Great new object for the collection!

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National Archives and Records Administration image of USS Erie (512994)

We acquired a really cool piece for the collection this week to help support one of the Museum’s archival collections. The collection is the William McBlair Papers (MS0018) and it’s one of the Library’s best slavery-related collections. It includes official documentation of McBlair’s US Navy activities and letters to his wife. The collection also documents his Civil War service during which time he supervised the building of the CSS Atlanta (which he then commanded).

William McBlair was appointed a midshipman in 1824. He served on various duty stations, including Falmouth, Massachusetts and Norfolk, Virginia.   As a Lieutenant Commander McBlair commanded the armed storeship USS Erie (it had been converted from a sloop-of-war in 1843) and made several voyages to supply the African and Mediterranean Squadrons.   Read more

An object with a secret even the curators didn’t know about!

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Depot Central de l’Artillerie, 1826

During last Saturday’s Gallery Crawl we ended up getting quite a surprise (and no, I don’t mean the visit by the gigantic bat to the buffet table in the Huntington Room. Okay so he wasn’t gigantic but he was bigger than any bat I’ve ever seen in Virginia!). Unfortunately, the surprise was given to us by one of our signal cannons.

Some of you may remember that the theme for this year’s event was the “secret life of objects” and boy did that cannon have a secret…and it was revealed right in the middle of the event!   Read more

Secrets and the 2017 Gallery Crawl

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The 2017 Gallery Crawl is quickly approaching! As I mentioned before, the theme for this years event is the Secret Life of Objects. I thought I would entice you by showing one of the objects we’ll be highlighting during the event.

The object is a painting of the US Coast Survey Steamer Robert J. Walker. The scene shows a port broadside view of the vessel steaming through a moderately rough sea by artist W.A.K. Martin of Philadelphia.  It’s rather non-descript if you ask me. Just a standard maritime portrait of a vessel—albeit a nice one. Martin very clearly identifies the ship on the front of the painting so we thought it was a little odd that the back of the painting carries the inscription “Loss of the U.S. Brig “SOMERS”, W A K Martin pnxt Phila 18??”.   Read more

Researching maritime art…the leading cause of gray hair

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Watercolor of the half brig Alfredo by Mathieu-Antoine Roux, 1859

Sometimes researching maritime art can be supremely frustrating but persistence is usually the key to unlocking an object’s story. This week I was contacted by a gentleman in South Africa who was interested in a watercolor in our collection by Mathieu-Antoine Roux. The image supposedly depicted a ship called “Alfred”. His ancestors immigrated to South Africa from Hamburg, Germany in 1859 and he was looking for an image that depicted the ship they had traveled on.

The watercolor showed a starboard broadside view of the ship under full sail. The artist very nicely depicted the vessel’s assigned Marryat code on the mizzen mast—the number ‘601’—as well as a house flag, a pennant with the name of the vessel, and a country flag on the stern. He also dated the watercolor (1859) and marked it so we had an idea of the region the ship was depicted in (Marseilles, so the ship was most likely in the Mediterranean).   Read more

The Power of the Internet (part 1)

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No museum can ever employ a subject matter expert for every type of object in their collection—especially when their collection is as vast as ours. While we do have a staff member who can usually handle the identification of our weaponry, I recently asked him question that he couldn’t answer.

The question involved a boarding axe that had four very distinctive stamps on the blade (only one other boarding axe in the collection has a mark—a stamped anchor that immediately identifies it as a French Model 1833). The stamps are a crowned “M”, a crowned “B”, an anchor that looked like a grappling hook, and an indistinct crowned “something or other” (sorry about the technical term). At first we thought it was an eagle, then an elephant, and then a little cleaning showed it to be a couple of decorative letters; a script “R” followed by a letter that looked like an “S” or “F”.
So what do you do when you have an object with distinctive stamps that you can’t identify? Google it. This quick search lead me to the wonderful David Lee in Scotland and his site I’m not lying…check it out if you’re a fan of historical weaponry–you’ll love it.
   Read more