Thursday, July 26, 2012

What Happens When an Artifact is Donated?

     Did you ever wonder what happens to an artifact when it is donated to a museum?  Who decides if the artifact belongs in the museum’s permanent collection?  What happens if the museum can’t use that artifact?

     Most museums have a mission statement which states the museum’s goals in collecting.  They can be a bit subjective though, so usually donated artifacts must be approved by the museum’s Board of Directors.  In the case of my museum, donated artifacts are first considered by the Accession Committee.  They consider whether the artifacts fall within the museum’s mission statement, whether the artifacts can be suitably cared for by the museum, and whether the artifacts would duplicate items already in the collection.  The committee’s recommendations are then sent to the Board for approval. 
     Let’s follow a few donated items through the process to see what happens to them.  We’ll look at a medical field case, a brass suppository mold (which you may recognize from an earlier post!), and a clay ink well, which were all donated in the past several months.  See if you can predict whether these items will be accepted for the collection.

This is a leather U.S. Army Surgeon’s Field Case, sometimes called a Surgeon’s Companion. This case was designed to carry small bottles of medicine and some basic medical supplies onto the battlefield. It had two straps and was designed to be suspended by a shoulder strap while being supported by a waist strap. The surgeon could carry this case, but usually it was carried by the person assisting the surgeon. In this instance, it was a hospital steward.

The case contains a label which lists the contents. The bottom line states that the whiskey contained in one of the tins could be discolored by the metal, but that it did not affect the medicinal qualities. Based on some of the accounts I’ve read, if the soldiers were offered whiskey, I don’t think they were too concerned about any color change!

In this photo, you can see the “US” embossed on one of the medicine containers from the field case.

This is a photo of the owner of the field case, Hospital Steward Jacob Tomer, 3rd PA Cavalry. It is always more exciting to have an artifact with an identified owner!

     As you might expect, it all starts with paperwork!  The artifact donor signs a Deed of Gift which transfers ownership of the artifact to the museum.  In return, they receive a letter thanking them for their gift and acknowledging it for tax purposes (artifact donations for the museum collection are tax deductible!).  I then start a file for the item, and enter it on the museum’s data base as a “Temporary Custody”.  If there is any information about the past owners of an artifact, as with the Hospital Steward listed above, I pass that along to our Researcher.  She searches for any additional information which we add to our files.

Here is the brass suppository mold again. Though it is similar to molds from the Civil War, it was eventually determined that this particular mold was from after the Civil War.

     Each artifact is examined carefully, assigned a number, photographed, measured, tagged, and put into the quarantine area.  If it is here for more than a month without any signs of pests or other issues, it can be moved into a temporary storage area in the collection room.   

This is a Civil War era glazed clay ink well which was donated as part of a collection of Civil War medical items. Though it may not appear to be medically relevant at first, consider that the surgeons and care-givers had to fill out paperwork relating to the wounded soldiers.

     The Accession Committee is made up of four members of the museum’s Board of Directors and me.  We meet once a year to vote on the artifacts donated since the previous meeting.  In most cases it is a pretty obvious decision, but we do have discussions about some items.  If an item is in poor condition, we must determine if we want to take on the responsibility of preserving it.  If we have duplicate items in the collection, we discuss if the proposed artifact is unique in any way and if it would enhance the collection.  Sometimes there are questions about the relevance to the museum’s mission which must be resolved.  Also, on occasion we will accept items which are part of a collection, for example a collection of a Civil War Surgeon’s personal items.  Some of these items might not normally be accepted individually, but have relevance as a part of the collection.   

     The committee also makes recommendations regarding the artifacts which are not accepted into our collection.  Items may be returned to their donor, transferred to the museum’s Education Department for use in their outreach programs, used as props in the exhibits, given or traded to other museums, or sold to benefit the museum.   

     So, what do you think happened to the items listed above?  It’s probably no surprise that a medical field case which is identified to a Hospital Steward is definitely relevant to a museum focusing on Civil War medicine!  It was very happily accepted for accession into the collection.  The suppository mold was rejected because it was post-war, and it was given to the museum’s Education Department.  The clay ink well caused a little more discussion.  Though it was relevant, it was a duplicate of one we have in the collection.  It was not unique in any way, and it was decided that we were unlikely to need it for display.  It will be offered to another museum.

     Now I start the process of changing the status of the artifacts which were accepted from “Temporary Custody” to “Accessioned” on the data base.  I will also label them and find storage spaces for them in the collection room.  I will save the details of that process for another post though!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine

Thursday, July 19, 2012

An Army Surgeon's Tent

     People often ask me what the most unique artifact in the museum is.  I have to admit that it is difficult to name just one item!  One that always makes it on my list seems to surprise people at first though.  It’s a tent.  A tent just doesn’t seem very unique…. until you learn its story.

This wall tent is the only known surviving example of a Civil War Surgeon’s tent. It is made of army duck and measures 13 ft. high, 9 ft. wide, and 13 ft. long.

     Not only is this the only known Civil War surgeon's tent, it is identified to the specific surgeon!  The tent in the photo above belonged to Surgeon John Wiley of the 6th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry.  The 6th took part in many major battles including the Peninsula Campaign, Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.  More information on the 6th Regiment can be found here.

Here's a photo of Dr. Wiley in his uniform.

     Surgeon Wiley used this tent from 1862 to 1864.  After his discharge, he took it home with him to Cape May, NJ, where it stayed in his family for many years.  It was acquired by a collector in 1988.  After he had displayed it at various Civil War events, he loaned it and other artifacts of Wiley’s to the NMCWM.  They are currently on display in the Camp Life gallery.

