Museum 101: “A” is (still) for Accession

Way, way back at the beginning of this blog, we covered the process of accessioning, or bringing objects into the museum’s collection. Recently, while doing some research for ongoing accessioning here at the museum, we came across our humble little blog post on the second page of a Google search for “museum accession.” This shows us two things: 1. That we’re awesome, and 2. That museums do a poor job talking about how museums function. To this end, we’ve decided to revisit the accessioning because the task is never done.

We’re always accessioning things here at the Campbell House, whether they are objects returned to the house (as with these goblets that were the subject of our first post about accessioning) or they are objects related to our mission, such as the items from our recent Lucas Place exhibit. Sometimes, we also find that we have objects in our collection that, for one reason or another, we overlooked. That’s what we did recently with our lamp globes.

Gravity+Globe=Bad News

Gravity+Globe=Bad News. This globe was broken more than 25 years ago. 

Why were the globes never accessioned? Well, it’s probably because the lamps and gasoliers were. We simply assumed that would suffice. However, as we noted with the chimney pots, objects within the museum tend to move around a lot. Glass and gravity do not play well together either, with the result that they sometimes break. Since the globes can move around separately (and have), and since many of them are the Campbell’s originals and quite valuable in their own right, we’ve chosen to start accessioning each and every one (there are more than 100!).

To accession a globe, first we need to assign it an accession number. This number has three elements: first the year (2015), then the month (12), then a sequential number based on how many objects we’ve already accessioned that month (say, 3). That makes this globe 2015.12.3. This number has to be written on the object, or we could lose track of it. However, we can’t just write on the globe with a Sharpie, because they don’t make a museum-quality pen. We also have to protect the globe.

First, we dab on a layer of a durable, non-yellowing and quite smelly resin called B-72. After half an hour of drying, we can use a special acid-free archival pen to write the number down (chicken scratch handwriting is helpful), then we cover it with another layer of B-72.

Now we need to plug the object into our database. We use a program called PastPerfect, which is, well, perfect for small museums. PastPerfect lets us keep track of our objects, and provides an organized (and searchable!) way to write down everything we know about the object. We can describe its physical attributes, it size, its condition, where it came from, its history, who gave it to us, how much it cost, and so on. We also take a photo of the object, mark down its location, and backup all our data, because we really don’t want to have to do all this again. PastPerfect also puts this information online for us, which is what you see when you search the collections.

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Accessioning an object can take anywhere from five minutes to an hour, depending on how important the object is, how much we know about it, and if we need to let two layers of B-72 dry. Once we’ve done this and put the object into the museum, we’re all done! Except for the cleaning, the rearranging, the annual “eyeball” inventory,  the donation forms…

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Just What is This Object?

One of the great advantages of working or volunteering at Campbell House is that the opportunities for learning more never cease. While all our volunteers know a great deal about the Campbells and St. Louis, there are always subjects that someone else is an expert in. So when we encounter a conundrum that we just can’t figure out, we know exactly what to do: go to the experts. In this instance, we’re putting a call out for you, our knowledgeable and erudite visitors, members, and general fans, to help us identify…this:The Object

This object can be found in the basement beneath the parlor, and we aren’t 100% sure what it is. The exterior portion is about 44″ wide and 30″ tall from the floor. Perhaps the most unusual thing about it is that it is cut into the floor. Just how far down it extends is difficult to determine, given the build-up of sediment, dust, dirt, soot, and who knows what else (we pulled out a manual from our 2000s Restoration, and obviously there is that Coke can in there). Given what we can see, the unit is cut at least 20″ below the floor.

The container itself is pretty beat up, with a pretty big dent in the side and the metal on top torn and bent. Oddly, there seem to be two openings, one of top and covered with wood, the other on the front. There is also an uncovered gap on the front. Was it always there? Who knows?

The machinery on the inside is even more interesting. There are two “turbines” connected by a central shaft. The shaft is apparently powered either by the two motor-like objects, or by the belt pulley on the right side. Judging by the remnants of metal, the belt pulley was once cordoned off. If it is a belt pulley, what was the belt connected to? There is no obvious anchor on that side for another motor or wheel for the belt to connect to. Each of those “turbines,” meanwhile, has fins on the inside. When activated, the entire contraption would spin.

That’s what we know for sure. Museum lore (of the “I had someone on a tour once who said it was this” variety) claims the object is an air cooling unit. We know that the house had a Frigidaire of some kind in the mid-1930s, thanks to expense account references to “frigidaire air conditioning equipment”. However, our research efforts to connect this bit of trivia to the object in the basement have come to naught.

We’re willing to bet that someone out there knows what our mystery object is. Even if you don’t know for sure, maybe you have some idea on what function it serves, or how it works. Either way, we’d love to hear from you–and put one Campbell House mystery to rest.

