Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Museum by the Numbers

     One of the requests I get at the museum is for statistics about the museum and the museum’s collection.  Usually the requests are from Museum Studies students, and I am glad to help them.  I do get some of the same questions (but not quite so many of them!) from museum visitors though.  So, based on the questions I hear the most, I thought I’d share a few facts about the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

     How big is the museum?

The museum building may not look that big from the front, but we actually have about 7000 square feet of exhibit space, divided between two floors.  Our visitors can see artifacts on display in our nine galleries.

     How many artifacts do you have at the museum? 

That number constantly changes as we acquire and borrow new artifacts.  Right now there are over 3400 items in the collection, and about 1000 of them are on loan to us.  About 30% of them are out on display, and about 6% of our collection is out on loan to other institutions.

     Where do you have artifacts on loan?

Currently we have artifacts on loan to museums and libraries in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Colorado.  This alarm clock, which belonged to a Civil War Surgeon, is on loan to the Historic Crab Orchard Museum and Pioneer Park in Tazewell, Virginia.

     How many people are at your museum?

There are 18 staff members and about 40 volunteers who work at the NMCWM.  Our annual visitation is around 35,000 people per year.

     How many mannequins are in the museum?

We have 35 mannequins currently on display; 31 are in the main museum and four are out at the Pry House.  I'll also mention that the banjo in this scene was made by our museum's director!

     I posted last week about one of the favorite parts of my job.  So, what’s the least favorite part of my job?

Changing the light bulbs!  There are over 50 light tracks in the museum’s galleries, most of which have multiple fixtures.  Because I have to keep a log of the bulbs, I know that in the past year I have changed 102 light bulbs.

That’s a lot of light bulbs!
     Thank goodness it's just a small part of my job here!

 Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Clara Barton's Bed, Part 2

     Researching the history of an artifact is one of the favorite aspects of my job, especially when I am able to find new information.  I love being able to discover the story behind an artifact!  Sometimes though, the search is like putting together puzzle pieces, and sometimes my search takes me in directions I didn’t expect.  That’s what happened when I started researching Clara Barton’s Civil War trunk bed a couple of weeks ago.  If you missed Part 1 about this trunk bed, you may want to take a quick look at it here.    

We didn’t have much information about the trunk bed when it arrived, so I was pleased to find this label, which named the donor and the city of origin, inside the trunk.  This gave me a good starting point!

     The Dr. Julian B. Hubbell mentioned on the label worked with Clara Barton as the first American Red Cross Chief Field Agent, and served in the Red Cross from 1881 until 1904.  He stayed with Clara at her Glen Echo home until her death in 1912.  Afterwards, the home (along with many of Clara Barton’s things) came into his possession.  He passed away in 1929 and willed his home and the Barton possessions to his nieces, Rena and Lena Hubbell.  His obituary in the Lawrence Daily Journal-World newspaper stated that, "Many of the priceless possessions in the Dr. Hubbell home, formerly owned by Clara Barton, will be given to the American Red Cross Museum, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian."  Rena Hubbell donated the trunk bed to the Red Cross in 1931.  So, the trunk bed’s ownership can be clearly traced from its original owner, Clara Barton, to its current owner, the American Red Cross.

     Next I focused on the Philadelphia firm mentioned on the label.  My hope was to find the name of the trunk bed’s maker.  Many times (but not always) manufacturers put an identification mark on their products, so I started examining the trunk more closely.

I was quite happy when I spotted some text embossed in the leather on one end of the trunk!  It was difficult to read all of it, but I discovered that if I used a small LED flashlight at an angle to the trunk’s surface the letters became clearer.

      The first line of letters was mostly covered by the orange label you see in the photo.  I was only able to see “W. B. ST….”  I was really wishing that label had been placed somewhere else on the trunk!  The second line of letters was much clearer, and I was excited to discover that it read, “PATENT JUNE 11, 1861.”  Finding a patent date is like striking gold; that information is easily accessed!  It also helped to place the trunk in the Civil War period.  The last line of text was somewhat obscured by a small section of scuffed leather, but the first section was easy to read, “NO 1 WARREN….”  It looked like an address, so I concentrated on the remaining letters, expecting to find that it read either ‘Philadelphia’ or ‘PA.’  Once I finally lit up that section well enough to read though, I discovered that it read, “… ST. NY.”  The trunk wasn’t from Philadelphia after all, it was from New York!

     Next I went to my computer to look up that patent date.  I found this entry: “Trunk convertible into a bedstead, W.B. Strong.  Patent #32,536.”  Now I had the maker’s name!  I also was able to look up Mr. Strong’s description of the trunk bed, and his diagram of it.  The description not only specified how to set up the trunk bed, it also contained other useful information.  Let’s take a look at part of the description.

     "Be it known that I, W. B. Strong, of the city, county, and State of New York, have invented a new and useful Combination of an Army-Trunk and Bedstead or Couch; and I do hereby declare that the following is a full, clear, and exact description....

     The object of this invention is to combine a trunk and bedstead in such a manner that the trunk may have nearly its usual available capacity for the reception of clothing and still admit of being readily converted into a bedstead when the latter is required.

     The invention is designed for the use of the army officers and such members thereof as are allowed to carry trunks and who, while occupying the tents of a flying camp, cannot be generally provided with anything in the way of a bedstead to keep them elevated above the surface of the ground.”

