Thursday, August 28, 2014

Artifacts Online!

     I’ve been working on a big project here at the museum for the past couple of months, and I can finally share it with you.  The National Museum of Civil War Medicine’s artifact collection is now online!  I’ve been advocating for this feature for a couple of years now, so I am very pleased to see it finally available to the public.  Now anyone who wants to find out about a particular artifact at the NMCWM can simply search for it online.  This should be a great help to students, educators, re-enactors, and researchers who want information, and even images, of our artifacts.

     Basically, this is a part of the PastPerfect Museum Software artifact data base which I use to keep track of the collection.  It is some of the artifact information which has been entered by all of the museum’s curators who have worked here.  I can update the images and information, and add new artifacts as needed though, so the amount of information contained in this online data base will continue to expand. 

Go ahead and take a look at it here.
     You can search by category, by keywords, or even by a person’s name if you have something specific in mind.  There is also a “Random Images” button you can click to see pictures of a random group of artifacts from the collection. 

Even though I know what is in our collection, I find it interesting to see what comes up in this search! 

     I hope you have fun exploring the artifact collection of the NMCWM, and that you learn a little something in the process!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

No Mules Allowed in the Galleries!

     One of the NMCWM’s recent donations is an original plate taken from the “Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” which is also referred to simply as the “War of the Rebellion Atlas.”  This atlas was published by the Government Printing Office in 1895, and was compiled by Captain Calvin D. Cowles of the 23rd U.S. Infantry.  It was published in 36 volumes, and contained 175 plates of maps, illustrations, and technical drawings from both Union and Confederate sources.

This particular print is titled, “Diagram Illustrating the Principle Means Used in Transporting the Sick and Wounded and Medical Supplies during the War of the Rebellion, 1861-5.”  It’s certainly something we can use at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine!

     It contains 39 individual illustrations of Civil War medical care and transport items, some of which we have on exhibit at the museum, including various stretchers, a U.S. Army medicine pannier, and a field medical kit.  

The Squibb medicine pannier fits well into one of our cases.

     However, many of the other items illustrated, including a hospital ship, an Autenreith medicine wagon, ambulance wagons, hospital train cars, and an Army wagon and mule team, simply wouldn’t fit into our display cases, or even our galleries.  Or would they?  Take a look at how we managed to display some of these larger items.  

Diagrams like this one of a Civil War hospital steam ship are certainly one way to show an item which would be too large to bring into the museum building….

….especially if you also have an interior plan of the item to show how the item was constructed and equipped.  You can read more about a Civil War hospital ship here. 

A real Autenreith medicine wagon wouldn’t fit in the museum.  So, we could show visitors this diagram of it….

….or we could have just the back portion of an Autenreith medicine wagon reproduced and installed on a wall.  With the addition of a Plexiglas cover over the back, we can also display some of the original medicines and supplies which were contained in the wagon.  While it isn’t an original wagon, it certainly shows how these wagons functioned.

A full-sized railroad car is certainly too large to fit into most museums,….

…..but we turned a ramp between galleries into a hospital train car, complete with some background train sounds!  You can get a closer look at our “Train Ramp” here. 

Though I’m sure everyone would love to see real mules hitched to a real Civil War army wagon….

….we can’t have animals in the galleries with the artifacts!  The horses and mules painted on this mural do still show how the wagons were moved.  In this case, it is a reproduction of an ambulance wagon, or more accurately, HALF of an ambulance wagon.  The other part of the wagon is incorporated into the mural in order to save space.

     Finding creative ways to display these over-sized items can certainly be challenging, but I think our team here at the NMCWM has done a great job!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

To Touch or Not to Touch?

     This week, I hope you don’t mind if I step up on my soapbox for a minute!  The following article was brought to my attention recently, and I think the topic of letting the public handle museum artifacts is worthy of a bit of discussion.  It’s a short article, so go ahead and read it here.  

     Now I certainly understand about incorporating some hands-on exhibits for the visitors.  In fact, I wrote a blog post about these exhibits at my museum, here.
     I also understand about the need to bring visitors into the museum.  Though it is true that there wouldn’t be a museum if we didn’t have an artifact collection, it is also true that we couldn’t care for or display the collection to the public if the museum didn’t exist!  So, what is the best way to care for the artifacts, while still attracting visitors to your museum?  Considering that my job as a museum curator is to protect the artifacts for future generations to appreciate and learn from them, I have a hard time accepting that the best answer is to allow everyone to handle the artifacts.  Will that help to bring in more visitors?  The information in the article suggests that it can.  Will it allow these artifacts to be available to future museum visitors though?  I doubt it.

