Thursday, April 19, 2012

Things I Have Learned the Hard Way

     There is only so much one can learn from reading books and taking classes.  Inevitably, some things must be learned through experience.  And though these aren’t generally my favorite lessons, I will admit that they tend to stick with me!  So, please don’t laugh too loudly as I share a few of my museum-related lessons learned the hard way.

     Let’s start with the most obvious one, It’s not a loan until the papers are signed.  Yes, I admit that I should have known better, but I was new to the job and the item to be loaned to us was a pretty exciting prospect.  The potential lender seemed very excited to have his artifact on display at the museum too.  So, being a new and very eager collection & exhibit manager, I started the process of emptying and moving a large display case that was going to be used for this artifact.  My first clue that things were going wrong was when the lender called and asked if instead of placing his item on display, he could bring it to the museum and do a program about it one weekend.  Despite my efforts at talking him back into the loan, he decided he was not ready to part with his artifact even temporarily, and I had to explain to my boss what had happened.

This is the case which was going to be moved. We recovered from our disappointment quickly and are now using it to display artifacts associated with naval surgeons. Displayed here are a naval surgeon’s frock coat, dress sword and belt, and personal effects trunk, as well as a large iron mortar and pestle which were used on the hospital ship “USS Red Rover”.

     Then there’s the old adage, Use it or lose it.  In this case, it refers to space in the museum.  If you are not constantly using a space, it will be taken over for storage.  I used to have a conservation room where I could work on the artifacts and store my conservation supplies.  I did use it, but I was not in it on a daily basis.  Now it has been taken over to store empty filing cabinets and emergency supplies.  I’m still contemplating if the lesson here was in using the space more often, in letting people see me use the space more, or in requesting a door that locked!

     A lesson for which I seem to need occasional refresher courses is, Stop trying to be Superwoman and ask for help when needed!  I’ve already mentioned the incident in which I was attempting to change a light bulb and the ladder slipped.  I did learn to ask someone to hold the ladder for those hard to reach bulbs!  But, asking for help is still not my first inclination, and so there was also the Plexiglas incident.  It happened a few years back while I was taking the artifacts out of the Pry House Field Hospital and Museum for the winter.  I DID ask for help in removing a medium-sized Plexiglas top from a display case.  It took a few minutes for me to remove and pack the artifacts, but when I was done my helper was no longer in sight.  I hesitated for a moment, but then reasoned that the top wasn’t really that heavy and that my coworker was busy elsewhere.  The top was a bit awkward to pick up, but not too heavy to handle.  I had taken about two steps toward the display case with it when I heard a cracking sound, and found myself holding an irregularly-shaped piece of the former case top.  It was not my finest moment, and once again I had to tell my boss what had happened.  I was relieved to find that he was pretty understanding about it.  It seemed he’d had a run-in or two with Plexiglas as well!

We had the top of this case repaired before the artifacts were moved back to the Pry House that spring. And now I always get someone to help me move it!
The artifacts in this case all belonged to Assistant Surgeon Anson Hurd, 20th Indiana Infantry, who was in the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. The items in this case include a photograph of Hurd in his surgeon’s uniform, a photograph of him among the tents of a field hospital, his green medical officer’s sash, a pair of shoulder straps dated 1861, a G.A.R. medal and ribbon, and a nameplate reading “Dr. A. Hurd”.

     And finally there’s, Expect the unexpected.  This is a broad category which covers things like finding leaks in the galleries, receiving strange requests (photos of all our chamber pots for a children’s book!), experiencing an earthquake, seeing a mannequin move (coworker playing a prank), discovering an insect infestation, dealing with unexpected visitors or surprise donations, and discovering any number of malfunctioning items (exhibit case doors, sound systems, alarm system, air conditioning, etc.)  While you can’t always anticipate everything that will happen, it’s best to be flexible and to be prepared for a wide range of possibilities.

Speaking of unexpected things, this is what I saw upon arriving at the museum one morning. Our director had loaned one of our mannequin heads to the local police department for some ballistics testing. This was how he chose to return it! 
If you are curious, the article about the testing done on it is here

     It seems there are always lessons to be learned.  I suppose the goal is to keep learning new lessons and not to keep repeating the old ones!

 Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

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