Thursday, April 26, 2012

Getting Ready to Open the Pry House


     Back in December, I wrote about taking the artifacts out of the Pry House Field Hospital and Museum for the season.  Next month the Pry House will open again, and so this past Monday I took the artifacts back out and set up the displays.  Well, I set up some of the displays at least.  Remember in last week’s post I mentioned the need for being flexible?  It turned out that the Park Service had people out at the house doing some repairs to the plaster on the second floor of the house.  It is work which needed to be done, but I didn’t think it was wise to put the artifacts out while there was plaster being sanded!  So, I worked on the displays on the first floor, and planned another trip for Wednesday to deal with the second floor.

Here’s a look at some of the work being done on the Pry House in the hallway of the second floor. Notice all the dust on the floor. I didn’t want to risk exposing the artifacts to this dust!


     I still had plenty of work to do though, since the exhibits at the Pry House have been rearranged and several new displays have been added.  Also, instead of featuring just one surgeon associated with the Battle of Antietam, we are now featuring two surgeons, one Union and one Confederate.  Our plan is to change the featured surgeons each year.

These are two of the new displays at the Pry House this year. One case contains an ambulance water keg. The other case contains an ambulance pass book, and some Civil War medical supplies – surgical needles, silk thread, and two medicine containers.

     I had some work to do on one of the artifacts over the winter as well.  The pair of field glasses which is displayed at the Pry House needed a little repair work.  The threads holding the leather cover in place had rotted, which meant that there was nothing left to hold the cover in place.  The holes for the stitching were still present though, so I was able to use some thin monofilament to hold it together.  The leather had shrunk somewhat, so the seam doesn’t quite meet, but the repair still serves the purpose of keeping the cover in place.

Here is the “before” photo which shows the split seam on the cover of the field glasses. You can also see that the bottom of the cover has pulled away from the brass at the base (more shrinkage). This area was not originally stitched, so I will not attempt to add stitching there.

And this is what the field glasses look like now. You can see that there is about a quarter-inch gap in the seam now, due to shrinkage of the leather. I did not pull the stitching any tighter for fear of ripping out the holes in the seams. Though there is the small gap left now, the stitching is enough to keep the cover in place. It is also entirely reversible, in case a different type of repair should become advisable in the future.

     On Wednesday, the work areas had been cleaned so I was able to set up most of the displays on the second floor.  I also received the delivery of some loaned items which will be included in the display for the Confederate surgeon.  There are some fascinating artifacts in this display!  The medical saddlebags contained medical bottles which contained quinine, arsenic, and mercury, among others.  The medicine chest contained some very nice medical containers, as well as a sizeable chunk of ambergris!  The ambergris was a somewhat unexpected find, as it is generally associated with the manufacture of perfumes, but it did have some medical uses as well.  It has definitely given me a new topic to research!  I still have to make labels to put in the display cases for these new artifacts, but I should have that task completed shortly.

     I am excited about the new exhibits, and hope that our visitors will enjoy them too.  The Pry House opens to the public starting on May 5 this year – weekends only until June.  If you are in the area, you should stop by for a visit!

Here’s a view of the side of the Pry House, and the museum entrance. You can also see a little of the garden on the left side of the photo.

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.     

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.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Processing the Barton artifacts

      This week, I’ve been working on cataloging and housing the Clara Barton artifacts on loan to us from the GSA.  I thought I’d show part of the process with two of the artifacts.

This is an oilcloth satchel which contained a paper booklet which recorded the laws passed by Congress in 1857. This satchel could have belonged to Clara Barton or to her neighbor, Edward Shaw, since some of his items were found stored in the attic as well. 

     First, I made sure that the contents of the boxes I received matched the list of artifacts!  Next I assigned each item a unique loan number.  Since the two artifacts pictured above were associated with each other when they were found, the GSA wished to keep them together.  One way to assure that these items remain “connected” is to assign them similar loan numbers.  Each artifact in this group starts with the designation “L6”.  The ‘L’ denotes that this is a loan.  The ‘6’ simply means that this is the sixth set of numbers assigned this year.  The next series of numbers designates the year, so each loan number for the artifacts in this group starts with L6.2012.  The next series of numbers and letters simply denotes the order in which they were processed.  When there are items which need to be grouped together (e.g. a cup and saucer, or a chess board and playing pieces) I can also add a letter to the end.  So in this case, the satchel is L6.2012.19a and the booklet is L6.2012.19b. 

