Thursday, August 14, 2014

To Touch or Not to Touch?

     This week, I hope you don’t mind if I step up on my soapbox for a minute!  The following article was brought to my attention recently, and I think the topic of letting the public handle museum artifacts is worthy of a bit of discussion.  It’s a short article, so go ahead and read it here.  

     Now I certainly understand about incorporating some hands-on exhibits for the visitors.  In fact, I wrote a blog post about these exhibits at my museum, here.
     I also understand about the need to bring visitors into the museum.  Though it is true that there wouldn’t be a museum if we didn’t have an artifact collection, it is also true that we couldn’t care for or display the collection to the public if the museum didn’t exist!  So, what is the best way to care for the artifacts, while still attracting visitors to your museum?  Considering that my job as a museum curator is to protect the artifacts for future generations to appreciate and learn from them, I have a hard time accepting that the best answer is to allow everyone to handle the artifacts.  Will that help to bring in more visitors?  The information in the article suggests that it can.  Will it allow these artifacts to be available to future museum visitors though?  I doubt it.

    They stated that, “Nothing’s been broken yet….,” but you have to consider that ‘yet.’  Chances are good that something will eventually be broken.  Even if nothing technically “breaks” though, what about the wear and tear on the artifacts?  

When I handle the artifacts in my museum’s collection, I wear gloves for a good reason! 
     The dirt and oil on hands can damage many materials, even if you can’t see the damage at first.  For instance, metal artifacts which visitors are allowed to handle will tarnish or corrode more quickly.  Leather or cloth artifacts will become discolored and deteriorate more quickly.  And when that happens, what will be used then to lure more visitors in to see (and handle) the museum’s collection?  The museum probably won’t have enough funds to keep replacing artifacts.  Having artifacts donated will also become more difficult when potential artifact donors see how their family heirlooms will be handled. 
     It seems to me that there has to be some middle ground here.  Yes, people like to see AND touch items, but do they have to be the original artifacts?  There are other options.  It is possible to make reproductions of many kinds of artifacts.  Visitors can then have the experience of handling or using the item, without damaging the original artifact.  Some museums even have collections of original artifacts which are not museum quality, which can be handled by the public.  Bringing some well-selected artifacts out of the exhibit cases and having trained museum staff members give the visitors a closer look at them (without letting them touch) is also a better option than having the artifacts handled by everyone who walks through the door! 
     I simply don’t see the logic or forethought in sacrificing a museum’s collection to bring in more visitors.  These museums may well get an increase in ticket sales today, but what are the long-term consequences and effects?

     What do you think?  The comment section is open (though moderated) for your thoughts!       

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Dr. Who?

     If there’s a little known hero of the Civil War, it has to be Dr. Jonathan Letterman.  I was reminded of that recently when the founder of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Dr. Gordon Dammann, gave a lecture on Dr. Letterman and his Letterman Plan.  Maybe you’ve never heard Dr. Letterman’s name before, but your life has probably been affected by his work.  The Letterman Plan, which is a system for treating and evacuating casualties from battlefields, is the basis for many aspects of our modern military medicine, emergency medicine, and even disaster relief.

Here is Dr. Dammann, talking about Dr. Letterman and his plan.  I think this is one of his favorite topics!

     At the start of the Civil War, there was no set procedure for removing wounded soldiers from the battlefields.  In some cases, the wounded were left on the battlefield for over a week, which meant that many of the men, who might have been saved, died from their wounds or from exposure.  While the army did have ambulances which could transport the wounded soldiers, the ambulances were under the control of the Quartermaster Department which procured and distributed most of the supplies for the army.  As you might imagine, the ambulances were not always the top priority in this system!  In fact, there were instances in which ambulances were appropriated to carry other supplies, or even personal items. 

     In 1862, just a few months prior to the Battle of Antietam, Major Jonathan Letterman was named the Medical Director of the Union Army of the Potomac.  His first step toward revamping the medical system was to establish a separate Ambulance Corps. He gave control of the army ambulances to the officers of the ambulance corps, he distributed ambulances to each regiment, he had enlisted men trained to serve as ambulance drivers and stretcher bearers, and he had the use of ambulance wagons for any non-medical uses forbidden.  

This Wheeling ambulance is one of the types of ambulance wagons used during the Civil War.  Illustration from “The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. (1861-65) Part III, Volume II.”
     Letterman also reorganized the system of medical treatment and field evacuation.  He applied a triage system in which the wounded were treated based on the severity of their wounds instead of the order they arrived.  He also established aid stations on the battlefields, where medical officers could stabilize the wounded soldiers and arrange for their transportation to a field hospital.  The field hospitals were located near the battlefields.  It was here that the soldiers received additional treatment, including emergency surgery if needed.  If more long-term treatment was required, the wounded were transported to the larger, more permanent hospitals which were usually located in the cities.

