Thursday, August 30, 2012

Preparing for a Sesquicentennial

     If you are a Civil War buff, you probably already know that the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history, will be on September 17 of this year.  Since my museum’s satellite location, the Pry House Field Hospital Museum is located on the Antietam Battlefield and was General McClellan’s headquarters during the battle, and because Major Jonathan Letterman developed his Letterman Plan here, it is going to be a big event for the museum!  There will be Living History events held at the Pry House the weekend of the anniversary, a Soldier’s Fair, period music and other forms of entertainment, and a modern armored ambulance that will be on display next to a reproduction Civil War ambulance.  There will also be some special, temporary displays, and that’s my area!

      A few days ago I was at the Pry House to clear the props and artifacts out of the “Richardson Room” in preparation for a display of artifacts from the Roulette Farm. 
Here’s the Richardson room – named for General Israel Richardson who died here after being wounded at the Battle of Antietam. I will need to remove most of the items here to make room for the temporary display.

We do have a few Irish Brigade artifacts on display here already. These will stay in place since they relate to the new display.


     Do you ever tackle tasks which should be simple, but which turn more complicated?  That’s what happened here!  With Tom and Kyle’s help, I was able to get most of the artifacts moved into a safe storage area with no trouble.  However, when we started to take the bed apart we found a surprise waiting for us….
Loose packing peanuts had been used to simulate a mattress on the bed. This was definitely not my idea! I was very glad I had help to clean up this mess. If nothing else, it was a reminder that I have to be prepared for just about anything!

Does anyone need six bags of packing peanuts?!


     So, the room is now clear and ready for the new display to be set up this weekend.  I’ll post more about this display and other sesquicentennial activities over the next few weeks.


Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Handling Artifacts

     Usually the displays and storage areas of a museum are designed to prevent people from touching the artifacts.  This is for the safety of the artifacts and for our visitors.  There are times that artifacts must be handled though - displays are changed or artifacts need to be inspected, cleaned, conserved, or photographed.  So, how are the artifacts protected when they are handled?

     Here are some guidelines I keep in mind when handling and moving artifacts: 

Accidents can happen to even the most careful person – For obvious reasons this means no eating, drinking, chewing gum, or smoking near the artifacts.  For the same reason, if you need to fill out paperwork involved with the move, do not use ink pens or markers near artifacts. 

Know your artifact – Before moving any artifact, take a moment to inspect it and to note any areas of concern – broken or weak spots, lids which could fall off, drawers which could fall out, other contents which could fall out, etc.  Be sure the item is supported well when you pick it up; most times it is better to hold an item by the base and side rather than by a handle which could break.
It is good to take notice of things like this broken handle on the medical pannier before trying to lift it.

Faster is not better – Move slowly and deliberately when working with artifacts.  In my experience (and probably yours too), most accidents occur when you are distracted or trying to hurry.  Take your time! 

Plan your route - When moving artifacts, even if simply from a cabinet to a nearby work table, know where you are going beforehand, and have both the path and the destination cleared.  You do not want to trip over anything on the way, nor do you want to have to take a hand off the artifact in order to clear a place to put it down.

Cleanliness matters – Be sure your hands and clothing are clean and dry.  Dirt, oil, and moisture from your hands or clothes can be transferred to the artifact you are handling.  Also, wear gloves when appropriate.  My rule for gloves is to wear cotton gloves when handling textiles, wood, metal, leather, books, and photos.  I wear nitrile or latex gloves when handling any items which may contain hazardous materials, and for some glass items.  Glass, ceramics, and paper can generally be handled with clean, dry hands, but if gloves are needed for glass or ceramics I like the latex ones better because they provide a bit more grip.  It’s just too easy for glass to slip through those cotton gloves!
Here’s the museum’s director, George Wunderlich, wearing some white cotton gloves to handle some bone specimens. 

I chose to wear latex gloves when handling a mummified arm, since I didn’t know what chemicals had been used to preserve it. This protected me against any harmful materials in the arm and protected the arm from any dirt and oils on my hands.

Don’t try to be Superman! – Get help if you will need it.  Get help even if you think you MIGHT need it.  This does not mean just for the very heavy items, but for anything which may be awkward for just one person to carry.  Even if you don’t need assistance carrying the item, it can be helpful to have someone who can warn you of unexpected obstacles in your path, open doors for you, or clear people out of your way.
Here you can see an ambulance being delivered to the Pry House Field Hospital Museum barn. It was definitely more than a one-person job! Kyle and Tom were both on hand to assist with the unloading.