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Taxidermy

In looking at an empty exhibit room, one of the biggest challenges is deciding which story to tell and how to tell it. Most of the Campbell story has been shared countless times since the Campbell House opened as a museum in 1943. Being the brand new graduate assistant at the start of this process, the majority of the Campbell story was new to me. What facet of the Campbell story could I possibly help tell?

Taxidermy.

Now I know what you’re thinking-taxidermy is creepy. I would be lying if I said I never made that comment before. However, after spending months doing researching for Curated Curiosities: Taxidermy and Other Objects Under Glass, I gained a new appreciation for the craft.

The Campbell’s bird “Beauty”, preserved as a taxidermy specimen since 1902.

You might also be asking yourself, “did Robert really hunt?” Did Virginia create objects under glass? The answer is no, not that we know of. Robert might have hunted for food during his fur trading days in the Rockies, but never mounted anything as a trophy. And while we do not have evidence that Virginia herself made some objects under glass, the variety of examples in the house suggest she purchased some to decorate her home. However, the Campbells did stuff their pet bird, Beauty, who can be seen on the mantel of the morning room, alongside other birds that served as parlor decorations. Additionally, they have a variety of exotic birds under glass domes, perhaps purchased as souvenirs from their travels. These specimens give us a glimpse into the Victorian taxidermy fad not often told outside of hunting trophies.

Detail of a flower arrangement made from shells. Courtesy of the St. Louis Science Center.

Originally, taxidermy served as a way to preserve the pets of the aristocracy, but also grew with the interest in the natural world and cabinets of curiosities trend. Many aristocrats during the 17th and 18th centuries collected fossils, gems, bird skulls, feathers, and other items in their cabinet of curiosities. Some of these cabinets were purely for the entertainment and gratification of the owner, having no rhyme or reason for the collection. Others sought to make their collections as scientifically accurate as possible, utilizing scientists, academics, and explorers to collect new and rare specimens from “exotic” lands. A byproduct of this was the formation of museums, which used the collection of these specimens to further study in the field of natural history.

One problem that both collectors, scientists, and museums faced was the preservation of specimens. Often, “stuffed” animals would be destroyed by pests or deteriorate naturally. Artificial eyes and noses were not yet on the market, so many early Victorian taxidermy pieces had preserved bodies with deteriorating “soft” body parts. A variety of preservation methods were introduced, but nothing served as both an insecticide and preservative as well as Bécoeur’s arsenical soap, which served as   go-to preservative for taxidermists from the end of the 18th century until the 1970s.

Becoeur’s recipe for arsenical soap, a revolution in preparing taxidermy.

Taxidermy also served as a learning tool. Today, people might view taxidermy displays or dioramas in natural history museums as “dead zoos,” but before the Central Park Zoo and the Philadelphia Zoo, the first zoos in America, were established in 1850 and 1874, or the St. Louis Zoo which opened its doors in 1910, the average person did not have the opportunity to learn or see many different animals. Perhaps they were just familiar with those on the farm or the birds at the park. Even then, zoological parks did not spring up overnight across the country. Before this, how did one learn about animals? In the early 19th century, books or documents depicting animals included sketches based off of someone’s description of the beast. How does one describe a lion or elephant to someone who has never seen one before? Naturally, these were not accurate sources. Due to a growing fascination and curiosity with the natural world, explorers, collectors, and scientists sought to preserve specimens and display them in a museum, or showcase them at a zoo.

Much like people today, Victorians might have taken an interest in nature due to environmental issues. The Victorian Era in America saw an exponential growth of cities and the birth of the Industrial Revolution, both of which favored progress over preserving the natural world.This led to the growth of displaying nature in the home. Not only did this mean small animals under glass domes such as those in the morning room of the Campbell House, but other examples or recreations of nature as well. These included flowers, plants, fruit, or figurines made from materials such as wax, seashells, hair, wool, or glass.  Additionally, these “crafts” showcased the maker’s wealth. Similar to visiting Hobby Lobby to purchase project materials today,  the person making these crafts needed time and money to create these pieces-a luxury not afforded to the lower class.

The Taxidermy exhibit, on display through January 2018.

Once seen as curious, cute, or ferocious, taxidermy is now deemed outdated, creepy, and unsettling by most audiences. While this craft and other nature-inspired objects under glass, such as shell art or hair art, are no longer in fashion, they gives us a glimpse into the material culture of the Victorian Era and perspectives on the natural world.

Taxidermy and other nature-inspired crafts were used as a way to preserve nature for scientific study, to display hunting trophies, to preserve pets, as souvenirs from travels, and as decorations. Through January 2018 , you can see all different examples in our exhibit, Curated Curiosities: Taxidermy and Other Objects Under Glass.

-Jenna, Graduate Assistant

 

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