Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Orange you glad you know the story?

My home page is BBC News and today I noticed a news article of interest to collections types.

A museum in Staffordshire (UK) was recently presented with a dried out old orange.

Ew, you might say, nasty old fruit. But this orange is 116 years old and tells a poignant story about a mining disaster in 1891. A man had packed his lunch for the day - including this orange - and went to work. There was an explosion and he was fatally wounded, later dying in a hospital. His effects, including his lunch box containing this orange, were returned to the family, who kept them. The orange, over the course of time, dried out and blackened. He never did get to eat it for his lunch.

I'm sure people local to the area knew the story of the mine disaster, but to learn one of the smaller stories, a story that includes a remarkable piece of fruit such as this, makes history somehow more present.

*image borrowed from a google image search

Monday, October 29, 2007

Monday Answers

On Friday I asked you all, Whatzit?

Larissa said she thought it might be a multi-purpose candle holder. And that's close enough for me!

Here's the story: Ellensburg is very near to the Cascades, and very near to a small town called Roslyn. Roslyn was a coal mining town and this object comes out of the coal mines there. My information says it was a miner's candle holder. The point could be driven into a crack in the rock, or it could be hung from a ledge with the hook.

Mining was a huge industry in Roslyn, especially in the early years just before 1900. Even today, as we see on the news all the time, mining is a dangerous industry. Can you imagine what it was like over a hundred years ago? Going down underground with just a couple of candles and these candle holders to light your way as you work in the dark and the dust? It's a scary job, but a job that fueled the railroads which helped to populate the West.

I found this description of miner's candles via Google Image Search. It's a small object, and fairly simple, but important historically.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Friday Whatzit?

Did you notice there was no whatzit last week? I noticed. But I have one this week! And it's an object that I have records on! So it's not one of those cheating Whatzits where I hope you'll tell me what it is. :)

It's a metal object, relatively small.

Blurry photo of a different angle:

It's from North America. And that's all I'm going to tell you about it. Metal, not big, and from North America. So. Whatzit?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Still More Rocking, Still Less Rolling

Can you guess what these are?

Boxes on a cart? Yep! Boxes filled with.... rocks! Specifically projectile points and chipped stone tools.

All those boxes on that cart, yes all of them, are chipped stone pieces from a donation the museum received in the 1950s. The catalog cards read something like "Cigar box of arrowpoints, 200 in box. Found at campsites along the Columbia River." And there are many cards like that. At some point the "arrowpoints" were removed from the boxes they were donated in and put in these white cardboard boxes; I would guess it happened in the mid to late 1970s. And they've been sitting in them since then.

From time to time, people have worked with this collection of chipped stone, recording information about each object, placing it in a bag, and writing a unique object number on the bag. But the objects still remained in these boxes.

I find it difficult to locate things in the boxes, even the ones which have been previously worked over and individually bagged. In light of this, I have asked one of my intrepid volunteers to help me organize these lithics so that they are accessible. And also so we are able to evaluate if the 200 in the cigar box still number 200, or if some have been misplaced over the years. This project will also allow us to bag the loose objects for consistency. Additionally, the individual bags will protect the points from the kind of damage possible in the older storage (ie, a bunch of them in a box). A further benefit is that this project makes the objects more accessible to any researchers interested in working with this unprovenienced collection of lithics.

In the end, this arrangement will be more accessible, better organized, more easily assessed, and will save space.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

An Answer Revealed?

So, what was it?

Kate guessed that it's a weaving tool. This is a really good guess. And for all I know, it might be. It certainly bears some resemblance to descriptions of weaver's combs I've found online (the one linked to does not resemble this object, but it's a starting point, if you're interested). But I can't know if Kate is right.

The museum's records tell me only that this is "Northwest Indian bone comb or fork." These records are incomplete; the donation was purchased decades ago by the museum, after the collector has passed away so the information is incomplete at best. In fact, it's the same collection as the awl from two weeks ago, and it has the same problem.

Personally, I really like this object. And I really wish I knew more about it. Until the time that this collection is researched by experts, we probably won't be able to identify its original purpose.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Whatzit Friday

It's already another Whatzit Friday! I don't know about you guys, but the weeks are just flying by.

So I'm going to be honest with you, I don't know much about this week's object either. It's a bit like the awl of a couple weeks ago, where our records are very very sparse. But, it's a pretty interesting object, and I'd appreciate any insight you might have on it. I'll let you know what my records say early next week.

