Thursday, June 27, 2013

An Artifact on the Beach

     Last week I was able to visit the tallest lighthouse in the United States, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina.  Though it was constructed after the Civil War, it still has some fascinating history, as well as a small museum associated with it!
The lighthouse is quite striking with its black and white spiral stripes.  The structure is 187 feet tall, and its light can be seen for 20 nautical miles in clear conditions.
     Visitors are allowed to climb the steps inside the lighthouse, so I was eager to take a look inside it.  There were 268 steps to the top.  It made me wonder how often the lighthouse keeper had to make that trip!
Here’s one view which shows the narrow, twisting iron stairs and the beautiful floors. 
And here’s a view from the top, looking down at the Keepers’ Quarters which now houses the museum.

I was surprised to learn that this lighthouse has actually been MOVED.  That round, sandy spot you can see just above the rail is where it was originally located.  The nearby shore had eroded, which put the structure in danger.  The path you see between the trees is the route which was used for the move in 1999.  It was moved 2,870 feet, which was quite an undertaking! 

     To learn more about the move, click here: 
I was a little disappointed that we couldn’t go all the way to the top of the lighthouse.

I still managed to get a shot of the light at the top.  I’m certainly glad I don’t have to change this light bulb!

     A historic structure like this one can sometimes be considered to be one huge artifact.  Preserving and caring for an artifact which is exposed to the weather, and which people walk through, brings its own set of challenges!
The weather damage to these exterior railings is pretty obvious.  I’m sure that exposure to the salty ocean water didn’t help either.  I spoke to one of the park rangers and was told that these railings will be replaced.
If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many “Don’t Touch” signs in museums, just take a look at the dirt and grime built up on the walls here!   
     Back on ground level in the museum, I was pleased to discover a display on the Civil War!  
     Just after North Carolina seceded, Confederate soldiers and slave laborers built two forts to guard Hatteras Inlet.  Fort Clark faced the ocean, while Fort Hatteras faced the inlet.  The forts were not well armed or manned, and so were no match for the seven Union ships which bombarded them.  After two days, the Confederates withdrew.  Though this was a small battle, it was the first notable Union victory of the war.  It was also the first amphibious operation of the Civil War. 
An illustration of “The Capture of the Forts at Hatteras the First Day,” from the Pictorial War Record, 1882.
There was nothing which directly mentioned Civil War medicine in the displays.  However, I was intrigued by these illustrations I saw on display since they touch on the topic of camp life, which is covered in my museum.  The label with them reads, “Making quick sketches of camp life and Hatteras Island landscape helped pass the time for some of the soldiers during the campaign.  Charles F. Johnson was in Hawkins' Zouaves, the 9th New York Volunteer Infantry.  An avid amateur, his drawings capture his life as a soldier on the Outer Banks.  Rather than focusing on battles, his drawings record the tedium of a soldier's service.”

     It seems that even on vacation I can’t keep away from museums!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Hospital at Gettysburg

     The past couple of years we’ve seen sesquicentennial observances of many of the Civil War battles. Last year the biggest one was for the Battle of Antietam. This year July 1 will mark 150 years since the start of the Battle of Gettysburg. Any museum which deals with the Civil War is probably going to have an exhibit or special event to mark the occasion. Last week though, I was able to visit an entire museum which is opening for the occasion!
The Seminary Ridge Museum in Gettysburg will be officially opening on July 1. The historic building was the part of the Lutheran Theological Seminary campus, but was used during the Civil War as an observation point and a field hospital.
     Their exhibits are titled, “Voices of Duties and Devotion” and they cover three main areas, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg on Seminary Ridge, the use of the building as field hospital, and some of the moral and spiritual debates of the time. The description from their website summarizes it well:
“The new Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum….will allow visitors to walk the halls of a building where wounded soldiers suffered, hear voices of duty and devotion and stand in the spot in the Seminary cupola where Union Gen. Buford observed approaching Confederate forces.”
I must admit that I was most eager to see the view from their famed cupola!

