Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Visit to Gettysburg College

     One of the responsibilities of my job is handling the artifact loans coming to my museum as well as those going out from my museum.  Though the loan process does create a bit of paperwork for me, the benefits of borrowing and loaning artifacts are worth it.  By borrowing and loaning artifacts from other museums, a wider range of objects can be displayed to the public.  It is an excellent opportunity for studying these artifacts and for creating beneficial partnerships with other museums.  It also doesn’t hurt to have your museum’s name in an exhibit at another museum!  

Here are two of my museum’s medical bottles that were on display at the Clara Barton National Historic Site a couple of years ago.  Though you probably can’t see it in the photo, we are credited on the label.
     One of the NMCWM’s current loan requests is from the Musselman Library at Gettysburg College.  I was contacted last fall by Natalie, who was a student there working on curating an exhibit on the history of medicine.  She inquired about our loan conditions, and then came down to visit the museum and to identify some artifacts which could possibly be borrowed for her exhibit.  

     Normally before another museum can borrow any artifacts I need to see a document called a facility report which provides me with detailed information about the exhibit space and the display cases.  I also need an insurance certificate from the borrowing institution, even though many artifacts couldn’t truly be replaced for any amount of money!  Then I assess the requested artifacts to ensure that they are in suitable condition for transport and display.  Finally, I pass the list along to the museum’s director for final approval.  

     Last week, I was invited to visit the Musselman Library.  It was a good opportunity to view their exhibit space in person, as well as to see their current exhibit.  Since Gettysburg is just a short drive from my museum, it was time to take a field trip!

I had to take a picture of the Lincoln bust on the main floor of the library!

After a tour of the displays in the main library, we headed up to Special Collections to see the exhibit “Slaves, Soldiers, Citizens:  African American Artifacts of the Civil War Era.”  We made it just in time, as this exhibit ended the next day!

The curator of the exhibit, Lauren Roedner, gave us a personal tour.  Most of the items for this exhibit are on loan to them from the collection of Mr. Angelo Scarlato.  I must say, it is quite an interesting collection!

So, this is what happens when an over-eager curator sees an artifact she wants to photograph for her blog and forgets to check her camera settings!  I know better than to use a flash, but I forgot that my camera was set to automatic - mea culpa.  If nothing else, this illustrates why using a flash to photograph any objects displayed behind glass isn’t a good idea anyway.

     The artifact which caught my eye is a potholder embroidered with two dancing African Americans and the words, “Any holder but a slaveholder.”  I was told that a slave crafted this potholder from a Confederate soldier's uniform, and that potholders like this one were sold in the North during the Civil War to benefit the Union Army. 

There was a nice display of items representing the U.S. Colored Troops.  Though they were only allowed to serve for the final two years of the war, the 175 regiments of free African Americans accounted for almost one tenth of the Union troops. 

And of course I spotted a medical item!  This is a document from the “Hospital for Colored Troops” at City Point, Virginia from 1864.

     We were all fascinated, and are grateful to Lauren, Carolyn, and Natalie for taking the time to meet with us.

     I can’t wait to see the new exhibit, and how our artifacts are interpreted.  I’m sure I’ll have another blog post for that one!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and Gettysburg College.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Gallery Projects

     Last week the museum was closed for our annual cleaning.  Though we hate to turn away potential museum visitors, some regular cleaning and maintenance are necessary to keep the museum running!  In addition to the cleaning, I usually have some gallery projects to complete at this time.  There are simply some projects which are best completed when the museum is empty.  My two big projects this year were painting an exhibit case and relabeling all of the light tracks in the galleries. 

Here’s one of the old masking tape labels which has curled over time.  Good luck trying to read the number on that one!

     So, I enlisted the help of some of my coworkers to relabel all the light tracks.  Susan was with me to hold the ladder and help with the new labels, and Tom and Riley took turns manning the breaker boxes.  We had a set of radios to communicate with each other, and we turned off the tracks one at a time to determine which breakers were connected to which tracks.  Though most of them were correct, we did have to hunt for the right numbers for a few of them.  

Nope, this track wasn’t really number 7.  I removed that old label so that there's no confusion about this track in the future! 

     It was a tedious job, especially for the people who got stuck standing by the breaker boxes and listening for instructions to flip switches.  I greatly appreciate all the help I had with this job!

Tom knows the breaker boxes very well now!

Now I can clearly see all the labels, and I know they are correct.

     My other project involved painting the back of one of our exhibit cases.

We call this the “Flag Case” because of the large flag in the back of the case.  It is a wool hospital flag that flew over a Civil War hospital at City Point, Virginia.  Originally the flag’s background was canary yellow and the ‘H’ was a dark green, but you can see that the colors have faded so that the flag is mostly tan in color.  The faded color pretty much blended into the background color of the exhibit case, so visitors didn’t always notice the flag.  It doesn’t do much good to display an artifact that people don’t notice!

