Thursday, November 17, 2011

The One Percent

     Don’t worry; this has nothing to do with the Occupy protests! 
     It has been my observation that 99% of museum visitors generally behave themselves when going through the exhibits.  It’s the other one percent which make it necessary for all the security measures.
     There are a variety of methods museums can employ to prevent theft or damage to the artifacts on display.  Probably the most common method is placing the items in a display case.
This is a large display case with tempered glass doors which are locked.  This display is also set to trigger an alarm if the doors are opened or broken. 

     Single artifacts or very small groups of artifacts can be placed in smaller display cases.  Sometimes these cases can be incorporated onto a display panel as seen in the photo below.
This artifact, a wooden grave marker, has a Plexiglas cover which is secured to the panel.  The panel is secured to the wall.

This is a vitrine, or small display case, which houses a single artifact.  It has a Plexiglas top which is held in place by security screws.

Another important aspect of exhibit security is pictured in the background – the museum staff!  They inform our guests of the museum’s guidelines (no food, drink, or flash photography in the galleries) and they help to monitor the visitors via the security cameras.
     Signage is also a part of museum security.  There are several signs similar to the one pictured below, posted throughout the museum.  We also have signs warning guests of the motion sensors on the open displays.

     Very large artifacts can be challenging to display safely.  In many cases they are placed behind some sort of barrier.  Alarm systems can be used.  Guards can also be employed to monitor these items, but that is generally done more at larger museums.

Here is the largest item in the NMCWM’s collection, a Civil War Surgeon’s tent.  There are several layers of protection for it here, the building security system, the physical barriers (crates and raised floor), its placement beyond the reach of guests, the sign in the lower right corner of the photo, the video camera (not visible here) which is monitored by the front desk staff, and the motion sensor – the small white box in the upper right corner of the photo – which sets off an alarm if triggered.

     Displaying artifacts in open exhibits has similar challenges to displaying the very large ones, and some of the same methods can be used to protect them.  However, additional “tricks” can also be used.  The exhibit in the photo below has the warning sign, the security camera, the physical barriers (the Plexiglas fence plus the display panel placed in front of it), and the motion sensor.  It also has something else which isn’t visible in the first photo.

This Civil War amputation kit is too much of a temptation for a few of our guests.  Though most of our visitors heed the warnings about the space being monitored and alarmed, there are a few who still reach in and attempt to handle the surgical instruments.  As you can see in this photo (click to enlarge the photo), the instruments are further protected by a series of clear monofilaments – the horizontal ones are visible here, but there is also a series of vertical ones, plus one which is looped around the handle of the saw.  The advantage here is that the lines make it more difficult to remove the instruments, and most people do not even see them!

     So, I hope when you are a visitor at a museum, you are more aware of the security measures in place, and that you are not in the dreaded one percent!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Friday, November 4, 2011

An Artifact Story

     This is a photo of another artifact which I like to show to visitors.  Unlike the suppository mold I posted about earlier, many people correctly figure out what this is after studying it for a few moments.  Do you think you know what it is?  Don’t read ahead yet if you want to study the photo a little longer!  I'll even help you out a bit and let you know that this object is hollow.

     Did you guess that the object in the photo is an early version of a stethoscope?  It’s a monaural (single ear) stethoscope to be more exact.  The flat end was placed against the patient, and the doctor was able to listen through the cupped end. 

     The first stethoscope was invented in 1816 by a French physician named Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laennec.  The story goes that Laennec was examining a young woman and was too embarrassed to put his ear to her chest.  He quickly came up with an alternate method.  In his account: 
I recalled a well known acoustic phenomenon: if you place your ear against one end of a wood beam the scratch of a pin at the other end is distinctly audible. It occurred to me that this physical property might serve a useful purpose in the case I was dealing with. I then tightly rolled a sheet of paper, one end of which I placed over the precordium (chest) and my ear to the other. I was surprised and elated to be able to hear the beating of her heart with far greater clearness than I ever had with direct application of my ear. I immediately saw that this might become an indispensable method for studying, not only the beating of the heart, but all movements able of producing sound in the chest cavity."

     And so, the stethoscope was born!

Another wooden monarual stethoscope, which
has been painted black. 
This stethoscope is made of wood and ivory.


     Laennec produced his first stethoscope at home in his workshop.  It was a simple wooden tube at first, but he experimented with different materials and designs.  Other people began making stethoscopes as well and eventually a binaural stethoscope was invented.

George Cammann is credited with designing the binaural model which is the basis for the modern stethoscope.  Does this one look more familiar?

     I am not always so sure that newer models are better though.  Somehow I don’t think the wooden stethoscopes were quite as cold as the modern version my doctors uses!  

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Collection Room

     Did you ever wonder where museums keep the artifacts which aren’t on display?  Or did you even realize that most museums can usually only exhibit a fraction of their collection?  This is partly due to space constraints.  Most museums simply don’t have the space to exhibit everything at once.  However, it is also better for the artifacts not to be out on exhibit permanently.  Even with good environmental controls and good housekeeping practices in the galleries, the artifacts on display are more likely to be exposed to dirt, dust, insects, and light, than those stored in the collection room.  
     A museum’s collection room is a place where the artifacts can be safely stored.  Ideally, the room is secure, is temperature and humidity controlled, and is dark when no one is working in it.  The light level is the biggest difference between the display cases and the collection room.  Most people are aware that light degrades many materials over time.  You can probably see the effects of light in your own home furnishings.  Just take a look at any curtains, furniture, or photos which are often in direct sunlight.  Unfortunately you can’t have much of an exhibit without light!  However, you also don't want historic artifacts locked away so that no one can ever see or learn from them.  Exhibiting artifacts is a sort of balancing act between preserving them and allowing access to them.  
     Let’s take a quick peek inside the collection room of the NMCWM:

Framed artwork, documents, and maps can be hung on the art rack. 
If you recall last week’s post, you may also notice an insect trap on the floor.

Unframed or more fragile artwork, large documents, and photos can be stored
flat in these shallow drawers.  The bottom of each drawer is covered with a sheet
of polyethylene foam (ethafoam) which serves both as cushioning and as a barrier
between the item and the surface of the drawer.

Medium-sized items can be stored on shelves in tall, upright cabinets. 
This is an ambulance water keg.  Civil War ambulance wagons would have
been outfitted with two of these when they were sent out onto the battlefields.

Books are also stored on shelves in these cabinets. 
These books have each been fitted with acid-free cardboard
covers for further protection against light, dust, and abrasion.

Documents up to legal-size are kept in the same kind of cabinets. 
They are housed in archival folders inside these document boxes.

Small and medium-sized items are kept in cabinet drawers. 
Here you see a collection of medicine bottles which were part of a Confederate
drug kit.  Notice that each bottle has its own padded compartment in the drawer,
which prevents damage to them when the drawer is opened and closed.

Large items can be stored on open shelves. 
This is a wooden medical chest which contained drugs and
hospital supplies and was used by the U.S. Hospital Department
during the Civil War. 

Very large items, like this Civil War dentist’s chair, must simply be stored
on the floor of the collection room.  
This dentist’s chair has an adjustable headrest and seat, and it reclines.  The
octagonal wooden tray on the left arm held the dental instruments, and it can
be swiveled to various positions.  The metal ring attached to the right arm
would have held a spittoon.  Even then, dental patients had to rinse and spit!

     I hope you enjoyed your photo tour of the collection room.  If you’re like me, you’ve spotted quite a few interesting artifacts along the way.  That’s the best part of touring any collection room!  We’ll have to come back another time for a closer look at some of them.  

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.