August Artifact of the Month – Compass Collection

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Ivory compass, 1750-1850. Courtesy of The Mariners' Museum.
Ivory compass, 1750-1850. Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum.

For August’s Artifact of the Month, we will be looking at a series of compasses that we have here at The Mariners’ Museum. The compass is one of the world’s oldest navigational instruments, dating back to the Chinese between the 9th and 11th centuries. A magnetic compass works by aligning its magnetic needle with the Earth’s magnetic North Pole, and therefore ensuring that it always points north. The compass was created from the use of lodestones, which is a mineral with a magnetized iron ore. The Chinese found that when put flat on a board, the lodestones would continue to consistently point in the same north and south direction. The compass hugely improved the accuracy of maritime exploration and travel. It made it much easier to locate destinations, and cut time off of traveling. With the aid of other devices, the compass can also be utilized to figure out both longitude and latitude. It also made it so that areas known to be problematic to navigate were much easier to avoid or move through. This helped revolutionize maritime travel, making it easier for explorers to go on longer expeditions as well as safer ones.

One of our most beautiful compasses in our collection is one that was purchased by Fred Hill in Paris, France. It is only about two and half inches in diameter, and has an ivory case that opens and closes much like a woman’s compact. It’s dated to between 1750 and 1850, though the exact date and maker is unknown. There is another compass in our collection hidden in the hold here at The Mariners’ Museum that was also purchased by Fred Hill. This one is a miniature compass, which is also by an unknown French maker (perhaps the same unknown maker!). This compass is thought to have maybe been a toy, and is set in a brass bowl on a bone stand. This miniature compass is thought to be from 1910. This miniature compass is pictured below, while the compact compass is pictured above.   Read more

Welcome to our Workroom–please excuse the clutter

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Creativity.  Rachel wrapping a canoe with blankets and stretch wrap.
Creativity. Rachel wrapping a canoe with blankets and stretch wrap.

Today I offer a true “behind the scenes” look at our museum world. Welcome to our workroom. A small, but vital area that sometimes looks as if a tornado blew through it and other times it looks so pristine that you would swear we probably don’t do any actual work here. The ambiance of this area depends on who is using it at the time, whether we are expecting a visit from a donor or researcher, and which projects are underway.

This is the place objects moving in, out and around the museum make a stop during their journeys. Shelving and closets house new artifacts, incoming and outgoing loans, and artifacts being moved on and off display. Items we are trying to identify or research will also find a temporary home here. The length of time an object will stay in the workroom ranges from a few minutes, a few weeks, months, or as long as a year (or more), depending on what needs to be done. It could take just a few minutes to replace an identification tag that was removed before exhibition and a year to complete the extensive paperwork and processing for a donation consisting of hundreds of items.   Read more

Hidden Treasures of the Mariner's Museum: A Fine Collection of East Asian Prints

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I am ashamed to say that though I grew up in the Hampton Roads area, I had not visited the Mariner’s Museum until this past spring. I am not terribly interested in boats or maritime equipment, and so always assumed that there would be nothing of interest for me at the Museum. I could not have been more wrong. Aside from the beautiful ship models of all shapes and sizes, the Museum has all sorts of maritime paraphernalia, from old compasses and teapots to uniforms and interactive exhibits. What I was most surprised and excited about, however, was the Museum’s Asian print collection. Hidden away in storage lies about 100 Asian prints, mostly Japanese, dating from the 19th to the 20th centuries. Though the prints are all connected by a reference to maritime themes, they often vary widely in content. From illustrations of Commodore Matthew Perry, who was the first American to enter Japan in the 1850’s, to descriptions about foreign ships and vibrantly colored pictures of everyday Japanese life, the Mariner’s Museum’s prints give the viewer a glimpse into Japanese history from their perspectives, as well as providing visually appealing pieces of art.

Perhaps the most historically interesting pieces in the print collection are the Japanese prints concerning the arrival of Commodore Perry between 1852 and 1854. Perry’s arrival signaled an end to Japan’s long period of self-imposed isolation, and the technology he brought with him, as well as Western clothing and cultural customs, were new to the Japanese, fostering much interest among them. In order to document these new sights, as well as explain them to the general public, Japanese prints such as the one below were created.   Read more

Smallest object in the collection

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We’ve recently discovered which object in our collection is the smallest.  It is a coin, a Pegasos Stater of Corinth, which we’ve been able to date to 625-585 BCE due to the design on it.  On one side (what I would assume is the front) is an image of Pegasos (also spelled Pegasus) and on the other side is a type of swastika.  A picture of either side is below.  The first image is Pegasos, which is difficult to see as it has been pretty worn down, but the other side is easier to make out.

Of course you may be wondering why it is just now we are discovering this object as the smallest in the collection (as well as possibly being the oldest).  It is because there hasn’t been much work done on this particular coin and it has pretty much lain in storage forgotten, while we thought that a ship model was the smallest object.  This ship model (pictured below) is in a flashlight bulb, which seems pretty unbelievable to me!  You can see how tiny it is and understand why we thought that this was our smallest object.   Read more

The art of the tattoo

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We have many collections to be proud of here at The Mariners’ Museum, but one of our most popular, which also happens to be one of my favorite, is the collection of tattoo pieces that belonged to the famed August “Cap” Coleman.  Coleman opened shop in Norfolk in 1918, but was forced out after WWII due to a law was passed in Norfolk making tattooing illegal.

Our collection of Coleman objects came to us through the years, with the bulk being purchased directly from Coleman in 1936.  Two of my favorite pieces are sheets of tattoo designs that were both signed by Coleman, making them extra special (pictured below).  The designs are are very colorful and showcase Coleman’s artistic ability.   Read more