    They stated that, “Nothing’s been broken yet….,” but you have to consider that ‘yet.’  Chances are good that something will eventually be broken.  Even if nothing technically “breaks” though, what about the wear and tear on the artifacts?  

When I handle the artifacts in my museum’s collection, I wear gloves for a good reason! 
     The dirt and oil on hands can damage many materials, even if you can’t see the damage at first.  For instance, metal artifacts which visitors are allowed to handle will tarnish or corrode more quickly.  Leather or cloth artifacts will become discolored and deteriorate more quickly.  And when that happens, what will be used then to lure more visitors in to see (and handle) the museum’s collection?  The museum probably won’t have enough funds to keep replacing artifacts.  Having artifacts donated will also become more difficult when potential artifact donors see how their family heirlooms will be handled. 
     It seems to me that there has to be some middle ground here.  Yes, people like to see AND touch items, but do they have to be the original artifacts?  There are other options.  It is possible to make reproductions of many kinds of artifacts.  Visitors can then have the experience of handling or using the item, without damaging the original artifact.  Some museums even have collections of original artifacts which are not museum quality, which can be handled by the public.  Bringing some well-selected artifacts out of the exhibit cases and having trained museum staff members give the visitors a closer look at them (without letting them touch) is also a better option than having the artifacts handled by everyone who walks through the door! 
     I simply don’t see the logic or forethought in sacrificing a museum’s collection to bring in more visitors.  These museums may well get an increase in ticket sales today, but what are the long-term consequences and effects?

     What do you think?  The comment section is open (though moderated) for your thoughts!       

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Dr. Who?

     If there’s a little known hero of the Civil War, it has to be Dr. Jonathan Letterman.  I was reminded of that recently when the founder of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Dr. Gordon Dammann, gave a lecture on Dr. Letterman and his Letterman Plan.  Maybe you’ve never heard Dr. Letterman’s name before, but your life has probably been affected by his work.  The Letterman Plan, which is a system for treating and evacuating casualties from battlefields, is the basis for many aspects of our modern military medicine, emergency medicine, and even disaster relief.

Here is Dr. Dammann, talking about Dr. Letterman and his plan.  I think this is one of his favorite topics!

     At the start of the Civil War, there was no set procedure for removing wounded soldiers from the battlefields.  In some cases, the wounded were left on the battlefield for over a week, which meant that many of the men, who might have been saved, died from their wounds or from exposure.  While the army did have ambulances which could transport the wounded soldiers, the ambulances were under the control of the Quartermaster Department which procured and distributed most of the supplies for the army.  As you might imagine, the ambulances were not always the top priority in this system!  In fact, there were instances in which ambulances were appropriated to carry other supplies, or even personal items. 

     In 1862, just a few months prior to the Battle of Antietam, Major Jonathan Letterman was named the Medical Director of the Union Army of the Potomac.  His first step toward revamping the medical system was to establish a separate Ambulance Corps. He gave control of the army ambulances to the officers of the ambulance corps, he distributed ambulances to each regiment, he had enlisted men trained to serve as ambulance drivers and stretcher bearers, and he had the use of ambulance wagons for any non-medical uses forbidden.  

This Wheeling ambulance is one of the types of ambulance wagons used during the Civil War.  Illustration from “The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. (1861-65) Part III, Volume II.”
     Letterman also reorganized the system of medical treatment and field evacuation.  He applied a triage system in which the wounded were treated based on the severity of their wounds instead of the order they arrived.  He also established aid stations on the battlefields, where medical officers could stabilize the wounded soldiers and arrange for their transportation to a field hospital.  The field hospitals were located near the battlefields.  It was here that the soldiers received additional treatment, including emergency surgery if needed.  If more long-term treatment was required, the wounded were transported to the larger, more permanent hospitals which were usually located in the cities.

     The Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history, was the first real test of Major Letterman’s new system.  It was a success.  Even when faced with over 23,000 casualties, his plan ensured that all of the wounded were removed from the battlefield within 48 hours, which undoubtedly saved many lives.  He continued to make changes and improvements, and in 1864 his plan was made official by an Act of Congress.

Though the equipment has changed, the Letterman Plan is still in use today.

     I’ll leave you with a quote from the NMCWM’s own website: Major General Paul Hawley, Chief Surgeon of the European Theater in the Second World War, said of Letterman, “I often wondered whether, had I been confronted with the primitive system which Letterman fell heir to at the beginning of the Civil War, I could have developed as good an organization as he did. I doubt it. There was not a day during World War II that I did not thank God for Jonathan Letterman.”

An 1862 photo of Major Letterman (first seated figure) and his staff in Warrenton, Virginia.  Library of Congress image.