of have that whole discussion. And that is why we still display it is because every piece of taxidermy that we have here at The Explorer's Club was collected on a scientific expedition for scientific study. But when you're trying to tell a whole story of conservation through the taxidermy conversation, it can be uncomfortable, especially if there are people who refuse to come into the gallery and look at the taxidermy.
We get a lot of pushback. But because we are a 501c3 with an educational mission, we do still display it and we do still have that conversation. That is one of the things that is interesting. We've had conversations about how do we display less or what do we kind of do? And the interesting thing about working at a private membership club is that I have this museum collection in a non-museum setting. And so I have to make sure that I'm serving the members and a lot of these members expect the club to look a certain way. And so when I go to change things out, there's a lot of pushback for good or for bad. It's all part of it and you kind of roll with it and you'll see what happens. But it's an interesting situation to be in because both sides have really valid points, right?
The current conservation community that we have such a strong voice in is – okay, why are we showing this? There are these scientists who kind of say, well, this is how it sort of all evolved. You just have to make sure that you're telling that full story. And that's kind of how it all works. But I mean, in terms of things looking a certain way at the club house, I don't have the luxury of a larger museum or institution where I can just change out exhibits. It's not because I'm not able to or anything like that, but it's just interesting to have those conversations with people when, for example, I put up a then and now photo display, which rotates through with photos from our members currently in the field and juxtaposes them with really iconic archival images. And they don't have to be re-tracings of expeditions, but they of course have to have the same theme.
So whether it be the transformation of technology from 1969 Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landing on the moon to 40 years later, in 2009, you have a photo of Mike Massimino and astronaut Mike Good on the last mission to repair the Hubble. That's 40 years, right? Not a long time to get a man to the moon, to then doing these incredible out-of-vehicle walks and repairs and all of that on the incredible technology and space satellites and all of that . So the whole point of this is when I took the walls for the then and now display, which covers three walls in a six floor townhouse.
Sourdough: Just for our listeners, how many square feet is the Explorer's Club?
Lacey Flint: I actually don't know that off the top of my head, but I do know it's a six story townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and when you are on the top floor as we are now in our map room, you're at 77 feet above sea level. So there you go. I'm going to get them wrong, but I know 46 is one of them, which is really interesting because we are 46 East 70th street as our actual address. When I took at the then and now walls, I actually had a member come up to me and say, ‘this is nice.’ It's fine. But I really loved the artwork that was hanging here before and they were beautiful pieces. They were large oil paintings from expeditions that had happened and they had been hanging there for probably 30 years.
Our president at the time was standing next to me and he said, ‘Oh, I don't remember what was there. Could you tell me what it was?’ And those members said, ‘Well, I don't remember what it was, but I remember really liking it.’ So it's really interesting when you think how people get comfortable and that a place, like a private club, they want that comfort and they want that familiarity. So you have to kind of take baby steps. Which that pride in the clubhouse is one of the reasons that we love it so much. The members pride in the way the club looks and the way that they want to be here and have this be, you know, their workspace or their meeting space or whatever is fantastic. So it's an interesting dichotomy of, okay, I want to push things forward and show people what our members have been up to for the past 115 years. And maybe this painting from 1930 doesn't necessarily do that, but how do I move it without somebody getting upset? Not that I'm against ruffling feathers, believe me.
Sourdough: It's worth pointing out that whether you're at this institution, another institution, this kind of struggle is commonplace. It's like par for the course, right? Because you have people that are passionate about their interests or their agenda or their incentives or their objectives, whatever it is. And so it's just that, it's why they call it work. Lacey, you've mentioned a couple of times where we're at, we're in the map room at the Explorer’s Club. For our listeners, explain to them what the map room is and what's in here, why it's important and interesting.
Lacey Flint: Sure. So the clubhouse itself, it was built in 1910 and it was built as a private family home for the Clark family. The Clarks were the heir to the Singer Sewing Machine Company. They're also the Clarks of the Clark Institute of Arts in New England and Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame. We work with all audiences, which is fantastic. And so the Clarks lived here until about 1960 which is when Steven Clark passed away and basically his wife said, ‘I don't need this big giant townhouse all to myself’ and downsized. And so the Explorer's Club moved in 1965. We had about eight different locations before that, all a series of rented rooms. This is the only building that we've ever actually owned. And it was purchased through a big fundraising push that was spearheaded by Lowell Thomas, the famous broadcast journalist and the Dewitt family of Reader's Digest.