     The Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history, was the first real test of Major Letterman’s new system.  It was a success.  Even when faced with over 23,000 casualties, his plan ensured that all of the wounded were removed from the battlefield within 48 hours, which undoubtedly saved many lives.  He continued to make changes and improvements, and in 1864 his plan was made official by an Act of Congress.

Though the equipment has changed, the Letterman Plan is still in use today.

     I’ll leave you with a quote from the NMCWM’s own website: Major General Paul Hawley, Chief Surgeon of the European Theater in the Second World War, said of Letterman, “I often wondered whether, had I been confronted with the primitive system which Letterman fell heir to at the beginning of the Civil War, I could have developed as good an organization as he did. I doubt it. There was not a day during World War II that I did not thank God for Jonathan Letterman.”

An 1862 photo of Major Letterman (first seated figure) and his staff in Warrenton, Virginia.  Library of Congress image.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Museum by the Numbers

     One of the requests I get at the museum is for statistics about the museum and the museum’s collection.  Usually the requests are from Museum Studies students, and I am glad to help them.  I do get some of the same questions (but not quite so many of them!) from museum visitors though.  So, based on the questions I hear the most, I thought I’d share a few facts about the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

     How big is the museum?

The museum building may not look that big from the front, but we actually have about 7000 square feet of exhibit space, divided between two floors.  Our visitors can see artifacts on display in our nine galleries.

     How many artifacts do you have at the museum? 

That number constantly changes as we acquire and borrow new artifacts.  Right now there are over 3400 items in the collection, and about 1000 of them are on loan to us.  About 30% of them are out on display, and about 6% of our collection is out on loan to other institutions.

     Where do you have artifacts on loan?

Currently we have artifacts on loan to museums and libraries in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Colorado.  This alarm clock, which belonged to a Civil War Surgeon, is on loan to the Historic Crab Orchard Museum and Pioneer Park in Tazewell, Virginia.

     How many people are at your museum?

There are 18 staff members and about 40 volunteers who work at the NMCWM.  Our annual visitation is around 35,000 people per year.

     How many mannequins are in the museum?

We have 35 mannequins currently on display; 31 are in the main museum and four are out at the Pry House.  I'll also mention that the banjo in this scene was made by our museum's director!

     I posted last week about one of the favorite parts of my job.  So, what’s the least favorite part of my job?

Changing the light bulbs!  There are over 50 light tracks in the museum’s galleries, most of which have multiple fixtures.  Because I have to keep a log of the bulbs, I know that in the past year I have changed 102 light bulbs.

That’s a lot of light bulbs!
     Thank goodness it's just a small part of my job here!

 Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Clara Barton's Bed, Part 2

     Researching the history of an artifact is one of the favorite aspects of my job, especially when I am able to find new information.  I love being able to discover the story behind an artifact!  Sometimes though, the search is like putting together puzzle pieces, and sometimes my search takes me in directions I didn’t expect.  That’s what happened when I started researching Clara Barton’s Civil War trunk bed a couple of weeks ago.  If you missed Part 1 about this trunk bed, you may want to take a quick look at it here.    

We didn’t have much information about the trunk bed when it arrived, so I was pleased to find this label, which named the donor and the city of origin, inside the trunk.  This gave me a good starting point!

     The Dr. Julian B. Hubbell mentioned on the label worked with Clara Barton as the first American Red Cross Chief Field Agent, and served in the Red Cross from 1881 until 1904.  He stayed with Clara at her Glen Echo home until her death in 1912.  Afterwards, the home (along with many of Clara Barton’s things) came into his possession.  He passed away in 1929 and willed his home and the Barton possessions to his nieces, Rena and Lena Hubbell.  His obituary in the Lawrence Daily Journal-World newspaper stated that, "Many of the priceless possessions in the Dr. Hubbell home, formerly owned by Clara Barton, will be given to the American Red Cross Museum, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian."  Rena Hubbell donated the trunk bed to the Red Cross in 1931.  So, the trunk bed’s ownership can be clearly traced from its original owner, Clara Barton, to its current owner, the American Red Cross.

     Next I focused on the Philadelphia firm mentioned on the label.  My hope was to find the name of the trunk bed’s maker.  Many times (but not always) manufacturers put an identification mark on their products, so I started examining the trunk more closely.

I was quite happy when I spotted some text embossed in the leather on one end of the trunk!  It was difficult to read all of it, but I discovered that if I used a small LED flashlight at an angle to the trunk’s surface the letters became clearer.

      The first line of letters was mostly covered by the orange label you see in the photo.  I was only able to see “W. B. ST….”  I was really wishing that label had been placed somewhere else on the trunk!  The second line of letters was much clearer, and I was excited to discover that it read, “PATENT JUNE 11, 1861.”  Finding a patent date is like striking gold; that information is easily accessed!  It also helped to place the trunk in the Civil War period.  The last line of text was somewhat obscured by a small section of scuffed leather, but the first section was easy to read, “NO 1 WARREN….”  It looked like an address, so I concentrated on the remaining letters, expecting to find that it read either ‘Philadelphia’ or ‘PA.’  Once I finally lit up that section well enough to read though, I discovered that it read, “… ST. NY.”  The trunk wasn’t from Philadelphia after all, it was from New York!

     Next I went to my computer to look up that patent date.  I found this entry: “Trunk convertible into a bedstead, W.B. Strong.  Patent #32,536.”  Now I had the maker’s name!  I also was able to look up Mr. Strong’s description of the trunk bed, and his diagram of it.  The description not only specified how to set up the trunk bed, it also contained other useful information.  Let’s take a look at part of the description.

     "Be it known that I, W. B. Strong, of the city, county, and State of New York, have invented a new and useful Combination of an Army-Trunk and Bedstead or Couch; and I do hereby declare that the following is a full, clear, and exact description....

     The object of this invention is to combine a trunk and bedstead in such a manner that the trunk may have nearly its usual available capacity for the reception of clothing and still admit of being readily converted into a bedstead when the latter is required.

     The invention is designed for the use of the army officers and such members thereof as are allowed to carry trunks and who, while occupying the tents of a flying camp, cannot be generally provided with anything in the way of a bedstead to keep them elevated above the surface of the ground.”

     So, this trunk bed wasn’t designed specifically for Clara Barton.  It was designed and sold for army officers.  That actually makes more sense, as it would have been readily available for her to purchase.

Figure 1 is a longitudinal section of the trunk bed which was referred to in the patent description.

     “[The] trunk which may be constructed of leather placed over a wood box in the usual way.  The trunk, however, instead of opening at one side, as usual, opens at one end....admitting when necessary, of being turned entirely over so as to rest upon the ground....

     The lids....may be formed of light wooden frames covered with cloth, and to the inner side of the lid.... there are attached straps....which are secured to the inner side of said lid.

     The two parts....of the trunk receive clothing as usual, and in one of them an india-rubber placed, said mattress when required for use being inflated with air.  The mattress when not inflated may be folded within a small compass.”

     Did you catch that last part?  There was an AIR MATTRESS used with the trunk bed!  The fact that there were air mattresses used during the Civil War was news to me (and no doubt will be good news to my re-enactor friends!).  Unfortunately, there is no remnant of an air mattress contained in this trunk bed, but I will certainly be on the lookout for one now.

     “When the placed on the parts....the frame....of [the] unfolded and the legs adjusted downward to support said frame in an inclined position, as shown clearly in Fig. 1.   

     This frame....forms the pillow of the couch, and when unfolded adds materially to the length of the couch.

     There may be four or six desired, four at least must be used.  These bars....form a frame to receive a cloth...., which may be of light india-rubber cloth or any water-proof fabric.

     When necessary or preferable the waterproof cover....may be dispensed with and a mosquito net substituted for it.” 

     If you will recall the photos from Part 1, there was some blue mosquito netting contained inside Clara Barton’s trunk bed.  There was no other cover inside the trunk, but the mention of the india rubber cloth brought to mind one of the artifacts which was found at her Missing Soldiers Office.

This is a Civil War shelter half, stamped “U.S. Sanitary Commission” which was found with Clara Barton’s items at the Missing Soldiers Office.  It has a rubber backing to make it waterproof.  Normally this item would have been carried by a soldier, and fastened together with another shelter half to form a whole tent for two soldiers.  When this shelter half was found, there was some speculation as to why it was in Clara’s possession.  Is it possible that this was used as the “waterproof cover” for her trunk bed?  It’s certainly a topic which is worth more research!  Artifact is owned by the U.S. General Services Administration.

     I also found that though Mr. Strong lived in New York in 1861 when he applied for the patent, by 1862 he had opened a business in Washington D.C.

Here is an advertisement from the maker of Clara Barton’s trunk bed from the 1862 "Boyd's Washington and Georgetown directory: containing a business directory of Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria."  His New York origin is apparent in his reference to “New York prices.”

     This was definitely an interesting and educational research session!  It has certainly given the NMCWM some good information to include in our new Clara Barton exhibit.  Watch for that to be completed in the near future!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.