Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Day in the Life of a Curator

     I really hesitate to call this a typical day, as I never really know what’s going to happen!  But, here’s a look at a somewhat typical work day:

8:30 – 9:30 am  Arrive at museum, check my email and voice mail, make my “To Do” list for the day, and start answering emails.  Some of the emails I’ve received are intern requests, a loan request for surgical items, thanks for information I provided, a request for information about unusual artifacts which could be featured in a magazine article, a request for items relating to women in the Civil War, a request for photos of Civil War chamber pots, and notification that I “won” an auction for a hospital muster roll.

This muster roll caught my eye because it is signed by Surgeon B. (Benjamin) Rohrer.  The museum has other items which belonged to Surgeon Rohrer.  It was also of interest because it lists soldiers who were working in the hospital as nurses and a cook.  It was not unusual for patients who were fit for light duty, but not quite ready to return to their units, to be assigned duties in the hospital.

Of course I also got a chuckle over that other signature at the bottom of the document!  A little research turned up the fact that James Thompson Kirk enlisted as a Captain in the PA 39th Infantry in June of 1861.  So, at one point during the Civil War there was actually a Captain James T. Kirk!

9:30 – 10:00 am  Walk through the galleries to ensure that the museum is ready to open.  The artifacts, display cases, and lights are all fine today, but I do have to restart the sound system for the Field Dressing Station.  At least that’s an easy fix! 

10:00 – 11:30 am  Check the museum’s Facebook page for any questions directed to me.  Have a quick meeting with Deputy Director about the possibility of getting an ambulance wagon out at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum.  Enlist the help of a coworker to assist in removing two old panels in the museum’s store, and replacing them with a new panel.  I hung it level with the ceiling, but then discovered that the wall wasn’t square, so the panel appeared to be crooked.  I adjusted it so that it looked straight.

Here’s the new panel in our store, a reproduction of Winslow Homer’s painting, “Playing Old Soldier.” For those unfamiliar with the term, the painting’s title refers to soldiers who would pretend to be sick to get out of duty, or in the hope of obtaining “medicinal” alcohol.

11:30 – 12:00 pm  Receive delivery of a group of artifacts which had been out on loan to the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, Maryland.  I get the loan papers signed and check the condition of the artifacts.  Then of course, I show off the “new” Clara Barton artifacts!  Afterwards I file the loan papers and update the loan information in the data base.

12:00 – 12:30 pm  Lunch time!  I’m eating at my desk today since most of my coworkers are out at other locations.  I put in a call about the broken thermostat for my office.  I take two phone calls – one asking for sources of reproduction surgical kits and the other inquiring if we have an interest in an antique doctor’s buggy.  I think tomorrow I will go to the lunch room instead of staying at my desk!

12:30 – 1:30 pm  Get a call to go downstairs for a donation of two reproduction canteens.  Finally start researching topics from this morning’s emails and finding the requested photographs. Answer more emails.

Though these are reproductions, they will be useful in the museum’s displays!

1:30 – 2:30 pm  Catalog some new artifacts and enter the information on the data base.  Check snail mail.  Throw out the ads, record and file the loan renewal papers that arrived, and put the questionnaire from the Museum Studies student in my “To Do” pile.

2:30 – 3:00 pm  Take two quilts from the quarantine cabinet to the collection room for storage.  Wrap each quilt in acid-free tissue paper, roll them up, and attach labels.  Record the cabinet and shelf numbers for each quilt to put on the data base.  Vacuum the collection room, and make a quick check of the items in the room.

Here is one of the Civil War era quilts that was recently donated.  Though we didn't get the name of the quilter, we do know that it came from North Carolina.

3:00 – 3:30 pm  Take four books in need of repairs to the conservation room, and make minor repairs. Take note of supplies which need to be reordered.

3:30 – 4:30 pm  Photograph artifacts which were cataloged earlier.  Load photos onto computer, crop and label them.  Run the back-up for the data base.