I apologize for the quality of the images. For these informal pictures, I'm working with a quite old digital camera that only focuses when it wants too - despite my efforts, I could not get an image of the entire object in one frame that wasn't a complete blur.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Rock and roll! Actually, less rolling please.

Look at how shiny all those rocks are! But wait! They're impostors! Those are reproductions! Made from plastic! In the 1970s!

But no need to be all exclamatory. These are the kind of casts commonly used in education collections in museums and archaeology departments across the country. These are very high quality casts, but it is not the way of small museums to have such large Clovis points, or to have authentic Mousterian or Levallois pieces.

You'll note these casts have numbers on them. At some point in the past, these casts were accessioned into the permanent collection. By accessioning these pieces, the museum agreed to hold and preserve these pieces to the best of its ability in perpetuity. Whether or not a set of casts should or should not be held as "museum objects" is not a question we're going to address just yet. But the numbers were applied to show that the object belongs the museum and to give some information about it and to make it unique from the other objects that might look like it. The 21 means that these casts were our 21st accession. The 15 on that one in front means it is the fifteenth object cataloged.

You'll also note that the pieces are just knocking around at the bottom of that box there. Having objects "knocking around" does not mesh with preserving an object in perpetuity. So one of my projects today was to put the casts and their original sleeves in new polypropelyne bags, labeled and organized by catalog number (that's the accession number followed by the object number, or 21-15 for that one in front).

After completing my project, the casts are better protected, more organized, and accounted for.

This is actually a pretty good example of what a collections manager does: Protect, organize, and account for. It just doesn't sound as fun when you say it like that, does it?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Tuesday answers, and a problem fixed

Whatzit Friday has come and gone, leaving you hungry for answers. Larissa B. guessed that it might have something to do with X-ray protection or could be a tool for flattening. Ana agreed with her. Someone guessing off the blog thought it might be a hanging sign with the signage worn off or a base for hammering on.

Good guesses everyone, but not quite right. It is... drum roll please... a bed warmer! Made of soapstone and collected in Wisconsin around 1930, this object would be heated and placed under the sheets to warm them up on those cold Wisconsin nights. Brrr!

It has been pointed out to me that, in order to comment on this blog, you need to sign into a google account. I have corrected that, and now anyone can comment on this blog, google account or not. I apologize for that oversight; it has been rectified.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Another Whatzit Friday

My my my, what have I got for you today? Well, how's about you tell me.

It's heavy. And, um, rectangular, and um, heavy. The handle-looking-thing is metal and slightly rusted. Whatzit?

Thursday, October 4, 2007


A lot of what I do is about respect. Respecting objects, respecting their histories. This becomes even more important when working with objects made by Native groups. I am not an expert on things, just on how to care for them. Therefore I might not know what is a sacred object and what is not.

I bring this up because, when I take photos of objects to post on this blog, I do not intend to offend anyone. If I inadvertently post an object in a way which is inappropriate, I would like to be notified so that I can rectify the error.

In the meantime, I do my best to identify which objects seem in some way special and which ones were more of the day-to-day variety. And I think it's fairly often clear what falls into which category, but I still worry. There haven't been any comments to precipitate this post, just my continuing desire to maintain appropriate levels of respect for objects.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Tuesday morning answers

The answer to Friday's Whatzit: Awl. Well, an awl from Alaska is what the accession list says (the information written down when we originally acquired the object).

Larissa B. made a good guess of a hair pin. I was thinking along those lines myself; I would have guessed something like a shawl pin.

An awl is an object used to punch holes in things, usually leather. Awls are usually made from a strong, sharp material such as bone or horn. I find it a bit unusual that this awl is so light and made of wood. There is some evidence that it could be an awl - the "pointy" part has a shiny patina on it, as if it were rubbed against something frequently.

The awl will continue to be a mystery to me, at least until someone encounters it and knows the history of this kind of object. But that's part of what makes this job fun. I have the chance to encounter new objects and learn about them. If I don't know what they are, I'll do some research to better understand what it is I'm taking care of.

The mystery presented by objects such as this awl is also why museum people insist on asking so many questions of individuals interested in donating things. Museums are in the business of stories; preserving stories, telling stories, keeping stories. This awl has lost its original story, it's become a mystery. If the awl came to us today, we would ask the owner where they got it, how they got it, what they know about it. We might discover it belonged to the owner's grandmother and was carved by the owner's grandfather to commemorate a friend. We might discover that the awl was used to make the boots which protected the family's feet against the cold. Suddenly the awl would become imbued with a history much greater and much more useful than the mystery that we currently have. But maybe, if we encounter the right person, we'll be able to find a story for the awl yet.