Have the proper attire – Avoid wearing anything which could catch on, snag, or scratch the artifact, or which could block your view of the artifact.  Tie back long hair, remove ties, scarves, or dangly jewelry, and avoid wearing large rings, pins, or belt buckles.  Wearing a lab coat can be helpful in some situations; it can protect your clothing as well as the artifacts you handle.

     Though it may seem like a lot to have to remember, it is all worth it to protect the artifacts!    


Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Building an Exhibit

     Building a museum exhibit requires a lot of planning, teamwork, and just plain hard work!  I thought I’d take you on a pictorial tour of the process. 

     The final exhibit in my museum deals with modern military medicine and how the basic principles are pretty much the same as they were in the Civil War.  It also highlights the fact that medical advances made have civilian applications as well.  We’ve been fortunate to have support from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Ft. Detrick in developing this exhibit.  However, in 2009 it became clear that the exhibit needed to be updated, so with their continued support, we were able to expand and update this exhibit.

Here’s the “before” photo, in February of 2009. You can see that the original exhibit was in an enclosed case. Three of the four large, and very heavy, glass doors have been removed. On the floor you can see the black suction cups that were used to help lift them. The television monitor on the wall will be removed and reused in the new exhibit. The new exhibit will not be enclosed and it will wrap around to the walls on either side of the old exhibit case. This will involve some construction – and some careful planning!

The next order of business was to construct a temporary wall to keep the construction zone separate from the museum galleries. This was for the safety of our visitors and the artifacts on display. It also cut down on the noise and dirt in the galleries.

Next the construction of walls for the exhibit could begin. The plan called for extending that small platform you see on the back wall along the side walls as well. That’s the top of a vacuum cleaner at the bottom of the photo. The construction space was vacuumed every evening to minimize the sawdust and other dirt tracked into the rest of the museum.

By early March the walls were ready to be painted!

Here are the base colors for the walls. The yellow wall is the back wall, and the two side walls are deep red. They won’t stay this plain for long though! The plan is to paint some silhouettes in darker paint along the bottom of the walls.

The stencils have been applied to the walls and are ready to be painted.

Here the stencils have been painted and the supports for the platform are in place.

The next day the paper was peeled away. You can also see an electric outlet that was added to the wall, to accommodate a second television monitor.

We were all pleased at how good the stencils looked!

This photo was taken in mid-March. The old television monitor is in its new place in the exhibit. Some photos and display panels have been added as well. 

A second television monitor was added on the opposite wall, and the lettering was applied to the walls. 

A timeline of medical advances was installed on the back wall. A photo of Major Jonathan Letterman represents the Civil War period on the timeline.

It’s almost the end of March now, and it’s finally time to take down that temporary wall. You can see here that the platform has been completed. The exhibit isn’t quite complete yet, but the construction phase is done.

Have you ever tried to put an Army uniform and boots on a mannequin? It’s not easy!

Next the mannequins have to be secured to the floor – we don’t want them to fall on anyone!

We called in some experts to be sure we had all the details of the uniforms correct.

Here’s the first mannequin, modeling some Army chemical defense equipment.

Our second mannequin is wearing the gear of a Combat Medic/Health Care Specialist.  Though normally the numerous pockets on this uniform would hold essential medical items, we made the pockets look full by adding stuffing and small blocks of wood!

It’s almost done now! All of the panels, lettering, and other graphics are in place. We’re just waiting on two display tables which will be placed on the platform.

In June the display tables arrived. They are used to display various modern medical items alongside their Civil War counterparts where applicable. You can see that some of them are still very much the same, like the tourniquets, scalpels, and scissors. Others have evolved more noticeably, like the stethoscope, medicines, and bandages.

Here’s the finished exhibit. Though it required a lot of work and some aggravation, it was definitely worth it! 

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Pocket Surgical Kit

     We received an exciting donation recently of a collection of pocket surgical kits.  These small leather kits were carried by surgeons during the Civil War and contained the instruments they were most likely to need out in the field.  These instruments are smaller than the ones found in the surgical or amputation kits.  Many of these instruments were also designed to be folded into their handle when not in use, to make for a more compact kit.  There are several sizes of pocket kits, depending on the types and number of instruments they contained.  Let’s take a closer look at one kit and its contents.

This pocket kit was made by George Tiemann & Co. The exterior of the case is leather and the interior is lined with purple velvet and cloth. The flaps you see on the sides fold in to protect the instruments when the case is closed. You can see that the top flap of the kit is now detached, but the instruments are in very good condition.

     The George Tiemann company, located in New York City, was a major supplier of surgical kits and instruments to the Union army during the Civil War.  His company is still in business today.  According to their website, they have been suppliers of “fine surgical instruments” since 1826. 

In addition to having loops for storing instruments, this kit also has a pocket where the surgeon could keep his needles and suture materials.

This is a double-bladed gum lancet and tenaculum with a tortoise shell handle. The small metal buttons slide to the side to lock the blades in place. As you might suspect, a gum lancet was a dental tool used for making incisions. The tenaculum, the sharp hook, was a type of probe generally used for grasping and holding blood vessels.

This double-bladed instrument is probably recognizable as two scalpels, used for making incisions.

This odd-looking little instrument is a comb and lancet, used for blood-letting and vaccinations. During the Civil War, doctors would vaccinate soldiers against smallpox using scabs from a person who had been infected with the disease. The lancet or the comb would have been used to make little incisions in the arm in order to insert small bits of the scabs. 

This metal instrument is a grooved director. It was used for directing another surgical instrument, such as a scalpel, to an area that was not in the surgeon’s direct view.

Metal olive-tipped artery forceps enabled the surgeon to grip an artery. A ligature with an overhand knot could be slipped down the forceps to the artery. A small metal slide allows the forceps to be locked closed.

     I am still cataloging and documenting this kit and the rest of the collection, but I’m looking forward to putting them on display in the future!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Wooden Leg

“A soldier's fortune I tell you plain - is a wooden leg or a golden chain.”

     This quote can certainly apply to the Civil War.  Many soldiers received wounds which required amputations, and those who survived needed prosthetic limbs.  There were prosthetics for arms, legs, hands, and feet, but today I am going to focus on a leg.  This particular leg has an interesting story.

      Sometime in the early 1950s a local farmer was out rabbit hunting in a field near the Monocacy River Bridge in Frederick, Maryland, which is now part of the Monocacy National Battlefield.  As he walked along the river, he noticed something protruding from the mud in the riverbank.  It captured his interest enough to dig it out, and he was quite surprised to discover that it was a wooden prosthetic leg! 

      I should note here that collecting artifacts from any federally-owned property is illegal.  However, at that time the property was privately owned.  The land for the Monocacy National Battlefield was not purchased by the government until 1976.

This prosthetic leg is made of wood, leather, cloth, and metal. It is a right leg with articulated knee, ankle, and toe joints. The hinges at the knee are rusted into their present position. The two circular holes on each side of the leg are for ventilation. The leather is stiff and coated in dirt, the wood is dirty and shows some signs of past insect damage, and the metal is coated with rust. However, the leg is in stable condition. Though it has seen better days, it is in remarkably good shape considering that it was buried in mud for so many years. 

     The farmer kept the leg for many years, and his family reported that since the leg was found on what had been the Monocacy Battlefield, he had always felt it was probably from that battle.  Considering that a soldier with a leg amputation would not have received a prosthetic leg until after his wound had healed and that he would not be sent back into battle, that is pretty unlikely.  It is more probable that the leg was discarded at some point after the battle, possibly after its owner’s death.  Still, it was a very unique find!  In September of 2005, after the farmer’s death, his daughter generously donated the prosthetic leg to the museum in her father’s memory. 

Here you can see that there is a remnant of leather covering the toe section of the foot, and a portion of thick canvas on the underside which appears to be part of a shoe sole.

     This prosthetic leg is becoming quite well-traveled.  It was on display at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA, in 2009 -2010 in a temporary exhibit titled, “Deadlier Than Bullets.”  Now it is included in a traveling exhibition hosted by the Virginia Historical Society called, “An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia” and it will travel to several venues throughout Virginia until 2015.  Currently it is on display at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Virginia.  It may have been buried in mud for years, but it is still able to tell its story!  

     If you would like to learn more, here are two links which tell about the American Turning Point exhibit:

 Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine