Thursday, February 23, 2012

Walking in the Front Door

     I mentioned in a previous post that one way artifacts arrive at the museum is by "walking in the front door" meaning that someone brings them in to me unexpectedly.  I honestly never know what I’m going to find when I get the call to come downstairs and look at an artifact.  They run the gamut from really wonderful artifacts, to more common but still desirable artifacts, to reproduction or post-war items, and occasionally some strange, random items! 
Here’s a nice ambrotype of Civil War Surgeon, Isaac F. Kay, First Lieutenant, Company K, 110th Pa. Infantry. It was donated by a descendant, who also donated several other items of Dr. Kay’s. These are the kind of “walk-ins” we like to get!
Though the case looks a little rough, we were still happy to accept this cupping kit. One of the first things I did was to carefully remove that masking tape!
Here is one of the glass cups that was in the case. This would have been heated and placed on the patient’s skin, which would then raise a blister. Some doctors believed that cupping or blistering was a way to rid the body of “bad humors.” 

     Not everything which is brought in to the museum is accepted for our collection.  Sometimes I have to break the news to people that the Civil War artifact they’ve brought to me is not what they thought.  I recall one gentleman who brought in what he insisted was a Civil War canteen that had been in his attic for many years.  It did not look at all like a period canteen, but he was adamant that he’d been told it was from the Civil War.  After unsuccessfully trying to convince him otherwise, I finally pulled the canteen out of its cover and turned it over to reveal that it was stamped “Japan” on the bottom!
Not a Civil War canteen!

     We also occasionally have items dumped at the museum by well-meaning people.  What they probably don’t realize is that without the proper transfer of ownership (i.e. signed papers), it is difficult for us to use the items or even to discard them.  Though I heartily encourage the donation of historic items to museums, if you want to donate an item to a museum, be sure the museum can use the item, and please sign the Deed of Gift.  Thank you (stepping down off my soapbox now)! 

     In other museum news, I probably should mention that my title has changed.  I am now the Curator at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.  However, since I am still the only member of the Collection Department, I will still be functioning as the Guardian of the Artifacts!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

You Have to Have a Sense of Humor!

     Every morning before the museum opens, I walk through the galleries to check on the artifacts and to ensure that the exhibits are ready for our visitors.  I never know what I am going to find.  Most times all is well, sometimes there are issues I have to address, and sometimes I find little “surprises” left by the visitors!  This morning I took along my camera to document a typical walk-through.

Here's where I start, at the entrance to the exhibits on the second floor of the museum. The lights are on already, but I still need to turn on the monitor for our Faces of Civil War Medicine, and sound system.

A couple of times a week I also duck into our conference room and check on the flags that fly from the second floor windows. If they are tangled, I lean out the window and straighten them. Our Deputy Director refers to this as “Doing a Barbara Fritchie impression!”

This is one of our interactive displays, which allows visitors to identify various bones. I make sure everything is in its proper place. I also have to keep an eye on the (nonfunctional) light fixture above it. Every once in a while someone decides to turn it upside down.

 Of course, I check all the artifacts in the exhibits. This one in our Recruitment gallery contains a bass drum and bugle. Regimental bands were sometimes used to "drum up" recruitment. 

I also check the sound stations in the galleries, and change the batteries as needed. This one is for the “Sick Call” display in our Camp Life gallery.  The doctor here is heard ordering treatments of arsenic and the “blue pill”, which contained mercury, for the soldiers.

If I am going to find anything out of place, it is usually here in our Ambulance Evacuation gallery. People love to put on the wounded soldier’s (reproduction) kepi. It makes for some interesting footage on our security tapes! We have taken notice of this though, and are currently discussing a possible new interactive display in which visitors could try on various pieces of a soldier’s uniform.

     That concludes the walk-through of the second floor, next we go downstairs to the first floor of the museum.

This display is a recreation of a Field Dressing Station on the Gettysburg Battlefield. Notice the reproduction of a medical knapsack. Visitors sometimes leave more modern medicines in the empty slots – I’ve found travel-sized bottles of over-the-counter pain relievers and even packets of Mylanta inside!