     The first issue was choosing an appropriate paint.  With artifacts involved, I didn’t just have the color to consider.  Drying paint can off-gas substances which are damaging to artifacts.  So, I used a latex paint that was low odor with zero volatile organic compounds (VOC).  This greatly reduces the amount of artifact-damaging substances which can be off-gassed from the paint. 

I removed the artifacts from the case before painting, of course.  The flag stayed because it is sealed inside its own protective case, and because it would have been difficult to remove from the wall. 

I chose a green color which complimented the risers in the display.  I was also hoping it would help bring out the little bit of green that’s left in the flag. 

     I painted the case on the first of our cleaning days, in order to let the paint cure for as long as possible before returning the artifacts to the case.  I also kept the doors to the case open as much as possible while the case was empty.  Even with zero VOC, there will be some off-gassing from the drying paint.  I kept the artifacts upstairs in a safe area while the paint dried.  

I’m pleased with the final result.  The flag is much more noticeable now.  
     The museum is looking better now, and is open for visitors again!  

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

More Progress on the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum

     We’re still working hard on getting the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office ready to open!  The restoration work has been completed, and now we are working on finishing the welcome center, putting up the informational panels, displaying a few artifacts, and determining how the tours will proceed through the space.  So, earlier this week a group of the museum staff visited the space for a “practice tour.”  

We finally have an admissions desk – and who wouldn’t want to see Jake’s smiling face welcoming them to the museum?
Judy and Jake look on as Susan starts the tour in the Welcome Center, where visitors will first learn a little about Clara Barton and life in Washington D.C.
The architecture and various features of the building will be part of the tour as well.  On the third floor, where the Missing Soldiers Office was located, is an original bracket for a fire extinguisher.  The two holes would have held leather buckets filled with sand.
Here in Clara Barton’s Reception Room you can see the holes for the stovepipes and the lightwell windows.   
Though reproduction gas lamps are displayed in most of the rooms, one of the boarding rooms is equipped with an oil lamp.  The oil lamp would have predated the gas lamps. 
Several sections of wallpaper original to the building have been preserved behind Plexiglas.  Here in the space which housed the Missing Soldiers Office is one section which shows two of the different wallpapers that were used in the room.

     I hope you have enjoyed this little “sneak peek” into the progress toward opening Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office!  If you missed the last update on the restoration work you can see that here.  We are anticipating the museum’s grand opening in the next few months, so you shouldn’t be kept waiting for too much longer!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

In the Light

     In the spring of 2012, all of us at the museum were excited about the addition of Major Jonathan Letterman’s desk to our exhibits out at the Pry House Field Hospital Museum.  (You can see my post about the desk’s arrival here. ) 

Here is Letterman’s desk on display.

     Do you see any issues for the desk in this photo?  Note that the desk is positioned directly under a large window which is letting in a lot of sunlight.  Exposure to light can be very damaging to many materials, including the leather, cloth, and wood components of this desk.  The Pry House did have UV filtering films installed on the windows though, which were supposed to filter out 99% of the ultraviolet light coming through the glass.  

Imagine my surprise and dismay when I moved an inkwell and some papers on the desk one day and saw this.  Obviously the films in the window were not as effective as we’d thought!  This meant that ALL the artifacts in the house were probably being exposed to light levels which were much too high.

     So, I needed to find a quick and inexpensive method of protecting all the artifacts in the house from too much light.  I researched new window films, but the cost was over our budget.  Screwing brackets into the woodwork to install window blinds was also not an option in this historic house.  I started looking at curtains next.  I knew I could put them on spring tension rods which wouldn’t damage the windows, plus they were more affordable than window films or blinds.  I didn’t find much that seemed appropriate for our use in ready-made curtains though.  So, I took a trip to our local fabric store and found an insulated drapery fabric which suited the museum’s purposes.  I thought I would have to take the time to make the curtains, but Susan Yano, a staff member at the Pry House, very graciously volunteered to make them.  Thank you Susan!  The curtains seem to be functioning well, though I am looking into obtaining some blue wool standards to better monitor the displays. 

Blue wool standards, or blue wool scales are used to monitor light exposure in display areas.  Usually one side of the scale is covered so that the light cannot affect it, then when the card is checked later any fading on the uncovered side is apparent.  If there is noticeable fading on the card, I’ll know I need to take stronger measures to block the light from the artifacts.

You can see here that the curtains block a lot of the sunlight from the artifacts, but still let in enough light for visitors to view the displays.  For now, I'm declaring the curtains a success!    

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.