     So, this trunk bed wasn’t designed specifically for Clara Barton.  It was designed and sold for army officers.  That actually makes more sense, as it would have been readily available for her to purchase.

Figure 1 is a longitudinal section of the trunk bed which was referred to in the patent description.

     “[The] trunk which may be constructed of leather placed over a wood box in the usual way.  The trunk, however, instead of opening at one side, as usual, opens at one end....admitting when necessary, of being turned entirely over so as to rest upon the ground....

     The lids....may be formed of light wooden frames covered with cloth, and to the inner side of the lid.... there are attached straps....which are secured to the inner side of said lid.

     The two parts....of the trunk receive clothing as usual, and in one of them an india-rubber placed, said mattress when required for use being inflated with air.  The mattress when not inflated may be folded within a small compass.”

     Did you catch that last part?  There was an AIR MATTRESS used with the trunk bed!  The fact that there were air mattresses used during the Civil War was news to me (and no doubt will be good news to my re-enactor friends!).  Unfortunately, there is no remnant of an air mattress contained in this trunk bed, but I will certainly be on the lookout for one now.

     “When the placed on the parts....the frame....of [the] unfolded and the legs adjusted downward to support said frame in an inclined position, as shown clearly in Fig. 1.   

     This frame....forms the pillow of the couch, and when unfolded adds materially to the length of the couch.

     There may be four or six desired, four at least must be used.  These bars....form a frame to receive a cloth...., which may be of light india-rubber cloth or any water-proof fabric.

     When necessary or preferable the waterproof cover....may be dispensed with and a mosquito net substituted for it.” 

     If you will recall the photos from Part 1, there was some blue mosquito netting contained inside Clara Barton’s trunk bed.  There was no other cover inside the trunk, but the mention of the india rubber cloth brought to mind one of the artifacts which was found at her Missing Soldiers Office.

This is a Civil War shelter half, stamped “U.S. Sanitary Commission” which was found with Clara Barton’s items at the Missing Soldiers Office.  It has a rubber backing to make it waterproof.  Normally this item would have been carried by a soldier, and fastened together with another shelter half to form a whole tent for two soldiers.  When this shelter half was found, there was some speculation as to why it was in Clara’s possession.  Is it possible that this was used as the “waterproof cover” for her trunk bed?  It’s certainly a topic which is worth more research!  Artifact is owned by the U.S. General Services Administration.

     I also found that though Mr. Strong lived in New York in 1861 when he applied for the patent, by 1862 he had opened a business in Washington D.C.

Here is an advertisement from the maker of Clara Barton’s trunk bed from the 1862 "Boyd's Washington and Georgetown directory: containing a business directory of Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria."  His New York origin is apparent in his reference to “New York prices.”

     This was definitely an interesting and educational research session!  It has certainly given the NMCWM some good information to include in our new Clara Barton exhibit.  Watch for that to be completed in the near future!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

When the War is Over

     There’s a new exhibit at the museum!  Our “Tools of the Trade” exhibit had been in place for five years, so it was time for a change.  We chose to highlight some of the issues faced by the veterans after the war, so the new exhibit is titled, “When the War is Over…The Mental and Physical Legacy of War.”  It is a topic which is sometimes overlooked, and it relates well to some of the issues faced by veterans of more modern conflicts.

     Before the new exhibit could be installed, I had to take care of the artifacts from the old exhibit.  They need to be carefully taken out of case and transported to the artifact quarantine area, also known as my office!  Later, they will be returned to the collection room.  

These are surgeon’s coats from the old exhibit.  I kind of like seeing them side-by-side here.  However, do you see any issues with this location?

Take a look at all that sunlight coming through the window behind the coats!  Even when I close the blind, there is too much light for the wool coats.  They would fade if left at this light level for very long, so I put cloth covers over them for protection from the light and from dust.

     Now that the artifacts are stored safely, let’s get back to the exhibit case.

See how nicely the old panels fit together here?  The idea was to simply take these down and put the new ones in the same place.  It should be easy, right?

Oh no, the title panel overlaps the panels beneath it!  This won’t be quite as straightforward an installation as I’d hoped.  Isn’t that what happens with most projects though?!

Interns to the rescue!  Emily and Cooper seemed happy to get some hands-on experience with museum exhibits.

Before bring in any artifacts, Emily cleans the insides of the exhibit doors. 

This looks much better.  Cooper dusts off the new panels, because dust another enemy of artifacts!

     I have to admit that I could get used to having this much help!

The large items are brought in first.  The wheelchair is a style which could have been used by Civil War veterans.  You can read more about it here.  

     After I dusted the risers and put protective sheets of Mylar on top of each riser, the remaining artifacts were put into their places.

With over 60,000 amputations performed during the Civil War, there were many veterans who required prosthetic limbs.  The U.S. government supplied limbs to the Union veterans, and there were programs in place which helped to supply the Confederate amputees with prostheses.  The arm is from the NMCWM collection and the peg leg is on loan from Gene and Carol Carmney.  You can read more about the displayed arm here and the peg leg here.

Veterans who had a hand or arm amputated needed some modifications to their eating utensils.  These are amputee eating utensils which combine a knife and fork so that they can be used with one hand.  These utensils are on loan from Scott Pfeffer.  To the left of the utensils is an invalid feeding cup, which could be used to feed liquids to hospital patients.

As you can see, there are many more artifacts on display here.  If you get the chance, come by to see them in person!  The official exhibit opening will be in August.

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.