Most of the artifacts we acquire are donations. Occasionally we find the reason, and more importantly the funds, to purchase an artifact. One purchase a couple of years ago was rather unique. Our Director was walking back to work from lunch when the owner of an antique shop happened to be putting an antique wheelchair out on display in front of the store. It was a slightly post-war chair, but we do have plans for an exhibit on Civil War veterans. At the end of the Civil War there were thousands of veterans recovering from illnesses and wounds. Some of them recovered in hospitals and would have required the use of a wheelchair. This wheelchair could certainly have been used for this purpose. So, I was quickly summoned to pick up our latest acquisition.
|A circa 1870 Eastlake style caned wheelchair with metal-rimmed wheels and upholstered arms and foot rest.|
Normally moving a large artifact involves an art handling company, or at the very least a museum staff member’s vehicle and lots of padding materials. Since the shop was only half a block from the museum and the chair was in good working order, we decided just to wheel it (carefully!) down the sidewalk. At this point I should mention that the Director had broken his foot and was in a walking cast. We obviously made a strange sight pushing an antique wheelchair down a busy sidewalk. More than one passerby commented that my limping boss should be riding in the wheelchair! We also got a lot of questions about the chair. People wanted to know where we were taking it, how old it was, and of course if I would let them ride in it. I politely told them ‘no!’ It certainly created a lot of interest in the museum though, and we joked later that we should take our artifacts out on walks more often!
|Detail of the design on the back - a typical Eastlake style.|
The wheelchair’s next “home” was my office, at least for the next month. Every new artifact which comes into the building has to go through a period of quarantine before it can be put into the collection room with the other artifacts. During that time it is inspected regularly for any signs of mold, mildew, or insect infestation. I thought once I got the wheelchair back to the museum it would be safe from people at least, but I was wrong. I had to yell at two different people not to sit in it before I finally tied a piece of ribbon between the arms to keep people out of it. You’d think they would know better….
|A worn spot in the fabric on one arm reveals the horsehair stuffing. The upholstry on the chair was my main worry as it would be a prime spot for insects to hide.|
But now the wheelchair is stored in the collection room, waiting its turn to go on exhibit. At least it is safe from people sitting in it!
Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.