Drat! I couldn’t get through this walk-through without spotting a burned out light bulb. I’ll have to change that before the museum opens.

A few people like to pull back the sheet on the “corpse” in our embalming display. Sometimes I am tempted to put a real person there instead, who could open their eyes and say something when the sheet was moved!

Here is part of our final exhibit which shows how modern medicine has been influenced by Civil War medicine. Pictured here is Sam (Soldier At Museum), a more modern Combat Medic than the one shown on the Gettysburg Battlefield. I have to secure the various pockets and pouches on his uniform fairly regularly. People seem to be curious as to whether the actual medical gear is stored there. I imagine they feel pretty sheepish when they discover blocks of wood!

     That concludes today’s walk-through of the museum.  We’re all ready for visitors now.  I hope that their surprises are in what they learn here!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Look at Displays

     Normally my role in creating the exhibits focuses more on the specific artifacts involved – if they are suitable to exhibit, if they require any conservation done, if they require any special environmental conditions, and if the mounts used are appropriate for them.  I do get to create some small displays though.  One display I do on a regular basis is located at Fort Detrick, which is not far from the museum.  A theme for the display is suggested to me, then I have to find items which fit the theme, are available, and which will fit into the display case.  Sometimes a little research into the artifacts is required, then labels have to be printed, and mounts or supports located or made for the artifacts.

This display was on Soldier Care (click on the photo to enlarge). Starting on the left there is a wooden ankle splint, a wooden stethoscope, a piece of canvas from a Confederate hospital tent at Gettysburg, an illustration of a Civil War hospital tent, a reproduction bandage roll, a small wooden box which carried the personal medical supplies of a soldier, and an illustration of a Civil War ambulance wagon.  I should add that I took the photo before I secured the top back on the case - the artifacts are not left out in the open!

     Since the display space is limited I generally use a mixture of smaller artifacts and photographs of larger items.  This also makes it easier for me to transport the artifacts, since they generally fit into one or two boxes.  I do have to be careful about the types of boxes I use.  Of course they are always acid free and have reinforced corners, and the lids are always tied on to prevent accidents.  Last time I was delivering artifacts though, I discovered an issue I hadn’t previously considered.  I had all the artifacts packed into one large, shallow, rectangular box.  As I carried it toward the building, I noticed a young soldier who was watching and grinning broadly.  I thought that perhaps he’d heard there were new artifacts coming in and he wanted to see them first.  However, as I came closer to him he asked excitedly, “Are we getting cake?”  It hadn’t occurred to me before, but it did look quite a bit like a cake box!  I felt a little bad for getting his hopes up, but it certainly wasn’t intentional!

This is the current display.  It shows some Civil War medicines which are not used today or are not used for the same purposes.
     Let’s take a closer look at the current display.  At the far left is a medicine bottle which contained lead acetate, also called sugar of lead.  Lead acetate was used in the Civil War as a pain reliever, to promote sleep, to quiet coughs, to reduce spasms from tetanus and colic, and as a gargle for throat lesions.  As with other lead compounds, it is toxic, and it is no longer in use.   

     Next is a prescription for opium.  Opium was used in the Civil War in various forms to relieve pain, control diarrhea, and to alleviate spasms.  Although opium is still used today, it is certainly not used as a remedy for diarrhea!

     The small green bottle is Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup and behind it is a reproduction of a Mrs. Winslow’s bottle label.  This remedy, which contained 65 mg of morphine per fluid ounce, was used for a variety of complaints, but it was mainly marketed as an aid to relieve teething pain for babies.  Unfortunately, its “soothing” properties sometimes had fatal results in young children.  It was sold in the U.S. until the early 1900s.

     Sometimes doctors and soldiers used local plants which were thought to have medicinal properties.  Some were actually fairly effective.  In the center is a description of some herbal remedies used at the time, along with pictures of the plants.  Pictured in the display are ginger, hops, horseradish, mayapple, pomegranate, and sassafras.

     At the back of the display are a bottle of silver nitrate and a syringe.  Silver nitrate was used to treat sexually transmitted diseases, and the large syringe next to it was to inject it into the urethra.  (I know you guys are cringing now!)  Sexually transmitted diseases, mainly syphilis and gonorrhea, were common in both armies in the Civil War.  Rest, diet, and injections of various metal or mercury compounds were typical treatments.  None of these treatments are used today, as they are ineffective.

     The book on the right side of the display shows a diagram of an apparatus designed to produce mercurial vapor, to which a patient’s skin would be exposed.  The photograph next to it (see below) shows the unfortunate results of a patient treated with mercury.  During the Civil War, various mercury-based drugs were used as laxatives, to combat liver disease, typhoid fever, diarrhea, venereal disease, skin diseases, and more.  This is certainly another reason to be glad we live today and not back then!

In 1862, eighteen-year-old Union soldier Carlton Burgan was treated for pneumonia with a drug called calomel – a chloride of mercury. His upper maxilla bones, one eye, and part of his nose were destroyed by the resulting mercury poisoning. He eventually had surgery which partially repaired the damage. He married, had a large family, and lived to the age of 71.

     This display usually is changed every few months, so it’s nearly time for me to think about updating it.  Perhaps this time when I deliver the artifacts I should bring along a cake as well!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Doesn’t Every Museum Need a Mummy?

     The museum received a very interesting donation last week – the mummified forearm of a Civil War soldier!  I always ask for as much history as the donor can furnish for donated artifacts, and this fellow has quite a story!

This is how the arm arrived at the museum.  It was transported inside a wooden display case.  You can see that the arm fell off the supports while in transit.

     The arm was discovered on the Antietam Battlefield about three weeks after the battle, by a farmer who was plowing his field.  The farmer thought it would make a good souvenir, so he picked it up, took it home, and placed it in a container of brine solution.  Six months later he reportedly changed his mind about wanting to keep it.  I do wonder if perhaps his wife put her foot down and told him to “Get that thing out of my house!”  He gave it to the town’s doctor, who then put the arm in a formaldehyde solution.  So, after being subjected to the sun in the farm field, and then to the brine and formaldehyde soaks, the arm is pretty well preserved.
     After the doctor’s death, the arm was found in his attic, now simply wrapped in a piece of cloth.  There is a gap in the history here, but by the early 1960s the arm belonged to the owner of a small museum on the Battlefield.  It was displayed there for many years in a back room, and was billed as “The Arm of the Unknown Soldier.”  That museum eventually closed and the arm’s ownership passed to other people.  Fortunately, its previous owner decided to donate it to the NMCWM. 

Tom and Kyle were as eager to get a closer look at it as I was!

     It was also reported that the arm was once examined by a pathologist who stated that it had belonged to a 19-year-old male.  Unfortunately, that’s the only piece of identification we have for its original owner.  It is apparent though that the arm was blown off, not amputated.  I would imagine that the soldier did not survive.  It is a rather sobering thought, and one that I keep very much in mind when I am handling the arm.

Here you can clearly see that the arm was not amputated.

     When the arm was delivered, I was concerned to see that it was housed in a pine box, and that the interior of the glass cover showed signs of mildew in some spots.  The first order of business was to remove it from the case and rehouse it in something more suitable.  A polystyrene box with a lid was obtained for temporary use.  The plastic will not off-gas harmful compounds as pine wood can, and it provides protection from water damage as well.  The box was lined with polyethylene foam and acid-free tissue paper to further protect the arm.  I added some desiccant packets to the container as well, to keep the relative humidity lower which should help prevent the growth of mold or mildew. 

     Another factor to consider is that the arm itself may still contain harmful materials.  The “formaldehyde” used by the doctor was not the same compound we know today.  It probably contained arsenic or mercury, which were used in embalming at the time.  Until we can have it tested, it will not be handled without latex or nitrile gloves!   

     Eventually the arm will be put on display.  I’m sure that crafting a suitable display case for it will be the topic of a future post!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine