Thursday, January 26, 2012

Acquiring Artifacts

     How do museums end up with the items in their collections?  Most people seem to assume that we buy them, and that is certainly one way to acquire artifacts.  Smaller museums tend to have smaller budgets though, and generally can’t afford to buy a large number of artifacts.  In our case, usually only some smaller items are purchased.

This Civil War era tin bedpan was my first purchase for the museum. It is currently on display in our hospital exhibit.

    Many times artifacts are donated to a museum.  Usually the donor wishes their items to be preserved for future generations and displayed for all to learn from and enjoy.  It doesn’t hurt that their gift is tax deductible too!  So really, donations benefit the donor, the museum, and the people who come to the museum.

     Donations can arrive at the museum in different ways.  In some cases a museum staff member picks it up from the donor.  Sometimes the items are shipped, and in a few cases donors have simply mailed them.  In other cases the donor delivers the item in person – sometimes with an appointment and sometimes not!  It isn’t unusual for me to be called to the front desk to look at an item which someone has just brought into the museum.  Sometime wonderful artifacts have simply “walked in” to our museum.  At times though, I have to break it to people that their items are not what they thought they were, or are simply items that we cannot use.  I really never know what I’m going to find when I get these calls!

This is a Harper's Weekly newspaper from August 17, 1861 that was donated to the museum. You can see it has a very nice front illustration of a wounded Zouave in a hospital at Washington, D.C.

     Items can also be donated to museums through bequests, when the ownership of the item is transferred to the museum after the owner’s death.  So far I have not dealt with receiving a bequest, and I am happy that our donors are still with us!

     I have mentioned in previous posts that we sometimes borrow artifacts we need for our displays.  These artifacts can come from individuals or from other museums.  Sometimes too, loaned items are eventually donated to the museum.

This two-piece wood and brass pill roller is on loan to the NMCWM, and is currently displayed in our pharmacy wagon.

     I don’t have the final say on which artifacts become part of the museum’s permanent collection though.  As much as we’d like to collect every possible Civil War item, the reality is that we also have to consider our storage space and the cost of caring for the artifacts in the collection.  So each new acquisition must be reviewed by the Accession Committee.  This committee considers whether each new acquisition fits the museum’s scope and mission, and if the museum has the resources to properly care for, store, and display it.  Items which are not accepted into the permanent collection can be used by the museum’s education department, returned to the donor, sold, or donated to another museum.   

This is an 1862 Colt Police Pocket Pistol which belonged to Brigadier-General Gustavus A. Sniper. Though at first you might not see the need for a firearm in a museum which deals with Civil War medicine, it was approved to be accessioned into our collection. It will be used in a future exhibit which will show what types of wounds were inflicted by the various weapons used during the war.

     Once an artifact becomes part of the museum’s permanent collection, it is my job to ensure that it receives the highest possible level of care.  Though it can be challenging at times, on most days I think I have the best job in the world!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Conservation Work

     An important part of being a collection manager is keeping track of the condition of the artifacts.  Over time, all items deteriorate.  When I spot an artifact with an issue I can make some minor repairs as needed, or if the job is beyond my expertise I can recommend conservation work done by a professional.  A professional conservator will be able to stabilize the artifact and minimize future deterioration.  Note that I did not say that the artifact is “restored”.  Restoration is a different process, in which the goal is usually to make the item look as much like new as possible.  The aim in conserving an artifact is to preserve the item and its history, but not necessarily to make it look as it did when new.

I was greeted by this disturbing sight in an exhibit during my daily walk-through one morning. This Union Surgeon’s wool frock coat appears to have an issue with its hem. 

     After spotting the coat in the photo above, I immediately conferred with the museum’s director to determine our best course of action.  It was decided that I could make the necessary repairs.  The first step was to take the coat off display and lay it flat to prevent any further damage.

Upon closer inspection, it was discovered that the coat’s hem was intact, but that the silk lining was splitting and hanging down below the hem. This was partly due to deterioration of the fabric, and partly due to the fact that while the coat was on display there was too much weight being placed on the silk.

     I then spoke with a conservator who advised me to insert netting behind the lining and to use long stitches perpendicular to the rips to prevent the silk from ripping further.  I measured and cut the netting to fit and was able to roll it loosely and insert it behind the lining through the larger rips.  Then I hand-stitched parallel rows of thread along the ripped area, and extending to more stable areas.  The silk was black, but I used blue thread in order to make it easy to see in case it was necessary to remove it later.  It is important that any repairs done be reversible.  It was a very slow and tedious process, but I was pleased with the final result.

Here’s a section of the lining after the repair. It’s not a “pretty” repair, but it does its job to stabilize the area.

And here’s the coat back on display, looking much better!