4:30 – 5:00 pm  Place order for supplies.  Complete the questionnaire I received in the mail, and answer a couple of new emails.  Work on writing my blog post and finding photos to add. 

5:00 – 5:30 pm  It’s my turn to close the museum, so I go back through the galleries, check the artifacts, make certain everyone has exited the building, turn off lights, fans, and monitors, pick up dropped admission tags, and lock the doors.  On the way out, I turn on the alarm and double-check that the exterior doors are locked.

     That wasn’t so bad.  I’ll have to do this sort of post another time on a more hectic day!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office

     The National Museum of Civil War Medicine is about to gain another satellite location, the Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office, which will be located in Washington D.C.  This means I will be responsible for the artifacts at three different sites.  Overall, it’s an exciting prospect though! 

     You may recall that Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross after the Civil War.  During the Civil War she was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” in recognition of her care of the wounded soldiers and her work in getting much-needed medical supplies to the battlefields.  In 1865, she started the Missing Soldiers Office from her room in a boarding house on 7th St. in Washington D.C., and she responded to over 63,000 letters with inquiries about missing soldiers.  By 1867 she had discovered the fates of over 22,000 men. 

This is the exterior of the building which housed Clara Barton and her Missing Soldiers Office.  You can see the windows to her rooms on the third floor. 

     By 1996, the building had been abandoned for many years, and was about to be demolished.  The building is owned by the General Services Administration, and Richard Lyons, a GSA employee, happened to check the attic of the building.  He discovered several boxes of items which belonged to Clara Barton.  The plans for demolition were cancelled, and the GSA eventually approached the NMCWM to manage Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office.  The agreement was approved recently, and everyone is eager to move forward.  The Clara Barton site will not be open to the public until sometime next year though, since there is quite a bit of work still to do!

Here’s one end of the room. You can see the wood floor, the horsehair plaster on the upper portion of the wall, the wallpaper on the lower portion of the wall, and the holes for the stove pipes.

     Last Friday, several of us from the GSA and the NMCWM took time to clean up the space a little.  It has many years’ of accumulated dust and dirt and it needs some repairs, but it appears pretty much as Clara left it. 

This was her door – number 9. So, now I can say that I have touched the same doorknob as Clara Barton! None of the other doors on the hall have mail slots. She had the mail slot you see in the photo cut into the door because she was receiving so many letters inquiring about missing soldiers.

     The space will be restored by professionals.  We were just there to clean up enough for a crew from C-Span to come in and film it on Monday.

The cameraman for C-Span is up on the ladder filming the attic where the artifacts were found. NMCWM volunteer, Audrey Scanlan-Teller, holds the other ladder. The large windows face out over 7th Street. You can see how much work still needs to be done!
     So, although the Clara Barton artifacts are owned by GSA, I will be responsible for the care of the ones which will be on display.  We plan on displaying a few here at the NMCWM in the near future.  Of course, most of them will be displayed at the new Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office.  In the meantime, I need to assess which ones are stable enough to display and which ones need conservation work done.

Here is Clara’s original tin sign for her Missing Soldiers Office, painted in black and gold. It is currently being stored inside an acid-free box padded with ethafoam and acid-free tissue paper.  There are some scratches to the paint, but otherwise the sign is in good condition.

     I’m not going to show too many of the artifacts yet; I do want people to come visit the museum when it opens!  I’m sure I’ll be giving you some sneak peeks at the work as it progresses though.
You can see more information about Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office here:

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What is a museum anyway?

According to
mu·se·um /myo͞oˈzēəm/
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A building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited.

     This is probably similar to the response most people would give to the question, “What is a museum?”  I am disappointed that this definition seems to focus on the museum as a building though.  I won’t argue that a building is generally necessary, but isn’t it the collection of artifacts which is the focus of most museums?  After all, the collection can be housed in any appropriate building, but if there are no items to study or display it’s not much of a museum.  You’d just have an empty building with the word “Museum” over the front door!