And so they kind of got everybody together to get the funds to purchase the building. And we've been here ever since. To paint just more of a general picture, it was designed by British architect Frederick Sterner and he created a fusion of a Tudor style home and 15th century, second phase, Jacoby and Renaissance, which you know, of course you get as soon as you walk in, right? You're like, Oh yes, absolutely. This is Jacoby and Renaissance. And believe me, the amount of time it takes for 15th century, second phase, decoding Renaissance to roll off the tongue, it's pretty significant, but a good tongue twister. So it's a lot of mahogany linen fold paneling. We have stained glass, we have these incredible vaulted ceilings in so many of the spaces, but the map room is the highest points in the clubhouse and it is a peaked ceiling that we have going on in here.
But the wallpaper is what's really, really cool. It is a huge enlargement of a map from 1758 and you can see Greenland on it. It's this ancient looking map that's now the wallpaper. And the map itself – you can see Greenland, but it's more of the North sea and that general area. We are flanked by rows and rows of map cases which housed our approximately 3,500 maps and our oldest map is from 1814 and then we go all the way up until fairly present day. Not so much anything within the last 10 years, but definitely early 2000s we have maps from that. Actually one of my favorite people in the club, he is the head cartographer at the University of Arkansas and he's done some really extensive work here in our map collection, which is really fantastic. But his job is to not only make maps but also conserve them and preserve them and tell us more about the maps that exist, which is fantastic. But in terms of how many cartographers I mean it's not the most prevalent.
Sourdough: I heard there was huge controversy decades ago when cartographers started to realize that they were slowly writing themselves out of a job…I’m joking of course.
Lacey Flint: There's still so much, and we say this all the time of the club because so many people ask us what's left to explore. But the incredible thing about exploration is not only is it completely ongoing, you can go to the same place a dozen times. Think about in your own lives, you can find something new every time you go to the same place. Technology is changing, perspectives are changing, the climate is changing, the globe is changing. But when you think about kind of that more romantic ideal of exploration where you're finding something for the very first time or whatever you're doing on expedition is this pioneering science or whatever it may be, it's estimated. We only know about 3% of what there is to know about our deep oceans. And guess what our deep oceans are, where you find the highest mountain range on earth…is in the ocean. I think the tallest waterfall on earth is underwater and I am not a scientist so I can't tell you more about it or where it is. But so it's incredible to think about what's going on. And actually Marie Tharpe, she was a pioneer in underwater mapping in the 60s and we have some of her maps here and so it's really interesting to see.
Sourdough: Hear that ladies, I mean what a cool woman. She was like, listen guys, step up!
Lacey Flint: Yeah, Underwater Cartographer, what a job title, and things like Aquanaut. People say to me like, what do you do? What is your job title? Archivist is not as cool as Aquanaut. It's just not. But those are the people that you meet here, which is awesome. But back to kind of these early maps of the ocean floor, the average depth of the oceans about 4,000 meters and we've only explored about 40 of those meters. So there's still so much left to do and so much left to see. And I mean, only four people have ever been to the deepest point in the ocean. Most recently Victor Scavo, who is completing the five deeps expedition where his team is going to the five deepest points in the oceans and measuring them and going down with all new technology to see what's down there. They found a plastic bag at the very bottom of the ocean, which is just heartbreaking. But in terms of mapping and what people are finding, they find something new every time. So you know, it's still cartography. Cartography is not dead. So any budding cartographers out there, don't lose hope. We still need you.
Sourdough: We have a shortage of nurses and primary care physicians and cartographers please. So we've talked about so many interesting different kind of art forms, right? We've talked about taxidermy, we've talked cartographers.
Sourdough: One of the cool things about this club is of course all of the artifacts and as we've talked about and artworks that are here because artists, painters, illustrators, eventually photographers were core members of some of these expeditions because that was the only way to document or record or validate or prove maybe that that expedition did what it said it did, accomplish the goals, et cetera, et cetera. And so talk a little bit about some of these artists who you have in the collection and some of the artworks. I mean for those of us who know a little bit about oil painting or know a little bit about watercolor painting, it's challenging enough to be a decent water colorist or oil painter, let alone trying to do that in harsh conditions at 40 below zero. You have some of these artists, you have some of these paintings in this collection of folks who were charged with this kind of challenge. Talk a little bit about that.
