Most of the time, working in the museum field can be a delightful, rewarding experience. It’s exciting to work at a site that’s always intrigued you, exhilarating to come across a unique artifact that resonates with you, and gratifying to see the completion of a project. This field can also be tricky…some projects involve unexpected twists or challenges, and there are artifacts that, despite hours of research and collective brainstorming, remain maddeningly unidentified. Here at NMSC, we’ve had our fair share of these tricks and treats of the museum world. With Halloween right around the corner, what better time to share with our readers some of our favorite treats – and most memorable tricks – of the past year.
Sara, NMSC Director:
For me, the greatest treat is getting away from my desk covered with spreadsheets, budgets, and project statements, and into a park to do something that feels practical and useful. Developing a housekeeping plan involves a combination of common sense and time management skills. These humble tasks are also some of the most important things we do as stewards of our national treasures.
It was a treat for me to encounter a portion of a servants’ bell in the archeology collection from Saratoga National Historical Park. I have always been interested in the material culture of the household. The amount of stuff required to keep the inhabitants of a house fed, clean, and entertained has always fascinated me. In the 19th century, the specialization of household chores, items, and roles is vividly reflected in the period’s material culture. In a home of even modest means, everyone had a proper place, and everything had a proper function. Because of the propriety expected of a family at home and the amount of work required to maintain it, servants were indispensable. A service bell is a tangible reflection of this way of life and this period in our history. If only some helpful soul would come running when I ring a bell…
The state of Maine has over 550 cobble beaches. The cobblestones from these beaches served many historic purposes, including being used as material to build colonial forts, but today they can be found as collections in tourists’ homes. While processing the Acadia National Park Resource Management Records (1854-2012), I came across a very interesting article: Maine’s Cobblestone Treasury: Is it Secure? by Tammis Coffin, 1986. It was a treat for me to read about something that I had never really considered before. Often when tourists visit a National Park they bring home a souvenir, usually something that is easily accessible, such a rock, feather, driftwood or in the case of Acadia National Park, a cobblestone. This article explores what the impact would be on the park’s natural resources if everyone brought home a cobblestone. Coffin points out that if people continue to harvest cobblestones, someday the cobble beaches that are part of Maine’s natural beauty will be a thing of the past. The law now protects natural resources including cobblestones, and according to a park naturalist interviewed for the article, “most people drop their stones when they see a ranger coming.” So is Maine’s cobblestone treasury secure? What do you think?
My favorite “treat” from this past year was the miniature handpainted pearlware tea set from Saratoga National Historical Park’s Schuyler House. The mismatched set, smaller in size than what would have been used by adults for tea, could have been part of a child’s play tea set or may have been acquired by an adult who collected them as tchotchkes. I like miniatures because they offer us a glimpse into personal tastes and pastimes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and because they are tiny and adorable!
One part of my job that I consider to be a real treat is participating in public archeology events. Researching a site or a group of artifacts in depth and then sharing this information with park staff and the public is incredibly rewarding. My 2012 presentation on the David Brown Site at Minute Man National Historical Park was one of my favorite events. David Brown was a colonial leader at the North Bridge on the fateful date of April 19, 1775. His story is important to our understanding of the American Revolution and the events leading up to it. Archeological excavations on the site have yielded information that could not be revealed by any other source. This site and the artifacts associated with it are perfect examples with which to teach the public the importance – and the excitement – of archeology.
Definitely one of my biggest treats this year was working on several vessel reconstructions for Saratoga National Historical Park (see previous blog post, Piece by Piece). This purple transferware soap dish is one of my absolute favorites, though. We don’t see many soap dishes, nor do we see much purple transferware, so it was pretty new to me. Because of the unusual shape, reconstruction and cavity packing (see previous blog post, Cavity Packing: The Gift that Keeps on Giving) took a while, so I was able to spend some quality time with this particular piece.
One of my favorite “treats” of the year was going to Saugus Ironworks National Historic Site to conduct a risk assessment for the park’s museum collections. It was my first time visiting the park, which is not only fascinating but also quite beautiful. The visit also gave me the opportunity to think about museum collections in a very different way than we usually do in the Archeology Lab. While protecting the artifacts is always a high priority, larger protection issues such as security and fire prevention are usually beyond our scope. It was great to talk through some of these issues with park and regional staff, and to help them come up with solutions to the challenges parks face in protecting their cultural resources.
While recently processing a collection of records, I had the challenge of trying to identify unlabeled slides, cds, photographs, and VHS tapes. When examining the slides and photographs it was tricky trying to discern whether the image was portraying revegetation, the process of planting native plants to restore the landscape to its original condition, or non-native plant management. One VHS tape had no labeling at all, and since NMSC does not have a VHS player, I was unable to play the tape to see its content. With rapidly changing technology, items such as VHS tapes may soon have no device to support them and will be unusable. It is critical for a record creator to identify and label records so that future staff members and researchers can properly utilize those records and objects.
After cataloging many archeology collections from various national parks, we in the NMSC Archeology Lab can fairly confidently identify creamware vs. pearlware, freeblown glass vs. molded, and hand wrought nails vs. cut ones. Cataloging gets interesting when “other” artifacts come across our desks that require us to think outside of the box. Although “indeterminate ceramic object” and “indeterminate metal object” are legitimate classifications when cataloging, and it’s better to use them than to identify something incorrectly, we hate to resort to these terms. It’s a lot more fun to figure it out!
Despite our best efforts, however, we do have some tricky artifacts that have remained unidentified. Take a look and share your opinion or hazard a guess – we’d like to hear from you!
Mystery Wooden Artifact from Saratoga National Historical Park
This round, wooden object from Saratoga National Historical Park looks a lot like an oversized doorknob. It’s about 8 cm in diameter, undecorated, and has a small circulr cutout in the center of one surface. The other surface is entirely plain. Have you seen one of these before? What do you think it is?
Mystery Iron Artifact from Roger Williams National Memorial
This decorative iron object from Roger Williams National Memorial is about 19 cm long. If you say it looks a bit like a butter knife, or a letter opener, you would not be the first! We believe that it may be some kind of decorative hardware object – a shutter fastener, perhaps, although we could not see how this would have functioned as a fastener. Do you agree? Do you have other ideas?
In addtion to tricky artifacts, we are occasionally also presented with tricky – or in this case, sticky – situations. One challenge of working with archeology collections is sometimes having to undo the conservation efforts of the past. We recently worked on a collection where several vessels had been partially reconstructed, but we were unable to determine what adhesives had been used. As many of the mends were failing anyway, we opted to remove the adhesive. This was done by painstakingly peeling globs of glue and wax off of the edges of hundreds of tiny sherds. Definitely more of a trick than a treat!
Well, there you have it: some of our favorite treats and tricks of the past year. We wish you all a safe and happy Halloween, and if you are a fellow museum professional, we hope that you enjoy all of the tricks and treats that our field has to offer!