Here’s a view of Gettysburg from the cupola. The red flag you see on the rail was used to designate this building as a field hospital.
Though it was raining and misty on the day I visited, and the parking lot would not have been there in 1863, you can still the tactical advantage which General Buford and his signal officer, Aaron Jerome, had from this spot. From here, they were able to observe the Confederate troop strength and movements.

     Back inside the museum, I was impressed to discover three full floors of exhibits and interactive displays, which I thought were very well done. Of course, I was most interested in the displays which dealt with the building’s use as a field hospital.
I was intrigued by this prosthetic arm made of leather and metal, which had hook, brush and knife attachments. This arm belonged to Private Levi Sorrells, Company B, 10th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, who was wounded July 27, 1864 at Atlanta GA.
A hospital scene depicts the crowded conditions for patients at the field hospital.

They included many interesting details and even added flies to patients!

Of course, no Civil War hospital scene would be complete without an amputation! Notice that anesthesia is being administered to the patient here.
These artifacts look familiar! The surgical kit, Grey’s Anatomy book from 1859, capital saw, and surgical needles and suture are here on loan from my museum, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Here are more familiar artifacts; an embalming kit and peppermint bottle. You can read more about this bottle in one of my previous posts:
     I was glad I had the opportunity for a “sneak peek” at this new exhibit. If you’re in the Gettysburg area, you should go for a visit!

Photos courtesy of the Seminary Ridge Museum,


Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Man Who Stopped the Civil War

     Last week I installed a new exhibit out at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum, which deals with Civil War Surgeon Elias Joseph Marsh. 
An image of Surgeon Marsh in his uniform, taken about 1865.  This photo is marked on the back, "Sarony & Co., New York."
     Dr. Marsh was born in Paterson, New Jersey in 1835.  His father, who was also named Elias Marsh and who was also a physician, died when Elias was just 13 years old.  Elias Marsh followed his father into medicine, and graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City in 1858.  He then moved to St. Louis, Missouri to set up his own medical practice. 

     At the start of the Civil War, Dr. Marsh immediately offered his services to the Union.  He was first appointed as a "surgeon's mate" in the Third New Jersey Volunteers.  A few months later he was appointed as an Assistant Surgeon in a Cavalry unit.  He participated in the Peninsula Campaign, and was taken prisoner at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill in 1862.  His status as a physician allowed for him to be exchanged fairly quickly though.  Afterwards, he served as the director of Armory Square Hospital in Washington DC.  By the end of the war, he was on General Philip Sheridan's staff.  During the war, Dr. Marsh earned the reputation as a fearless and courageous soldier.  Nothing could induce him to slight a duty he considered his, and he was never happier than when he was trying to alleviate the suffering of others.
The Marsh exhibit includes information about Surgeon Marsh, and several artifacts which belonged to him.

This display case contains his carte-de-visite, rank insignia, and a medal which was presented to him by the Veteran’s Society after the war.  It also contains a copy of his Certificate of Commission, dated August 10, 1861, which is signed by President Abraham Lincoln.  There is too much light in the room to display the original document.  The original may soon be on display in the main museum though.

Surgeon Marsh’s rank insignia – small oak leaves embroidered in metallic thread on dark blue wool patches.  In November 1864, the United States War Department allowed any officer who desired a more discreet appearance in the field to “dispense with shoulder straps” and wear the mark of their rank directly on their uniform.  Most likely Surgeon Marsh wore these as a result of this edict.

This much larger and fancier gold dress epaulet also belonged to Dr. Marsh, but it would have been part of his dress uniform.  The embroidered “MS” stands for Medical Service.  The back is covered in red velvet and is marked, “Schuyler, Hartley& Graham, Military Goods, New York.”

Also on display is a pocket surgical kit which belonged to Dr. Marsh.  This kit was manufactured by F.G. Otto & Sons of New York.  You can see that it is quite worn!  Normally I try to display these kits open so that the instruments are visible, but this case is too fragile for that.