Lacey Flint: Sure. Our artists on explorations are an integral part of any expedition team even today. You know what it means to be an artist. I don't want to say what it means to be an artist has changed cause that's not necessarily true. But the medium certainly has right? Technology of course photography and videography and all of that. Drones, Go Pros, all of that. You don't go on an expedition without that stuff. But a hundred years ago you didn't go on an expedition without an artist on the team. And we do have some incredible artists and exploration who are part of our expedition history. And part of the club's history, as you mentioned, it is incredibly difficult to be an oil painter, right? Or any type of watercolorist or whatever. But we do have in the collection, the very first watercolors that were painted at the South Pole and they were done by Arthur Beaumont.
It was in the 60s and he actually worked for the Navy. He was the official Naval artist. And so you have these huge US Naval ships down at the South Pole and he painted them in watercolor in the fields. And it's incredible because if you look at his journals, you know, and we've met with his son who's fantastic, and his journals tell these stories of how he could only paint for about 30 seconds before his hands got too cold and he had to stick them back inside gloves to warm back up because it's the South Pole. It's very cold.
Well, that's the other thing. Not only was he freezing, but he had to figure out the right ratio of alcohol to water to actually have things not freeze up and it's about 30-70-30. If you're planning to go to the South Pole and you're planning to watercolor… well in the 60s the correct ratio was 70% water, 30% alcohol, but it's untested. I'm not sure. I'm not sure if that's still correct. I am not an artist, but it's really interesting to think about that scientific component of it is, okay, how am I going to make this work in this particular area? Same thing in the Arctic, Adonai who was an incredible artist and in the early 1900s, his field oil sketches are obviously done in oil paint and that also freezes in the Arctic. I don't know what the correct ratio of alcohol to oil paint is.
William R. Leigh
I'm sorry, but again, you can only paint for so long before you have to stick your hands back in your gloves. And it's just really incredible to think about those logistical complications that exist. I mean, we have here at the club, William R Leigh was the artist who was with Carl Akeley from 1924 to 1926 on their African Safari expedition. And this was the expedition where they were specifically tasked with gathering the specimens and documenting the landscape to then create the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. And Les was a huge member of that team because his work then became the models for the backgrounds of the dioramas in the Hall of African Mammals. And so he painted 76 of these incredibly detailed landscapes in the field and they were schlepping all over Africa. And again, think about it when you are the artist and explorer you need your paints, your easels, your canvases, your brushes, anything that you might need. You can't run to a craft store, you know, on the Safari and pick up more. There is no black market for art supplies.
You can't Amazon Prime to the Amazon. Yeah, it's a little tough. I dunno, Jeff Bezos will probably figure out a way to do it soon enough. But he is a member. So when you look at how Leigh painted 76 of these incredibly detailed landscapes and he painted them all in the fields because he didn't want to create sketches and bring them back to New York and then try and recreate them. He didn't want to misremember anything. He wanted the viewer of the diorama to feel like they were standing at the base of Mount Makino looking at gorillas or whatever the scene was depicting. And so anything that he painted was done in the field and any touch ups that he had done were really kind of travel scuffs that may or may not have happened.
There's some variation there, but he basically had one standard sized canvas with him. And you'll see in some of the artwork that we have here, and in some of those oil sketches, they're actually double sized and there's a piece of wood bisecting the frame. That was not for any artistic purpose. There is no reason for that piece of wood, it's not supposed to go into a window or anything. It was logistically easier to carry two small canvases than one large one. And so those double wide landscapes that he created were just two canvases pushed together. And so the piece of wood of the frame is hiding that canvas bisection, which is kind of interesting to think about it as well.
But speaking of stretching canvases, you look at somebody like Albert Operti who was a pioneer in terms of being an artist and explorer, he was absolutely incredible. Ironically, not the best artist. I mean, his work is beautiful to look at, but you wouldn't look at that and say, ‘Oh my gosh!’ Art is all of course, subjective, but you don't look at that and say, ‘that's incredible.’ But what made him special was the fact that he was also a scientist and he was so committed to accurately documenting things. But the one piece of art that I'm thinking of in particular, in terms of gear and what you bring with you, he was on the 1896 Cape York, Greenland meteorite expedition with Robert Perry and on this particular expedition, he was there of course, to sketch the landscape and document what was happening and what was going on.
He ran out of canvas and he noticed that Robert Perry was wearing some type of work smock or apron or whatever it was, it was made from canvas and he said, ‘wait a second, give me that. I have more work to do and I'm out of canvas.’ When you look at this particular piece, it's even worse than a lot of Operti’s works because it was painted on an unfinished canvas. It was never supposed to be, it wasn't treated, it wasn't supposed to be a piece of art, and he actually wrote along the bottom of it painted on Robert Perry's work apron, which is kind of incredible too, and it's just a great example of something that speaks to being prepared and rolling with the punches and getting creative and doing what you have to do because you have a job on that expedition and that is to document what's going on.
Perry was really interesting in his own right and as I said, he was more of a scientist than he was an artist in the sense that he wanted to make sure everything was as accurate as possible. And so in instances particularly where he wasn't necessarily on the expedition or if he was on the expedition but wasn't necessarily there for the whole time, he would actually create sketches. A lot of the time if he wasn't painting something in the field, he would create these sketches and then duplicate them and write notes right on the sketch to whatever explorer was in the sketch saying such minute details as where the ear flaps on your hat were up or down, or could you tell me more about the snow cover in this particular area. Or tell me more about the exact shade of the tent. So really trying to get these minute details and he would write these notes right on the sketches and then whoever he sent them to would write the answer right back. So not only are his sketches, his rough drafts for a larger piece of work, but they also become these really interesting pieces of correspondence. And so you can see his process to get from the sketch to his final piece is also incredible. And thinking about the resourcefulness that it takes to complete that is really interesting as well.
Sourdough: Innovation, right? We've talked about this kind of exploration. Expeditionary pursuit has always driven innovation in terms of making things lighter or more nutritious. And with art in terms of documentation, as we've alluded to, the technology changes. So at one point it was canvas paints, easel, and at some point we started hauling cameras. I understand you have some amazing photographic pieces in your collection here. Talk a little bit about how photography evolved in this space and how that impacted the cameras and the equipment.
Lacey Flint: Sure. So we actually have the first and second photos ever taken in the Arctic and the first set was William Bradford and he published a book of those images called On Polar Shores. And that was 1874 and so we have a huge, huge Atlas. I mean it's probably four feet tall, the size of this book, and they're mostly landscape images. Do you see a lot of icebergs? You see a lot of glaciers, all that kind of stuff. And then on the George Strong Nares expedition, those are the second photos ever taken in the Arctic. And that was 1875, 1876 was that expedition.
Sourdough: I want to just pause for a minute because in actuality that wasn't that long ago.
Lacey Flint: Today we all carry cameras around in our pockets, right? Our phones. But back then you're carrying a huge heavy piece of equipment and the Nares photos are really, really interesting because they document some Intuit life and so you know, these Intuit people, their expressions in the photos are so incredible because we remember early cameras, it wasn't instant, right? You had to freeze and then take the photo. So you got a lot of blurry images in that kind of thing. But their expressions are so incredible because they're like, why are we doing this? What is happening? Like why are we staring at this thing? Because the technology, not only was it so new, but then you bring it to the Inuit people in the Arctic and they're like, what is going on?
And second of all, well what is this crazy and why do these people think that it's okay to come to the Arctic in nothing but their Sunday best? That's a whole other issue. Why did they bring their best silver tea sets? So a lot of confusion, which is really interesting. But also the interesting things that we have in our archive include our lantern slide collection of about 700 lantern slides. And that's the first form of projected image. So what that consists of, it's a collodion wet plate process. So what that means is you have your piece of glass, you take your image, you let it set, and then it's hand colored. With specialized watercolors, you put another piece of glass on top of it, tape the whole thing together. And these things are very small. They're like three inches by two inches.
They're not huge. You can make them any size you want, but that was the standard. And then you put a lantern or a light behind it and you get your projection of that image. And we have those from Teddy Roosevelt's River of Doubt expedition, which was 1913 to 1914 and we have them from the Northwell Discovery expedition, 1909, which is one of my favorites. It's an image, and people may have seen this. It's always funny when I say these are kind of like household names because who really knows about old Arctic explorers? If you don't work in the Explorer’s Club, but you may have seen it, an image of a bagpiper next to a penguin and it's from the 1902-1904 Scottish national Antarctic expedition, and so we have those lands.
