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March 23, 2019

Fantastic fossil finds in Washington County

Working for an organization that has been collecting artifacts for over 100 years sometimes feels like participating in a massive scavenger hunt. As the organization moved, so did those artifacts, sometimes losing records along the way. So sometimes I am lucky enough to come across complete collections that were previously unknown to us. One of these is our collection of local natural history specimens – especially, our fossils. After rediscovering some of our fossils a few years ago, we were offered the very special opportunity to have some identified by a Smithsonian expert. His identifications are what sparked the journey that would end in our ‘Fantastic Fossils’ exhibit that is now on display at the Miller House Museum. At first glance, it does seem weird that a collection of fossils is on display in a Federal Period townhome, but there are multiple historical ties that make the exhibit a great fit with the house and our mission at the WCHS. Scientific experimentation made great strides during the Age of Enlightenment on a global scale, including here in America. Great minds and founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are still renowned for their scientific pursuits. The groundwork for modern paleontology […]
March 23, 2019

Wrapping things up for the New Year

One of the things I most enjoy about being a curator for an historic house is the opportunity I have to share the little details about everyday life in the past with those who visit the museum. Having been privately owned from its construction in 1825 until its donation in 1966, the Miller House is perfect for connecting new visitors with life during the early to late 1800s. As Wi-Fi, tablets, and smart phones become ever present in our 21st century lives, we lose a lot of the contextual knowledge involved in understanding how life worked for our ancestors, and it is crucial that museums now provide that background knowledge. The lessons of the past are only valuable to those who can actually understand and apply them. One of the most effective ways to do this is to build upon connections we still maintain with the past – like the ways in which we celebrate holidays. It is wonderful to be able to point at familiar Christmas traditions like the tree or the stocking and see the interest and comprehension on a visitor’s face as you describe the history behind them. All of that being said, however, sometimes explaining the […]
March 23, 2019

Death was big business in Gilded Age America

There is a fairly common conception that the Victorians were obsessed with death. Plenty of historians devote their careers to the study of the infinitely complex social code surrounding Victorian mourning at the height of its popularity, and some of the most popularly known artifacts from the time period are pieces like memento mori, hair jewelry, or other remembrance pieces. But, as a very smart friend and colleague of mine recently mentioned, Victorians were not obsessed with death. It simply was a very constant reality of life for them, and we tend to judge Victorians based upon the surviving things they left behind. Can you imagine if someone from 2118 were to try to figure out our culture from our social media feeds? What they would come up with would likely not be flattering towards us at all (at least Victorians did not broadcast their awkward teenage phases.) The crucial element in looking at cultural fashions is to give them social and historical context. So let’s do just that! Mourning has been a crucial part of every culture since prior to recorded history, even though those cultures may mourn in completely different ways. Humans simply need to be able to […]
March 23, 2019

When Collections Attack

By Anna Cueto If you ever have a chance to ask a curator what they think is the most important tool of the trade, they’ll likely tell you that it’s a simple pair of gloves – at least, I know I would. For people working with museum collections, latex or nitrile gloves are worth their weight in gold.  You see, despite movies and television showing how sedate museums are behind the scenes, some days curators feel more like Indiana Jones than Marian Paroo – and here is why. A lot of the danger to be encountered in museum storage comes from previous generations using chemicals that were not known to be poisonous until recently. One of most obvious sources of old hazardous chemicals are old pharmacy bottles. While we know better today, previous generations doused ailments with everything from sulfuric acid to mercury to opium, and these chemicals can leave hazardous residues or fumes behind. It’s safest to wear protective gloves and a mask before handling old pharmacy materials. And while I shouldn’t have to say this, certainly never ingest or apply old medications. Historically, the pharmaceutical trade was not very well regulated, and this meant that you never quite […]