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Museum Mysteries

“ARGH!!!!” “AAAAHHHHHH!!!!!” “WHAT THE HECK IS THIS NUMBER????” “THAT’S SUPPOSED TO BE A LETTER ‘R’ ????” (Some of the phrases I have been known to say while working with artifacts)

All part of a normal work day in an institution that has been collecting objects for 81 years. 81 long years full of many thousands of artifacts that came in and various directors, curators, conservators and collections staff members that have come and gone.

A large number of the early employees and volunteers had no museum experience. There were no professional standards to govern how objects were stored, treated, exhibited or documented like there are today. So they did the best they could with the materials they had and we can only thank them for providing us with some fantastic artifacts and buildings to house them.

But we also have an occasional mystery to solve when dealing with old paperwork, even older objects and the various methods they used to get things done.

For example: How many cannonballs were shipped to Newport News on banana boats in the 1930s if there were “about 200 pounds” in the first load and “around 100” in the next? If some were used for decoration and some were supposed to be exhibited in the museum, exactly how many were left after a WW II scrap metal drive if they kept a “representative sample”? And if you are trying to find two cannonballs that have been lost for a few decades, how can you be sure that they weren’t stolen, tucked into a corner in some tiny outbuilding or melted down to make a cannon? Sounds like a bad algebra problem, doesn’t it?

Or how about trying to figure out what the accession number on the bottom of the tea cup is supposed to be. Is it an X or a scribbled Y, and is that a 9 or a 4?

And if someone took a black marker and wrote an accession number on a piece of old first aid tape and then stuck it to the bottom of a 100 year old plate, how the heck do we get it off without doing any harm?

(I can’t prove it scientifically, but I can assure you that there is a correlation between how well adhesive sticks to an artifact and the age or value of the piece. I can’t get a piece of first aid tape to stick to my finger, but our first curators could place that same piece of tape on an artifact and nobody would be able to remove it. Ever.)

Modern museum standards ensure that our predecessors won’t have some of the same frustrations we experience. Files contain any and all notes and documents that pertain to an artifact. Things like information on paint composition, requests for publication quality photographs, conservation treatments and materials used. How many times it has been loaned out to other institutions, information on donors and artists, and countless other facts that may help in the future. And we update older files whenever we come across additional information.

Artifacts are numbered using materials that are permanent and will do no harm. First aid tape labels are a thing of the past as we work to remove the remaining pieces still stuck to a few of our objects. We are constantly working to improve our storage conditions and to update packing materials and storage boxes as new and better products become available.

Maybe one day the great cannonball mystery will be solved. But until then, we will continue working to ensure our collection pieces are taken care of properly so they will be around another 81 more years and then far into the future.

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