Instead, I put the instruments out on display separately.  This folding scalpel actually has two blades, though only one is visible in this view.  The handle is made of tortoiseshell, and the small buttons on the handle are used to lock the blades into place.   

     Surgeon Marsh is sometimes referred to as "The Man Who Stopped the Civil War."  It seems a strange designation for a surgeon, but it was a case of being in the right place at the right time!  While Generals Grant and Lee considered the terms of surrender at Appomattox Court House, parts of the Federal and Confederate armies were still firing at each other.  General Grant turned to Assistant-Adjutant-General Thomas Weir, and asked him to see that the firing was stopped.  However, General Weir knew his horse was worn out and not fit for the task.  He asked Dr. Marsh to transmit the orders to the regimental commanders.  So, the cease-fire orders he conveyed brought an end to the shooting.
There were visitors waiting at the door while the exhibit was being installed.  This was the scene just moments after I left the room!

     It’s good to see Dr. Marsh’s service being appreciated!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Making Tours More Interesting

     Earlier this week I attended a workshop on Building Effective Museum Experiences.  Though the focus was mainly on museum education and on creating a more visitor-friendly museum, the role of the museum’s collection was discussed as well.  Since I have input into my museum’s exhibits, especially in the consideration of the artifacts which will be displayed, this seemed to be a workshop I should attend!

The workshop was held at Historic London Town and Gardens, in Edgewater, Maryland.  Their location on the South River made for some wonderful views!

     The opening speaker, Thomas Mayes, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, shared some interesting observations about the elements which make up a successful tour.  He also shared the following clip from the movie "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure", to illustrate some elements of a not-so-great tour:

View Pee-Wee’s Alamo tour here

     Though it was an unexpected (and entertaining!) source for an illustration of a museum tour, it certainly did convey the elements of a “bad” tour.  I suspect everyone has had at least one tour experience similar to this.  Tour guides can sometimes drone on for too long, not take their audience into consideration, or not want to answer questions.  Museum exhibits are sometimes made to feel too sterile, or are focused too much on the “stuff” inside the case or behind the ropes.  People want more than to hear a scripted tour, or to just see a random group of old things behind glass.

     So, once our speaker started listing the attributes of a more successful tour, I naturally started taking a mental inventory of my museum’s exhibits.  I don’t want our guests taking the Civil War version of Pee-Wee’s Alamo tour!

Successful tours don’t just focus on what the “things” are, but on how the artifacts convey an idea.  This display shows some games from the Civil War, which shows that the soldiers needed diversions while in camp.  This also helps our visitors to understand that the soldiers actually spent more time in camp than on the battlefield. 

Good displays don’t avoid the difficult or unpleasant facts.  Amputations were a very difficult fact which many soldiers and their families had to face.  However, this display is probably one of the most popular in our museum.  It shows the instruments and equipment which were used, and allows us to tell our visitors WHY so many amputations were necessary.

Successful tours and displays utilize the “voices” of the people from the time.  Visitors to the NMCWM are able to follow Private Peleg Bradford’s story through a series of displays which contain letters he wrote home to his family.

Probably the most important element of a good tour or display is that it tells a story which teaches something to the visitors.  Our final exhibit about modern medicine serves to reinforce the story of how much of modern medicine is based on the medical advances from the Civil War. 

     So, overall it seems my museum is doing a pretty good job.  In any sort of evaluation, there is nearly always one area for improvement though.  One other thing listed by the speaker was that displays should engage as many senses as possible.  Museums tend to be limited to sight and sound.  Touch, smell, and even taste should be incorporated when possible.  To illustrate this point, there was even a plate of cookies passed around to us! 

     Though we do have a few hands-on displays in the museum, this seems to be the area which we could look at improving.  I was pleased to realize that the changes we have planned for our new gallery do include more hands-on and interactive components.  I think we are headed in the right direction. 

     I suppose it couldn’t hurt to offer our guests a cookie too?!            
Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.