The additional artifacts which belonged to Surgeon Wiley were placed in a separate display. Seen here are a mahogany writing box containing pens, a pen case, and an ink well; images of Surgeon Wiley in his uniform, and of his wife and daughter; a Geo. Tiemann & Co. leather pocket surgical kit, a book titled Handbook of Surgical Operations which is signed by Wiley; and my favorite, a tintype of Surgeon Wiley’s horse. I imagine it must have been an exceptional horse to have its own picture!

     Displaying an artifact of this size can be a bit of a challenge.  The tent is displayed in one of the museum’s immersion exhibits, so it is not enclosed in a display case.  Instead, it is placed behind physical barriers to keep visitors more than an arm’s length away from it.  Further protection is provided by a motion sensor, a video camera, and the museum’s alarm system.   The tent is also supported on a wooden frame covered in unbleached muslin cloth, which helps to distribute the weight of the tent more evenly.  Of course, the gallery is climate controlled, the light levels are controlled, and I monitor carefully for other potential hazards.

Here you can see the frame which supports the tent.

These are the original poles for the tent. We do not use these in the display, because they would stretch the tent too tightly and cause the fabric to distort or tear. Even though the tent pole in the display is a reproduction, I think we’ve made a wise compromise in order to best protect the tent while it is on display.

     Dr. Wiley’s tent may not be as unique as some of the surgical instruments in the museum, but given its history it certainly deserves its place on my list.

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine

Wiley artifacts are from the collection of Gordon Dammann, D.D.S.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Busman's Holiday

     I went on vacation with my family to Philadelphia for a few days last week, and what did I do?  I visited museums!  Although I love going to museums, I always feel like I need to go through them twice.  I need one trip through to view the museum as a regular visitor, and another trip to look for different display methods, mounts, lighting, monitoring devices, and labels.  I'm always looking for new ideas!
     Since we were in Philadelphia during the week of July 4th, we had to visit Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were adopted.  The Liberty Bell once hung in its bell tower, but now it has its own display in a building across the street.  I was glad that building had glass walls so I could get a glimpse of the Liberty Bell.  The line to get inside was always very long!

While I protect the artifacts inside my museum building, dealing with an historic building presents additional issues. The building itself needs protection from the elements and the constant stream of visitors. Note the barriers along the street, which keep both pedestrians and traffic away from the building. There were security guards posted near the building as well, to keep people on the correct side of the fence!

Here’s a view of the interior of Independence Hall.  The large windows are good for letting in lots of natural light. While this is good in order to view the museum, it is not so good for the wood and paint of the interior. I would strongly suspect that these windows are equipped with UV-filtering films, which block most of the ultraviolet radiation that can cause damage.  

     We also stopped at the Free Quaker Meeting House and saw a Living History performance by a gentleman portraying a Free Quaker of the period.  We learned that Betsy Ross had attended meetings there!  We visited the Betsy Ross House as well.  It was very interesting and informative, but photography was not allowed.  It is understandable though.  The light from hundreds of visitors taking photographs using a flash can cause damage to artifacts. 

I had to chuckle at this sign on the door of the Free Quaker Meeting House! Old buildings can present challenges such as this.


     While we were walking through the Historic District, we happened upon the National Liberty Museum and decided to take a look inside.  It is a unique blend of the concepts of liberty and heroes, along with history and art.  There are some amazing pieces of glass artwork on display, as well as a 9/11 flag signed by some of the first responders, and a recreation of the attic where Anne Frank was hidden.  I was surprised to see that some of the artwork was not behind glass or any other protective barrier.  I suppose some of it is meant to be touched by the visitors, but that’s a concept that makes me a little nervous in my museum!

The National Liberty Museum knows how to make an entrance! This is the first piece you see when starting your tour, and it definitely makes you want to see more of the museum.

I like the way they use mirrors in this display, so that visitors can see the entire object. It does make photographing it a little tricky though!

     My favorite visit was to The Mütter Museum, where we were treated to a tour by the museum’s Director, Dr. Robert Hicks.  The Mütter is a medical museum which is probably best known for its collection of medical oddities.  On display were many skeletons, pathological samples (including a giant colon), some very realistic wax models of various diseases, samples of items people have swallowed (lots of safety pins!), a corpse called the Soap Lady, a cast of the original Siamese twins Chang and Eng, and antique medical instruments.  Dr. Hicks and the museum’s Curator Anna Dhody also showed us some of the interesting sights behind the scenes in the library, the collection room, the wet room where samples preserved in various fluid-filled jars are stored, and the bone room which obviously houses bones and skeletons!  As with several of the museums we toured, photography was not allowed inside the museum.  Fortunately, you can take a peek at part of their collection here:  Mutter Museum video 

I was at least able to take a picture of the entryway!

     Outside the Mütter Museum is a Medicinal Plant Garden, which features plants that can be used for various medicinal purposes.  I enjoyed comparing it to the medicinal garden out at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum.  I think I may have a couple of ideas to pass along to its gardener!

One plant featured in the garden is Stachys lanata, which is also known as Woolly Betony or Lamb’s Ears. The leaves are very soft and can be used as bandages.

The garden was a peaceful, pretty spot to relax for a while.


     While I would recommend visits to any of the museums I have mentioned here, you don’t have to travel to Philadelphia to enjoy a museum visit.  If you can’t travel far, I encourage you to visit and support any nearby museums.  You will probably be pleasantly surprised at what you can find in your local area.

Photos courtesy of Lori Eggleston