Lizzo and the Magic Flute

Seeing the number of negative posts and confused posts on how preservation, flutes, and history seems to work, we decided to put a pause on our scheduled historical blog post on the manufacturing of typewriters during WWII.  Instead, you will see a delightful post written by our Executive Director on first, the history of flutes and how the crystal one was made, a bit about Lizzo and James Madison, and lastly, preservation techniques and conservation used in the field.  You must excuse the first-person way of writing, not typical for academics.  This blog is not meant for academics and is keeping the everyday layman in mind as audience. Now we turn the article over to our E.D., Chelsey:

To begin, I must go over why I feel I have the credentials to be writing on the subject, as many of the comments and concerns made over social media have been by people with no background in any of the subjects I am about to dive into.  First, I have played the flute for almost 30 years.  (Which as the existential dread of realizing how long I have actually played flute subsides, I continue.) What does playing the flute have to do with it?  Playing the flute gives one an ability to decipher differences in flutes, how to maintain the flute, and lastly the importance of an experience flutist with any flute.  My first flute was a 1930s Arnold, a student flute.  I played it for a decade before upgrading to my Gemeinhardt.  It’s a silver-plated, French open hole, intermediate, solid silver mouthpiece with B foot joint flute. [1]  Didn’t understand any of that?  That’s okay.  That’s what playing a flute for so long helped me to understand.  It means it’s a beautiful flute with great sound quality made by one of the top manufacturers of flutes. I also had the opportunity to participate in lessons by Sir James Galway.  He is considered one of the leading flutist in the world. After my experience with flutes, I also happen to have written my senior thesis/capstone/project (whatever you kids call it these days) on the history of flutes.  That gave me the knowledge of James Madison’s flute.  Funny enough, I didn’t include his flute in my paper.  I included how crystal flutes were made, which we will get into later.  This makes me that “1 of 8 people who actually knew about James Madison’s flute before Lizzo touched it.”  Go me.  This gives me a pretty good basis on the history of flutes, even though my senior year was quite some time ago.  Next, I also happen to tote a degree in history.  I have my BA in History and I am finishing a dual degree with an MA in History and an MS in Archival Sciences.  That brings me to my next point.  Preservation and collections practices.  Not only is that repeated frequently in my degree program, I also have 4 years’ experience as a curatorial director for a museum that specializes in 19th century artifacts.  19th century meaning 1800s, for those unaware.  1800s as in the century that James Madison’s flute was made.  I not only have 4 years with that title, but multiple previous years working with textiles and artifact curation, preservation, and basic conservational experience.

Now that that is out of the way, let’s learn a bit about glass.  You may remember a previous post about how 16th and 17th century glass was produced, and how it needed to be treated to be clear.  Now as we broach the 19th century, glass production was completely different, as was crystal.  First, what is the difference between crystal and glass? Well, crystal is made with glass, and includes certain additives to make it incredibly durable.  Considering the time period the flute was produced in, most likely these additives were lead. [2]  Leaded crystal was a more commonplace material.   I want to repeat the one exciting fact here.  Crystal is more durable than glass.  It was manufactured specifically to be used.  This is why you will see crystal wine goblets over glass, and also why crystal is more expensive and harder to break.  James Madison’s flute was created with leaded glass (AKA Crystal) in 1813 by Claude Laurent.  [3]  He manufactured multiple types of crystal flutes during his life, including the one pictured below.  The one below is not James Madison’s flute, but a fantastic example in the MET collection. 

Image from the Collection at the MET

James Madison you may know more about.  He is considered one of the founding fathers of the United States and sponsored what would be called the Bill of Rights.  Madison also was a slave-owner. [4] This was not rare for the time, sadly.  Lizzo, is a classically trained flutist. She trained at the Paris Conservatory and got her degrees in music performance.[5]  Flute is her passion and her talent.  If the Library of Congress had to pick someone, it makes total sense to choose her.  Sir James Galway is 82, and I doubt could easily fly out to play it. Plus, why always go for the old white guys? (Sorry Sir Galway, I still admire you lots!)  Why not choose someone who is a modern icon to do the job, who is also completely qualified? Could it perhaps bring some attention to historical artifacts?

Digitization, that is the first word I want to touch upon for the last part of this article.  Museums have been trying very very VERY hard to provide online resources and accessibility to the public, especially since COVID.  This may mean going from putting a delicate garment on a mannequin for photos, or scanning documents, or recording things.  Accessibility for those who cannot access the museum or for artifacts that may not always be on display is such an important movement.  It is not easy however.  It is not just a quick grab the artifacts and take a quickie selfie with your cell phone, even though the concept behind digitization is taking an object and turning it into data.  It includes processing of the artifact, meaning making sure the artifact is in good condition and recording said condition.  It includes recording information in a catalog like ArchiveSpace, CatalogIt or PastPerfect.  It includes the actual scanning, recording, or photographing, which is delicate and slow work.  It can also be the most nerve wracking of any part of a collection manager or archivist’s job.  Preservation comes next, where the artifact is placed within special acid-free materials, like tissue, micro paper, polyester sheets etc.  This depends on the artifact on how it is to be preserved.  To learn more, just attend a 4-year degree program through an awesome college like Simmon’s University.  You can also check out this rather fantastic website on preservation standards: https://www.si.edu/mci/english/learn_more/taking_care/index.html.  Conservation means that the artifact needs a facelift of sorts to keep it stable.  This may mean something simple, like document tape to keep a document together to a complete rebinding of a book or backing of a textile.  I wanted to make sure that these terms were understood.  Preservation is keeping an artifact preserved in its current state, conservation is to stabilize the artifact before preservation, and lastly, restoration.  Restoration means you are complete redoing the artifact, which may not make it an artifact anymore.  That is a debate for another day.  Back to the digitization.  Recording something, like a 200-something year old flute for the future to listen to by a professional flutist seems rather, ordinary.  It’s just that.  Sure, Lizzo had some fun in one of her videos and shook her booty, but she still respected the instrument like any other professional.  She was adding to the digital repertoire of the Library of Congress.  Oh, and I am sure the staff at the Library of Congress are waaaaay more credentialed than myself, let alone those speaking over social media as to the care of their artifacts.  Lizzo did borrow the flute for her concert, after the collections staff made sure the artifact was set to be used. [6]  Artifacts, in fact, leave museums often for displays and exhibits. Condition reports are made before and after the item leaves.  Only items that are fit for travel are used.  This is common practice.  Some artifacts are put out for children to touch.  Yes, children.  If you feel that a trained adult should not touch an artifact, the idea of children touching, and even licking (I have witnessed while working at National Geographic’s Real Pirates Exhibit), you should be appalled. 

Lastly, I wanted to add that using an artifact does make the use of all artifacts okay. Certain artifacts, like let’s say, leaded crystal, are more durable than something like a textile. This is why when we do exhibits, children are allowed to touch our WWII switchboards, but we never have original uniforms out for them to see or touch. Textiles, like that of Marilyn Monroe’s dress, are different. Anything fibrous in fact, meaning documents as well. These items are permanently damaged by things like light, temperature changes, humidity, sweat, etc. We will back up never wearing an original WWI uniform to a reenactment, or walking around in an original Epoch-era gown at a Steampunk event. Get a reproduction, as those artifacts will not last and will one day be gone.

I welcome any or all of you to click on the citations and learn a bit about flutes, crystal, preservation, James Madison, Lizzo, and history in general.  Feel free to submit questions, as I know this is a very brief overview of the topics at hand, but I hope it helps.

Your humble BHistorical Executive Director,

Chelsey Knyff

Image of James Madison’s Flute, property of the Library of Congress

[1] “C Flutes,” Gemeinhardt, accessed October 1, 2022, https://www.gemeinhardt.com/gemeinhardt/c-flutes/.

[2] Liz Svilane, “What Is the Difference between Glass and Crystal?,” Friends of Glass, September 20, 2022, https://www.friendsofglass.com/design/difference-between-glass-crystal/.

[3] Metmuseum.org, accessed October 1, 2022, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/501534.

[4] “James Madison,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.), accessed October 1, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-Madison.

[5] “Lizzo,” Biography.com (A&E Networks Television, January 4, 2022), https://www.biography.com/musician/lizzo.

[6] Marisa Dellatto, “Lizzo Borrows James Madison’s Priceless Crystal Flute from Library of Congress for Concert,” Forbes (Forbes Magazine, September 29, 2022), https://www.forbes.com/sites/marisadellatto/2022/09/28/lizzo-borrows-james-madisons-priceless-crystal-flute-from-library-of-congress-for-concert/?sh=57250cd0607b.

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