It’s funny because one of our past presidents tells the joke whenever he sees that it's one of his favorite images. He's like, the penguin was so excited at the end of the photo because he couldn't believe he got the bagpiper to stand still for that long. And the bagpiper in question, his name is Lieutenant Kern. It's just, we have these incredible images, but then you look at the logistics of what it takes, and some of them were made in the field, some of them were made back when they had returned home, but they're heavy. I mean, these boxes of slides are heavy to bring with you. The cameras were heavy. It was actually Carl Akeley. The slides themselves and the cameras as well. It was Carl Akeley who in 1915 I believe, patented the Akeley pancake camera, which was the first camera designed specifically for rugged expedition life.
So it's supposed to be really lightweight, but spoiler alert. It's one of the heaviest things we have in the collection. It had two different tripods, both of them. It was the first camera that could go 360 and it was really flat. Hence the pancake kind of style, not accordion. This was the first camera to go away from that accordion style. Kind of looks like two dinner plates pushed together with probably a five inch film canister in between them, if that makes sense. So it's this really cool looking camera. That was what they were bringing with them because that was supposed to be the better camera than the accordion looking thing. Cause it was quicker.
That's also something interesting that I got in the mail. Back to that original question. It was out in California in a storage unit. The camera itself belonged to Leroy G. Phelps, who was an incredible early documentary filmmaker. His early documentary on elephants was totally pioneering, had never been done before, which is really great. And his great nephew out of the blue reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, I have this camera in storage. I'm not sure if you've ever heard of anything like this, it's an Akeley pancake camera. I was wondering if you might be interested in it.’ Of course, this is so incredible. I think only 400 of them were ever made.
So they're really rare. And it was just in a storage unit. So we now have it here at the club, which is fantastic. The family was so generous. A lot of times when we get these artifacts it's because families realize what they have is of historic significance and they say, well, it's not doing us any good in a storage unit. Let's put it somewhere where people are going to be able to enjoy it and learn from it. So it's always really exciting when things like show up on my doorstep.
Sourdough: I know so many of our listeners right now are like, I want Lacey's job.
Lacy Flint: Anybody can come work with me. I'm a department of one. I'm always looking for help in terms of come in and have a wonderful team of interns and it just depends. I try to be really flexible with interns and I take everybody from high school age all the way up to grad student because I just want to give everybody a chance to work with this collection.
And the great thing about this collection is it’s so diverse in the sense that we have a library of about 14,000 volumes. We have, as I said, about 3,500 maps. Our archive is about 550 linear feet of documents, photographs, manuscripts, lantern slides, journals, all original. And then we have the art and artifact collection, which numbers to about a thousand objects in that ranges from everything to taxidermy to artwork to glasses that were worn on an 1884 expedition to old cameras. So people can really get it. My interns can really get a fulsome experience here.
Sourdough: Any unopened bottles of booze?
Lacey Flint: Actually at least four. And that is because I have the archives and I've just used quotes forgetting that this is a podcast, but they are the archival version of when Johnnie Walker did an Explorer’s Club collection. I have one of each of those bottles for archival purposes and they have not been opened, I promise.
Yeah, it's funny again, the things that just sort of show up. But my executive director was like, here, we need to save these for the archives or the last bottles, so put them in here. Ok, sure. Yeah, I'll take these four bottles of Johnny Walker. No big deal.
Sourdough: So I'm just curious though, I mean obviously so many great archives are priceless. In many ways. This building is only so big in terms of security and storage and what have you. What does that look like? I mean you must have storage off site or not, but talk about that a little bit.
Lacey Flint: I'm so excited that you asked because I'm a huge storage geek and not too many people like to talk about museum storage because who thinks about it? But everything is currently stored in the building except for our 425 14 and 16 millimeter original film rolls, they are in a salt mine in Kansas. We are sharing some space very generously with the Missouri History Museum. But they were lovely. We had a connection and they said, Oh 425 rolls is really nothing. So let's store them in the salt mine. Which was great. And actually they're in the same salt mine that the Academy Awards use. And so like the original Wizard of Oz reel is there. I like to think that my films are kind of celebrities now. But anyway, so that's the only thing that is offsite.
The films themselves have been digitized. Everything else is here in the building. I only have two really small storage closets. So for the most part, everything artifact-wise is on display. The archives is a room unto itself. The map room is a room unto itself. I do have a rare book room, but 14,000 volumes are pretty much spread throughout the entire home. And it doesn't matter the size of the museum. Think of the biggest museum you can think of. They're out of space, too. Everybody's out of space in museums. So it's figuring out ways to use the space creatively, maximize your space and go from there. And sometimes that includes things like deaccessioning, which means to get rid of things. And I say that lovingly. It's not like we're throwing things out on the sidewalk. But the interesting thing about our collection, this is not just exclusive to an institution like the Explorer’s Club, but we have always been a collecting institution, but my job did not exist until 2003 so that's 99 years of backlog, data, collecting.
Sometimes due to lack of provenance, sometimes things getting literally dropped off like the baby Moses, you know, it was a private club, so people would say would just put it in the basement of the Explorer’s Club and that's how we got some of the things that we got. That's of course not indicative of our whole collection, but there are some things in the collection that don't actually fit within the scope of our collecting mission. But Claire Fleming was the original archivist and curated what we did have. My actual position as it exists now is what existed began in 2003 prior to that, it was the library archives committee and sort of volunteer or part time librarians who came in to steward the collection the best they could, but it wasn't as supported a role as it is today.
And so Claire Fleming came in as the first archivist and curator and it was a Herculean effort to get us up to scratch in terms of being a functioning research collection and library. We process about 500 research requests. Interestingly enough, I've been here for almost six years and have never had the same request twice, which I think is absolutely fascinating. I mean, people have wanted to know about the same subject but never for the same reason, which I think is great. But now that we have this collections policy and this mission for what we collect and why we collect it, we can go back through and sort of weed out things that don't necessarily fit within the scope of the collection. So our library, for example, when the club was founded, we were supposed to be the world's leading library for exploration research. Well, up until about 1918 we only had like 50 books.
So we were not really checking off that box. And so 1918 is when a member by the name of James B. Ford became a member of the club and he, along with Marshall Saville, who was one of our founders and also the chair of the library committee at the time, they went out and purchased over 8,000 volumes and set up what was a typical wealthy gentleman's library. And so in those 8,000 volumes, I mean we got some incredible treasures, but we also got some things that aren't necessarily within the scope of what we want. You know, Japanese homes and their surroundings. Not that that's not an important work, but no one would think, Hey, I bet you the Explorer's Club has a copy of that. Let's go check that out kind of thing. And so it's making those decisions and that's across the board, whether it be with the library or with the art. And artifacts or with the archives, it's making those decisions of what actually fits, what are people going to research from us and how can we find a better home for things that don't fit within the collection.
Sourdough: So, I mean, I want to be respectful of your time. I have to ask you this question because of what we're talking about. What keeps you up at night?
Lacey Flint: Oh wow. Okay. I'm planning a wedding, an upcoming wedding…so that kind of keeps me up. As an archivist and curator, what really what keeps me up at night is finding ways to move forward with the collection in a meaningful way and how to best serve not just our members but the public, right? Because I am a huge, huge proponent of accessibility and you know, why are we keeping these things if people are not using them or people don't know that they're here. And so my biggest issue, aside from the fact that the collections are currently housed in a hundred year old New York building, is that whatever's happening outside is happening inside. We don’t have a lot of climate control. Not a lot of environmental control like you would see in a more traditional museum. That's a really tough thing. But aside from that, and I think almost bigger than that because if we have these things, but we're not necessarily, I don't want to say we're not taking care of them, but they're not in museum standard settings, then we have to share what we have, you know, while it's still in good working condition.
And so it's finding ways to connect with audiences that are not just able to come here to 46 East 70th street on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. And so I'm working to digitize the collection, get it onto an outward facing asset management system. So one day, hopefully in the not too distant future, anybody worldwide can go to the Explorer’s Club website and see what we have in our collections. And so that is something I'm incredibly passionate about. Getting it out to people and really utilizing the collections in a much better way. And this is not to inflate my position here, but a lot of times if I don't know that it's in the collection then nobody has any idea it's in the collection, and I am one person, so I do not know everything that's in the collection in every single drawer. I have a good idea and a good sense, but there are definitely things that we find that we didn't know were here still to this day. And so being able to get what we do know is here out there is huge because it shouldn't just live and die with me.
