Book Recommendations from a Historian in a Happy Place

I am armed and ready with great recommendations for your holiday reading list!

A copy of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution in progress. A continental soldier’s uniform. An eighteenth-century tea box. Buttons from Lincoln’s campaign.

These items may sound boring to some, but when I heard they were going to be here at the Skirball, on view in the exhibition Creating the United States, I jumped for joy. I love history! I spent five years in graduate school, while working full time, to complete my degree in history. I am an American generalist, a California specialist, a women’s movement enthusiast, a Cold War culture buff, and an archivist. I view history not as a chore, a list of dates and names, but as the story of people. Technologies develop, ideologies ebb and flow, personalities change, but human needs and passions are universal. Knowing about these people and their struggles and successes is a great way to learn about yourself and the world around you. Thousands of voices from the centuries make up a chorus of stories waiting to be heard, and many historians are giving those voices value in the endless array of books available to the general public.

Choosing the exhibition-related books to sell at Audrey’s Museum Store is typically a job for our Operations Manager, Susan, but I was delighted to help her review titles as we prepared for Creating the United States and the companion “Democracy Matters” exhibitions, Decades of Dissent, Free to be U.S., and Lincoln Spotlight. Selecting books relies on the old adage of judging a book by its cover. Is it interesting enough to catch someone’s attention? Is it too scholarly for a casual reader? Is it a good price? Over the course of three months, we reviewed hundreds of books to compile our final book list of more than 100 titles for adults and children. Each book somehow relates thematically with the exhibitions specifically or broadly reflects the Skirball mission. To make this bibliography a little less daunting, here are six choices to get you in the spirit of Creating the United States.

1) If the early republic and the Founding Fathers seem out of touch, hopefully a good book in conjunction with a visit to the exhibition will help. Founding Foodies by Dave DeWitt ($16.99) makes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin more approachable. DeWitt presents the agrarian practices of these gentlemen, something in which they had great pride. I especially like the brewing recipes from Mount Vernon and Monticello because my husband is a master brewer. Written in short sections with wit and insight, this is a great book for an epicurean. Continue reading

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Ketubbot: Helping Couples Find Just the Right One

The many styles of kettubot on display in Audrey's Museum Store.

Need someone to walk you through the options? I can help!

It’s wedding season! One of my personal joys at Audrey’s Museum Store is meeting and guiding engaged couples through the process of selecting the perfect ketubbah. A ketubbah is a Jewish wedding contract and often a decorative document that hangs proudly in the home for years to come as a symbol of mutual love, commitment, and partnership. A ketubbah may be the first contract a couple signs together and the first piece of art purchased together.

With the multitude of options for text, personalization, and artist techniques (among them lithography, hand-painting, giclee printing, and papercut), selecting a ketubbah can be a confusing decision. As ketubbah specialist, my goal is to simplify the process, to give personal attention and historical context, and to make this experience memorable and meaningful.

The Vorspans posing with their beautiful and freshly inked <b>kettubah</b>!

The Vorspans posing with their beautiful and freshly inked kettubah!

What’s especially gratifying are the continuing relationships with couples I’ve worked with over the years. In 2007, Elana Taylor and Ben Vorspan came to Audrey’s to choose their ketubbah. After much deliberation and contemplation—Audrey’s carries hundreds of ketubbah designs created by dozens of artists from all over the world, from L.A. to New York to Israel—they chose “Beside Still Waters” by Amy Fagin. What they liked about it—and what I find so appealing about Amy’s designs—are her intricate patterns and vibrant colors.

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People, Let Me Tell You ‘Bout My Best Friends

A little storytelling and impromptu drumming with Noah’s Ark fans Griffin and Zoe.

A little storytelling and impromptu drumming with Noah’s Ark fans Griffin and Zoe.

I have the best job. Ever. My job title is something like Retail Sales Associate at Audrey’s Museum Store, which means I sell toys and books to people visiting Noah’s Ark at the Skirball. But really I like to call myself the Toddler Whisperer because I spend my days interacting with very young children. My measure of a good day isn’t how many sales I’ve had, but rather, how many of my “regulars” have come to visit. I have a whole pocketful of friends:

Jasper, my animal expert, knows everything there is to know about the wild kingdom. At four years old, he can identify a Xenops or a vole as readily as a pig and a cow (the latter two being alike because, as Jasper informed me recently, “they are both farm animals”). On one of his visits, he brought his most special animal book to share with me. I was expecting a small board book or a thin paperback. Out of his backpack came a heavy animal encyclopedia that must have taken quite a bit of effort for him to lug around. I was so happy that he wanted to share it with me. Together we sat and looked through it.

You can always tell when Aidan and his younger brother Connor are approaching the store. You hear the calls of “Shaaarrrooonnn! It’s my friend!” as Aidan enters the store and gives me a hug. Aidan likes to sit at our little “touch table,” where kids can feel free to play with select store goodies, and try out the toys. He often comes up with creative names for them. Continue reading

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Goods That Do Good at Audrey’s: It’s All About the Stories

Raven + Lily co-founders Sophia Lin and Kirsten Dickerson discuss why they felt compelled to work with
women in impoverished communities and how consumers themselves are empowered by purchases that benefit communities in need. Sophia will be previewing Raven + Lily’s spring 2012 collection at a trunk show hosted by Audrey’s Museum Store on April 20–22.

Just north of the capital of Ethiopia is a mountain region known as the Entoto Mountains, a place where villagers believe lies a cure for HIV. Ostracized by their families and communities, many HIV-positive Ethiopian women leave behind their hometowns to come to the Entoto Mountains in the hope that they will be made healthy again. Many of them, unfortunately, end up with no way to support themselves once they arrive at this new place.

Raven + Lily necklaceBut there is some hope for these women thanks to socially responsible jewelry and gift brand Raven + Lily and the Entoto Project. This initiative provides HIV education and healthcare to Ethiopian women while also offering sustainable employment. The women of the Entoto Project create beautiful jewelry, like this necklace (pictured at right), using beads made out of vintage coins and artillery shells from past tribal conflicts. As they say at Raven + Lily, “what was once intended for harm now brings hope and life.”

It is stories like these that made the Women Hold Up Half the Sky Holiday Pop-Up Shop—which was open to visitors during gift-giving season—such a meaningful endeavor. For me, what is moving about goods that do good is their potential to empower both the artisan and the customer. The artisans are able to improve conditions for themselves and their families, fulfilling basic needs and building a better future for the entire community; the customers (or “smart buyers,” as Katy Leakey of our Beads for Learning vendor, The Leakey Collection, calls them) are able to make more socially conscious purchases that can make a difference in the lives of others.

Making a difference was the inspiration for the Skirball’s decision to mount the exhibition—and, by extension, to organize a related Holiday Pop-Up Shop. As it turned out, many thousands of visitors were happy to “shop for the cause” and help champion opportunities for women to make a sustainable living. To keep the momentum going, Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball will continue to carry, well into the future, beautifully handcrafted merchandise from women’s cooperatives and fair-trade organizations around the world. I couldn’t be more proud! Continue reading

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New Markets, Centuries-Old Techniques

It’s gift-giving season, and the Skirball’s special Women Hold Up Half the Sky Holiday Pop-Up Shop is buzzing with activity. (You may have heard about it in the feature story “Handcrafted with Humanity” that appeared in the Home section of last Saturday’s Los Angeles Times.) Setting up a pop-up shop was something we’d never attempted before, and it’s been an enriching experience to learn about the hundreds of artisan groups and distributors that champion entrepreneurship for women worldwide.

Entryway to the 2011 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.

Entryway to the 2011 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.

The first person I turned to for advice was an experienced colleague at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. She referred me to Ahdina Zunkel, the director of special projects at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market (now in its eleventh year), where more than 120 artisans from around the world—all carefully vetted to ensure they produce authentic craft—come to sell and display their handcrafts each year.

With Women Hold Up Half the Sky coming up in the fall and the idea for a related pop-up shop in mind, I attended this year’s market in July. The attendance was high and the temperature even higher! 2012 had been designated as the United Nations International Year of Cooperatives, so it was no surprise that fifty-seven women’s cooperatives exhibited.

The market was absolutely amazing. The sheer number of artists represented and the quality of their work were a treat. Language was often a barrier, but I was able to learn some of the women’s inspiring stories firsthand. Continue reading

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