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While we are on the subject of museum buildings, here is the front of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine building. This building has existed since before the Civil War, and it has quite an interesting history of its own. I’ll have to do a post on that another time!

     In my first Museum Studies class we discussed the characteristics of a museum.  The definition of a museum from our textbook, A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections, by Marie C. Malero, was “a public or private nonprofit agency or institution organized on a permanent basis for essentially educational or aesthetic purposes which, utilizing a professional staff, owns or utilizes tangible objects, cares for them, and exhibits them to the public on a regular basis.”

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Here’s the textbook, which is also sometimes referred to as the “bible of collection management.” This one did not get sold when I finished my classes!

     This definition is a bit longer but is also more accurate!  In this one, a museum is an institution or agency, not just a building.  This one also focuses more on the care and educational value of the objects in the collection, and their role in being exhibited to the public.  But let’s get one more perspective.

     According to the American Association of Museums, the common denominator of museums is their "unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world."  This description and the previous definition go beyond a museum merely being a building with items on exhibit.  They also acknowledge caring for, preserving, and interpreting the artifacts for the public.  I particularly like the phrase in the AAMs description, “unique contribution to the public” because it recognizes the PURPOSE in collecting and caring for the artifacts.  Museums exist for the benefit of the public, in preserving and protecting its collection of artifacts.  

     So, now you may be wondering where I am going with this.  (Uh oh, she’s getting up on that soap box again….)  It seems that sometimes people lose sight of the purpose of museums or of the collections in museums, especially when the economy is on a downturn and the museum’s budget may be tight.  The collection then sometimes starts being regarded, not as items which the museum has been entrusted to protect and preserve, but as items which can make money for the museum.

     Perhaps you’ve noticed articles online or in the newspaper about museums which are considering selling items from their collections in order to fund new projects, or even to just pay their operating costs?  If you haven’t, simply do an online search of “museums selling artifacts” and see what you find.  It’s a bit of a hot topic in the museum world right now.  There are people on both sides of the issue, some saying that collections should never be sold to pay the museum’s bills, and others pointing out that if the museum closes, the collection can’t benefit anyone.  So the debate becomes, do you protect the collection at the expense of other areas of the museum, or even given the possibility of the museum closing, or do you sacrifice some of the artifacts for the good of the museum and its remaining artifacts? 

     For me, it all goes back to the museum’s purpose.  If the purpose of a museum is to preserve and protect the artifacts for the public and for future generations, it seems pretty clear that the collection of artifacts is what should be preserved.  I’m sure there are people who disagree with me, but they are certainly free to start their own blogs! 

     Besides, it can also be argued that the collection DOES bring in money, even though it may not look like it on paper.  Admittedly, the Collections Department generally spends more money than it generates – at least directly.  Building and maintaining exhibits, and storing and caring for artifacts all cost money.  But if you consider that the museum visitors are paying to come see the artifacts on display, the collection certainly does play a big part in the museum’s bottom line! 

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Most museums have a gift shop (another source of income), and the NMCWM is no exception!

     Thank you for indulging me in this little rant!  And please don’t forget to help support your local museum(s) by stopping in for a visit. 

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Mystery Saw

      This mystery artifact is different from the ones in previous posts because it is a mystery to me as well!  The saw in the photo was donated to the museum a few years ago.  The donor said it was a “cranium saw” and that the unusual blade was designed to cut through the skull.  None of us at the museum had ever seen anything quite like it though! 

Here’s my mystery saw. It has a steel blade and wooden “fishtail” handle. There are no markings on it to indicate a maker.   And look at that large, thick back!

     The saw does appear to be from the Civil War period.  The handle and blade shape are consistent with the capital saws of the time.  The thick back and the extremely short depth of the cutting surface are unusual though.  So, I set out to do some research.