Sourdough: Right. And you know, it's like that sense of honoring, right? I mean, you want to honor the piece, the person that donated it, the future generation.
Lady Franklin Bay xpedition
Lacey Flint: Exactly. And I mean, we do have here in the collection, for example, the meteorological journals from the Lady Franklin Bay expedition, which everyone's like, Oh yes, of course everybody knows about that. Right? But no, it was this ill-fated 1881 to 1884 Arctic expedition, where unfortunately, of the 25 men who went up, only six survived. But they did some really cutting edge meteorological work while they were there. And the journals sat in the Arctic for an additional 15 years because of course, when they were finally rescued, their first thought was not, Hey – let me grab the journals. But those journals still exist and they have been used to track climate change. And so that's really interesting. All of this can still be relevant and you know, things like our flag reports, the Explorer’s Club flag is an incredible time-honored tradition here at the club.
As I mentioned, our members go on upwards of 600 expeditions each year. Only about 50 of those expeditions were given flags. It gives you an idea and a sense of what an honor it is to carry the flag and the caliber of expedition that is awarded the flag. Every time that flag comes back, members bring with it a flag report and I kind of equate it to a book report, right? Who are you with? What did you do? What are some of the findings that you had? And people use those. I'm planning an expedition to wherever and you know, who has been there, what have they done, how have they done it? Can I see their work and then build on it. You know, those resources are really important for so many of our members, not just the members but for members of the public as well, which is, you know, the fourth grader who's writing a research paper on Matthew Henson, he should be able to access that.
Or the person who wants to know more about Eugenie Clark, the shark lady, for their third grade animal assignment, she should be able to know – this is what makes learning fun, brings history alive. It does. And that was the whole point about why I got into this in the first place. And that's why I do what I do, to bring the history alive and make it this really tangible thing for people no matter what age you are. Because the awesome thing about exploration is, it doesn't matter who you are, you'll connect with some story here in some way. And I think that's something really special about the club and the fact that we can harness that and harness our resources that we have here and share it out. I think that is something that is really worthwhile.
Sourdough: Lacey Flint. I have one last question for you. As a bit of an outdoorsman myself, it's funny, I'll crack open an old book or an old journal from an old trip and every so often I'll do that and a mosquito will fall out. A bug will fall out. My last question for you is how many times do you open an archive and a bug falls out?
Lacey Flint: As an archivist or curator or someone who stewards a collection, you never want to talk about pests because you do not want to bring that down on you. It depends on the book and it depends on the collection. I mean, we do have things like bird wings in collections, but they're supposed to be there. Right? So I have to say, luckily I've been very fortunate within this collection to not have any huge pest problems because we're in New York. The biggest thing that we get are cockroaches and those are in the basement. So luckily I've never opened a book and had a cockroach fall out. There'll be here long after everything in this collection. Luckily I've never had a mosquito fall out of a book, knock on wood, because you do not wish that on an archivist. Excuse me. You don't wish that on anybody. Nobody wants a bug to fall out of the book. But yeah, we've had some cockroaches in the basement.
Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:
Lacey Flint on LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/lacey-flint-92234123/
The Explorers Club — https://www.explorers.org/
National Treasure — https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0368891/
Carl Akeley — https://www.britannica.com/biography/Carl-E-Akeley
Marie Tharp — https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marie-Tharp
Victor Vescovo — https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-49636756
Arthur Beaumont — http://www.arthurbeaumont.com/
Robert Peary — https://www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Edwin-Peary
Albert Operti — http://www.artnet.com/artists/albert-operti/
William Bradford — https://www.william-bradford-gallery.org/
George Strong Nares — https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sir-george-strong-nares
Marshall Saville — https://www.amnh.org/research/anthropology/collections/collections-history/meso-american-archaeology/marshall-howard-saville
Matthew Henson — https://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/adventure-blog/2014/02/28/the-legacy-of-arctic-explorer-matthew-henson/
Eugenie Clark — https://www.britannica.com/biography/Eugenie-Clark
Man One — http://www.manone.com/
Man One on Twitter — https://twitter.com/ManOneArt
Scott “Sourdough” Power — https://www.instagram.com/sourdoughpower/
Not Real Art on Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/notrealartworld/