Here is the booklet which was inside the satchel. You can see that the paper has yellowed. It is also very brittle. Continuing to store this inside the satchel is not a good idea, as the acid in the paper isn’t good for the cloth, and the friction of the (canvas) cloth on the booklet isn’t good for the paper.

     Next I need to enter the data for each item into the museum’s data base.  Each artifact in this group will be part of the “Clara Barton Collection” in the data base.  I record a written description of each artifact, its measurements, its condition, and its provenance or history.  I then make sure the proper index terms are associated with each artifact.  The satchel should show up in searches of “personal articles” and the book in searches of “laws” or “Congress”.

     At least one digital photograph is taken of each artifact as well.  Generally this is done against a plain background (my preference is black) and with a photographic reference scale, to get a feel for the item’s true size and color.  If you look back at the photo at the top of the page though, you will notice that I chose a gray background since the black satchel would not have shown up well against a black background!

A close-up of a rip in the flap of the satchel. I take more photos when I need to document areas of damage or deterioration.

     Next the artifacts need to be housed correctly.  They were already stored in archival boxes and covered in acid-free tissue, which was a very good start!  I crumpled up some more acid-free tissue and placed it inside the satchel, to prevent additional creases from forming in the cloth.  Then I put the booklet inside an acid-free folder to protect it.  They were put back into the box, padded with more acid-free tissue, and covered with ethafoam.  They will be placed in the collection room as soon as their quarantine period is over.

Notice that I could not close the satchel – the fabric is stiff and brittle, so I will store it with the lid open to prevent further damage. This will also get a layer of ethafoam on top before the lid is placed on the box.

And here is the booklet now safely housed in an acid-free folder.

Now the Clara Barton artifacts are cataloged and safely stored until we are able to display them!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

They Used Chainsaws in the Civil War?

     I get quite a few questions about Civil War surgical instruments so I thought I’d write about some of them.  Today I’ll focus on the ones which used chains. 

     Chain saws were used to cut, or resect, bones.  The saw consists of a flexible chain blade with detachable handles.  The chain could be positioned by using a carrier needle and thread tied to one end of the chain to draw it behind the bone.  The handles were then attached and the surgeon pulled the handles back and forth rapidly until the bone was cut in half.  It may sound a bit barbaric, but it was quite effective.

Here is the chain portion of a chain saw. The small links allow the chain to flex and conform to a variety of shapes. Though it’s difficult to see here, the links also have sharp teeth along one edge for cutting through bone.

This is one of a pair of wooden chain saw handles. You can see the hook where it can be attached to the chain.

     Now let’s look at another chain from the Civil War.  The item in the photo below looks pretty wicked!  What do you think it is?  People tend to guess that they are fishing hooks, but I can assure you that this is actually a medical item.  Fortunately though, it is not an item you should see in your doctor’s office!

This is a post-mortem retraction chain, which was used to hold back tissue during an autopsy. These could found in surgical kits and post-mortem kits.

     The next instrument looks a bit like a chain saw, but it was not intended to cut through bones.  It is called a Chassaignac's Ecraseur and it was originally designed for removing hemorrhoids!  It also was used for removing uterine tumors or polyps.  Notice that the links are larger than the ones on the chain saw and that they don’t have teeth.  It functioned by gradually crushing the tissue, which resulted in less blood loss than if the tissue had been cut. 
The handle of the ecraseur could be turned to lower the chain through the metal loop at the end of the instrument. The chain could then be placed around the hemorrhoid or tumor and tightened by turning the handle in the opposite direction until the tissue was severed. 

     It’s ok if you are wincing now - I’ll save the rest of the surgical instruments for other posts!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.