     Now from the exterior there is no evidence of the ripped lining or of the repair work to the coat.  What’s more important is that the lining now has some support, which should prevent it from ripping further. 

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cleaning Daze

     Every January the National Museum of Civil War Medicine closes for several days in order for the staff to do an in-depth cleaning, and to tackle any changes or repairs to the place.  It is a productive but exhausting process!  Today is the fourth and final cleaning day for 2012, and the place is looking great!

     My part in the process included moving artifacts and display cases out of areas which were being painted and recarpeted, then moving them back later, cleaning the insides of the glass exhibit doors in all the galleries, painting display cases, cleaning the galleries, helping to paint the museum store, installing two new displays, and replacing the pest strips in the galleries.

The base of a vitrine, or display case, which needs to be moved from its temporary storage place on the second floor, back to the newly carpeted and painted store/lobby area on the first floor.

Here it is back in place, and updated with different artifacts.  Since this year is the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Antietam, we are featuring artifacts associated with that battle here.

Here's a display of hospital items in one of the cases we got from the National Building Museum.  I just had to paint the base and replace the fabric in the interior.

And here's a new display at the entrance to our galleries, featuring some "myth-busting" items.  Two of the biggest myths we like to dispel are that Civil War doctors were butchers, and that patients had to bite bullets during surgery.  Civil War doctors were actually well educated and did the best job they could under the circumstances and with the knowledge they had at the time.  "Biting the bullet" is just false.  Chloroform and ether were both used at the time, and in the very few cases when anesthesia was not used, the patient would NOT have been given a bullet to bite.  Think about it; if you had a patient lying down for surgery, would you really want to give him something he could so easily aspirate or choke on?

The store got a facelift too!

And here's the museum's new entryway!  Doesn't it make you want to come and visit?
     It was a lot of hard for everyone on the staff, but the improvements are well worth the effort!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine

Thursday, January 5, 2012

How Many Collection Managers Does It Take To Change A Light Bulb?

     Recently I had to change a light bulb in a hard-to-reach area of an exhibit, which is why today’s post will be about lighting.  I will confess up front that dealing with the lighting in the museum is probably my least favorite task.  That old adage about not being able to please everyone was probably created by someone trying to light an exhibit!  Visitors to the museum tend to comment about the general light levels being too low, or about certain artifacts not being spotlighted.  It also seems at times that I hear from everyone else in the museum whenever there’s a burned-out bulb!

This is the case with the burned out bulb – you can’t see the lights because of the diffusers in the ceiling of the case. Notice that there are a number of fragile artifacts in the case, and that there is not enough room inside for a ladder.

        So, why don’t I just add more lights to the galleries?  I’ve touched on the subject of lighting previously in the post on the collection room.  Exposure to light can damage many materials, including textiles, leather, wood, and paper.  The damage done is not reversible.  The simplest method of reducing the amount of light and thus the amount of damage done to the artifacts is to lower the light levels.  Displaying artifacts involves walking a pretty tight line between maintaining relatively safe levels of light for the artifacts versus keeping the artifacts visible to the museum’s visitors.
     There are also other methods of helping to reduce light damage.  Exterior windows can have special UV filtering films placed on the glass.  Light diffusers can be used over interior lights.  Fiber-optic projectors can be used to illuminate displays while eliminating UV light.  Exhibit cases can utilize motion sensors which turn on lights only when there are people nearby.  In a more low-tech approach, items can be placed behind doors or curtains which visitors can open.  Generally, a combination of methods is utilized in order to best display and protect the artifacts.

           Protecting the artifacts from too much light seems to ensure that the lights are difficult to reach though, especially for collection managers of a somewhat shorter stature!  It’s not as simple and straightforward as changing a light bulb at home.  The use of a ladder is always required, plus many times artifacts and risers need to be moved out of the case so that nothing (or no one!) falls on them, plus the job ideally should be completed before the museum opens to eliminate the possibility of the artifacts being vandalized or stolen.    

Here the artifacts and a riser in the area below the burned out bulb have been removed to protect the artifacts and to make room for the ladder. The artifacts were carefully placed on a padded cart and moved a safe distance away from the work area.

     In this situation, I needed to enlist some additional help (thanks Tom!) in changing the bulb.  One lesson I have learned at the museum is to ask for help when needed.  I was fortunate in learning this without injuring anything but my pride!  Dangling from a sprinkler pipe when a ladder slipped out from under me was an experience I don’t want to repeat, so in the more difficult areas I now ask for assistance.

Here’s Tom changing the light bulb – he assured me that he was smiling for the photo!

Success! The bulb has been replaced, the risers and artifacts are back in place, the doors are secured again, and the artifacts and staff members involved are safe.

     I’ll bet you never knew that changing a light bulb could be so complicated! 

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.