Archives preservation coordinator Alison Reppert Gerber has been growing tomatoes, onions, carrots, potatoes, radishes, lettuce, kohlrabi, beets, broccoli, cabbages, bell peppers, and poblano peppers in her garden.

Staff Check-In: Befriending Kittens, Carving Ducks, and Perfecting the Art of the Biscuit

Nearly four months into Smithsonian’s extended telework period, we thought it would be fun to share some skills and hobbies that have been bringing us joy and getting us through this overwhelming time.

Smithsonian staff is now nearly four months into an extended period of working from home, and while we continue to fulfill our mission from afar, life is far from “normal.” The Archives blog team thought it might be a fun idea to check in with folks about the skills and hobbies they’ve learned and improved upon that have been helping them get through this overwhelming time in history. Staff have been befriending kittens, carving ducks, perfecting the art of the biscuit, and more. 

Some of our colleagues are becoming one with nature. 

Reference archivist Deborah is trying to become a birder with the help of the Merlin Bird ID app and text messages to birder friends. So far she has identified 39 species. A bird Deborah has NOT yet come across is the humble rock dove. Where are you, pigeons!?

A cat and her kittens.

Tad, also a reference archivist, shared a story that made our hearts melt. A few weeks ago, one of the feral cats in his neighborhood settled under his back porch and gave birth to three kittens (the mother cat, he calls her “Olive,” has been visiting his porch for a few months, and he has been feeding her, developing a friendship, or at least, according to Tad, familiarity.)  About 48 hours after they were born, the kittens had disappeared without a trace.  Olive continued to visit routinely for breakfast and dinner, and appeared healthy and happy, but still no sign of the kittens. Much to Tad’s surprise, more than two weeks after they were born, he opened the door and there was Olive, with two, and then all three of her kittens!  They have set up camp on the porch, all appearing healthy and developing well.  Tad shared that this has been an amazing experience to witness, as Olive is less than a year old herself, and watching her care for her kittens is about as pure as joy can be.

Some of us have orange thumbs (the culprit being Cheeto dust), and others can make entire salads with their green thumbs. Alison, our preservation coordinator, built seven raised garden beds over the last few months to grow vegetables and flowers. Some of the things she is growing right now are: tomatoes, onions, carrots, potatoes, radishes, lettuce, kohlrabi, beets, broccoli, cabbages, bell peppers, and poblano peppers. 

Alison in her garden in July 2020. She has been growing tomatoes, onions, carrots, potatoes, radishes, lettuce, kohlrabi, beets, broccoli, cabbages, bell peppers, and poblano peppers.

Alison shows off her dinner harvest for one evening in July 2020, which included red beet, a golden beet, an onion, and a carrot.

Andrew, our web developer at the Archives, has been keeping us updated on his woodworking projects. He’s been carving a duck, a basswood decoy of a Redhead drake. 

basswood duck decoy of a Redhead drake next to a painted Mallard.

And speaking of crafting skills, our conservators have been putting their expertise to good use. William has been sewing away, with a new-to-him sewing machine courtesy of our very own Kira Sobers. He started with personal-use fabric face masks, then made some for a local hospital and contributed to making additional masks for Smithsonian staff. William has also started to make some quilted book futons (pattern courtesy of Duke University Libraries) for use in our reading room when we eventually welcome researchers again. He’s also exploring hand quilting for the first time and taught himself via YouTube videos, in conjunction with learning to use Adobe Illustrator to create a pattern for his own use!

William batch-sewed masks for essential employees’ use at the Smithsonian.

William's finished book futons with an open volume displayed.

William's completed hand quilting of a Tudor rose design.

Senior conservator Nora has also been thinking a lot about staff safety. As someone trained in respiratory protection and worker safety, Nora has been following developments in Open Source Medical Supplies, an ongoing project that supplements the supply chain and continued international need for medical equipment to support communities and workers. She continues to discover new and improved patterns for sewing face coverings with better efficiency and customizable fit for individual needs, so as to provide more options—and she is always thrilled to find those that are inspired by paper-folding techniques. On a different note, now that her city parks have reopened the tennis courts, Nora has pulled out her mom’s old racquet, and rediscovered it as a terrific release to go whack a ball at a practice wall or with a partner! Nora shared that It reminds her of playing handball when she was a kid, which she probably would never have returned to before now.

Mitch, one of the archivists on our information and records management team, has also been sewing masks with fabric he had once purchased to make pillows for his house. He also turned to experimenting with his baking skills. Instead of baking sourdough bread like everyone else on the internet, Mitch has been making a variety of Chinese buns. Each uses a similar dough, but can be used with different fillings such as coconut or hot dogs.

Mitch has been making a variety of Chinese buns with different fillings.

Mitch has been making a variety of Chinese buns with different fillings.

Mitch has been making a variety of Chinese buns with different fillings.

Hannah, our program assistant with the institutional history division of the Archives, has also been finding comfort in baking, particularly in mastering the art of the biscuit. She’s been working with the same recipe, making modifications, and trying to perfect them. She told us that she doesn't know if they're perfect yet, but 17 weeks in, she says they're pretty good. We believe her. 

Biscuits on a tray.

Digital imaging specialist Jessica Scott has been getting organized. She has been tackling the boring-but-important task of weeding out old clothes and other odds-and-ends for donation to charity. She shared that chipping away at it a little everyday makes it seem not so overwhelming. Jessica has also been working ‘round the clock to ensure that we have a fresh batch of projects ready to go in the Smithsonian Transcription Center

As for me, your author, I am writing this blog post from the comforts of my ironing board. Who among us wants to pay for a fancy standing desk when you have a perfectly good two-decades-old ironing board at your disposal? I’ve been fortunate that I can continue to do a lot of my job from home—editing and uploading blog posts and tweeting up a storm. But I truly cannot wait for the day that I get to chat with my coworkers in the hallways and greet researchers at our front desk. Until then, I’ll continue to connect with my colleagues on video calls, learn loads from you all on social media, and not-so-secretly scheme about how to transport a full-sized ironing board back into my office at the Archives.

A laptop and books on an ironing board.

If you’re interested in reading more about the work our staff has been doing while working from home and how you can still access the Archives, be sure to catch up on the latest segments of our Collection Highlights and Hot Topix series. 

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.