Here you can see the handle of the mystery saw more closely.

This capital saw with a somewhat similar handle and blade shape belonged to Jeremiah E. Holmes, Acting Assistant Surgeon U.S.A (1864-1865).  The thinner reinforced back on this blade is more typical of a Civil War capital saw.

Here’s a pre-war capital saw with a very similar fishtail design handle.

     I looked through quite a few books and catalogs.  I checked some online sources.  I even checked out woodworking saws, as it is somewhat similar to a dovetail saw.  It does appear to be some sort of medical saw at least, but that’s as far as I got.  It didn’t match anything I found.  So, I started making inquiries at other museums.  It stumped everyone!  So far, the most reasonable conclusion has come from the folks at the Mutter Museum, who said it looked like some sort of autopsy saw.

A close-up of the blade. This saw is designed to cut only 3/8” deep. The very thick back also makes the blade very rigid.

     It is possible that this saw was made to order for someone, and that it doesn’t really have a name.  I don’t like unsolved puzzles though, so I keep looking and asking.  Maybe someday I’ll get my answer.  Or maybe it will always be the mystery saw.

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Filming a TV Segment – It’s Not What You Think!

     Occasionally my duties involve assisting film crews who tape segments which include the museum’s artifacts.  My main responsibility in these, of course, is assuring the safety of the artifacts.  If the filming is at our museum, I can generally transport the artifacts on my cart to the area where they will be filmed.  If the filming is at another location, I must carefully pack and transport the artifacts.  Once on site, I must ensure that the artifacts will be secure from damage or theft.  I also make sure that the proper gloves are supplied and used.  On occasion, I have to remind someone, “Don’t touch that!”  If the filming is outdoors, I have to be aware of the weather conditions as well.  I once had to object to a shoot on a battlefield in the rain!  Luckily I was able to suggest a nearby indoor area for the segment involving the artifacts. 

This photo has been requested for use several times. It is an image of Confederate troops marching through city of Frederick in 1862, very near where the NMCWM is currently located.

     Being part of filming a television segment can actually be a bit tedious.  Everything takes longer than projected.  Just setting up the lights and cameras for one segment can take an hour, and that’s after the crew has taken time to decide on the location.  Segments are taped, and re-taped, and taped yet again to ensure they will have enough good footage to use.  Interviews are broken into short segments, and there is usually much discussion and adjusting of lights and sound equipment between segments.  Most importantly, when the command “Rolling!” is heard, all motion not in front of the camera stops.  If you make a noise, even just by fidgeting slightly in your chair, you WILL be yelled at!  So, my role in the shoot generally involves monitoring the artifacts, and a lot of just sitting very still.        

Here is a Miraculous Medal which was found in a grave on the Antietam Battlefield. Its presence there helped to identify the soldier as a member of the Irish Brigade. I took this out for a film shoot by an Irish crew for a show about the Irish Brigade, which was aired here in the U.S. on St. Patrick's Day!

     This week a crew from the History Channel came in to shoot several segments here at the museum for one show in their series, Collecting Americana.  I did my usual work in setting up the artifacts, but this time I was also interviewed for one segment.  That is quite an involved process which includes wearing the right color clothes, standing at exactly the right mark, having the sound man thread cords down your shirt, standing still and not moving your hands while you talk, NOT looking at the camera or anyone who is moving around in the background, remembering to restate the question asked before you launch into your answer, remembering to pause after every sentence or two, and still trying to sound intelligent.  Unfortunately, my nerves got the better of me and I’m not so sure I succeeded at that last one. 

Here I am with the founder of our museum, Dr. Gordon Dammann, with the artifacts which will be discussed in his segment. I am much happier working here than in front of the camera!

     The camera man did try to reassure me that the editors can work wonders by taking out the parts that aren’t so great.  I’m pretty sure, though, that he was thinking, “Don’t quit your day job!”  It sounds like good advice to me!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.