Thursday, October 27, 2011

Creepy Crawlies

     Since it’s almost Halloween I thought I’d do a post about a more “creepy” subject, insects.
     One of the less exciting aspects of my job is monitoring for insects in order to detect and prevent insect infestations.  Monitoring is done by placing sticky traps in various locations and recording the number and kinds of insects which are found on them.  

This is a hospital exhibit at the NMCWM.  Displayed in the back
 is a hospital flag.  On the left is a hospital gown and on the right is a hospital
steward's frock coat.  But, can you spot the insect monitor in the exhibit? 

It's probably easier to see it in this view.  The insect monitor (sticky trap)
 is in an inconspicuous spot on the floor.  You may also notice another type of monitor
on the side wall.  That one keeps track of the temperature and relative humidity in the
 exhibit case.  That's a topic for another post though!

     My very first duty here at the museum was dealing with a moth infestation.  My first view of my new office included several moths clinging to the ceiling and the trim of the door.  This is NOT a sight that any collection manager wants to see, much less their first day on the job!  I immediately called the exterminator and put out some moth pheromone traps.  I didn’t shun the low-tech options either.  My new coworkers got used to seeing me patrolling the floor armed with a flyswatter!  Eventually the little winged pests were  eradicated, and everyone was relieved.

The culprit in this instance was Tineola bisselliella, the common clothes moth.

     It turned out that the moths (eggs) had been brought in on a donated item of wool clothing, which was in the quarantine cabinet in my new office.  Once the offending item was discovered it was immediately removed and treated.  Luckily, there were no other cloth items in the quarantine cabinet at the time, but as a precaution the remaining items spent additional time in quarantine being monitored.  It was a good reminder of the importance of the quarantine process.  Though we did have to deal with a moth infestation in our office area, none of the moths got into the collection room or the galleries.  They could have done quite a bit of damage there!           

Here you can see what is probably moth damage on a wool Union Surgeon's frock coat.  I should point out that the coat came to us in this condition!

     I am happy to report that insect infestations are a rare occurrence here.  I’ll certainly do all I can to keep it that way!
Here's my creepy photo.  This is a close-up of an insect monitor from our office hallway, with a large cockroach on it.  Normally I can keep these traps out for a few months, but for some reason my coworkers asked that I get this one out of their sight! 

     Happy Halloween everyone, and may your day be free from insect pests!

Artifact photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Taking your artifact for a walk?

     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.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Getting Started

     Welcome to my blog!  If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to take care of a collection of artifacts at a museum, you’ve come to the right place.  Whenever I tell people what I do, they tend to comment that I must have a very interesting job.  So, here’s where I plan to share what I hope will be an interesting, educational, and even entertaining account of doing my job.
     The hardest part of starting a blog is coming up with a name.  I am a Collection Manager, more specifically I am the Collection and Exhibit Manager at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.  I wanted a name that conveyed what I do.  Though I wear a lot of “hats” in my job, they really all have the same basic purpose – to protect and preserve the artifacts in the museum’s collection.  In fact, when I was hired I recall the Director of our museum telling me he wanted someone who would act as a bulldog to protect the collection.  I wasn’t thrilled about being seen as a bulldog though, so I decided on Guardian! 
     A recent museum acquisition arrived in the mail a few days ago.  We tend to get some rather unique things here.  In this case, it was a brass suppository mold.  And yes, I was excited to receive it!  We actually have one in the collection already, which I enjoy showing to visitors.  When I ask them what they think it is they invariably reply that it’s a bullet mold.  Then I remind them that we are in a medical museum! 

                                        A 19th century 12-chamber brass suppository mold

     It seems this mold had also suffered a case of mistaken identity.  The donor told me that when he’d purchased it, it was in a box of items which also contained bullets.  He’d assumed it was a bullet mold.  It wasn’t until he visited the museum a few years later that he learned what it really was! 
     Once the mold arrived here, I discovered why it may have been in that box of bullets.  I wasn’t surprised to find some dents and scratches in the brass, or that the closing mechanism wasn’t original, or that there were traces of wax on the surface.  I was surprised though to discover that one of the chambers was slightly different from the others.  The base had been bored out slightly larger, and the blunt tip had been modified to a pointed one.  It appears that someone tried to convert it into a bullet mold, unsuccessfully I’m sure considering that the other 11 chambers hadn’t been modified. 

      Notice the differences in the chamber on the far left. Also note the spot of green wax in the fourth chamber.                   

     I heard one person comment that it was too bad people would ruin artifacts like that.  I did see his point, but I was also a little taken back.  Granted, this artifact’s monetary value isn’t as great as one in its original form, but this one has a “story” to tell; it has a unique history that is revealed in its imperfections.  That makes it valuable in a different way.  And my job is to preserve it and its story.

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine