History in sugar cube-sized pieces and under 140 characters

A recent tour group saw all kinds of interesting artifacts behind the scenes, from the first implanted heart to a baggy of chads from the Florida election recount—and tweeted the whole thing.

Curator Katherine Ott's eyes glow mischievously as she shows off what might look like odd, even disturbing objects in the museum's Medical History Collection to our modern eyes. Back in the day, they were the state of the art. Holding long, metal tongs in her gloved hands, she asks the 15 participants in the museum's first behind-the-scenes "tweet-up" tour, "What do you think this device did?"

 

Physicians used a tonsilotome, like this one from the 1880s. A swift, one-handed motion would remove the tonsils. This photo is by tweet-up participant Han Nguyen (@hanseldee on Twitter) via the Creative Commons license.
Physicians used a tonsilotome, like this one from the 1880s. A swift, one-handed motion would remove the tonsils. This photo is by tweet-up participant Han Nguyen (@hanseldee on Twitter) via the Creative Commons license.

It's a "tonsil guillotine," used to perform the most common surgical procedure in the United States from 1915 to the 1960s : removal of the tonsils. Reactions range from "ew, yuck" to "ooh, cool" and they aren't just verbal. While touring two of the museum's collections storage areas, tour participants shared the experience via social media, allowing followers and friends to tag along as they squealed over a Civil War-era stomach pump and thumb mitts designed to keep kids from sucking their thumbs.

 

Toddler-sized aluminum mitts from the early 20th century prevented thumb-sucking. Photograph by Karon Flage (@Karon on Twitter) via the Creative Commons license.
Toddler-sized aluminum mitts from the early 20th century prevented thumb-sucking. Photo by Karon Flage (@Karon on Twitter) via the Creative Commons license.

Physicians used stomach pumps to prevent death from poisoning as well as to feed patients who could not swallow. Jailers used stomach pumps to force-feed imprisoned suffragettes to break their hunger-strikes. This stomach pump is from the Civil War era. Photo by Liz Williams (@wizzerfly on Twitter) via the Creative Commons license.
Physicians used stomach pumps to prevent death from poisoning as well as to feed patients who could not swallow. Jailers used stomach pumps to force-feed imprisoned suffragettes to break their hunger-strikes. This stomach pump is from the Civil War era. Photo by Liz Williams (@wizzerfly on Twitter) via the Creative Commons license.


The game of "guess the mystery object" was trickier among the collections overseen by Curator William L. Bird. A sugar cube-sized piece of metal turned out to be a piece of the Bastille. A hunk of nondescript granite is a chipping from Plymouth Rock. A sliver of rough wood was chipped from the railroad tie where the east and west railroads met at Promontory Point, Utah.

"It's a good thing these things are labeled," says Bird, whose book Souvenir Nation will provide another peek into these fascinating objects, "Otherwise, you’d have no idea what they are."

 

Piece of the Bastille, Paris, France, ca. 1380. Gift of Mrs. Sarah Ella Cummings, 1924.The storming of the Bastille, a former royal garrison and prison in the city of Paris, on July 14, 1789, was a seminal event in the history of the French Republic and a revolutionary symbol that has been celebrated in Franco-American relations ever since. The demolition of the Bastille left a debris field that fed the market for Revolutionary relics in France, England, and the United States. Photo by Karon Flage (@Karon on Twitter) via the Creative Commons license.
Piece of the Bastille, Paris, France, ca. 1380. Gift of Mrs. Sarah Ella Cummings, 1924.The storming of the Bastille, a former royal garrison and prison in the city of Paris, on July 14, 1789, was a seminal event in the history of the French Republic and a revolutionary symbol that has been celebrated in Franco-American relations ever since. The demolition of the Bastille left a debris field that fed the market for Revolutionary relics in France, England, and the United States. Photo by Karon Flage (@Karon on Twitter) via the Creative Commons license.

Plymouth Rock fragment. Gift of the heirs of Mrs. Virginia L. W. Fox, 1911. In the early 1800s, tourists visiting Plymouth Rock were provided a hammer so that they could take a piece of the rock as a souvenir. Photo by Andres David (@andresdavid on Twitter) used via the Creative Commons license.
Plymouth Rock fragment. Gift of the heirs of Mrs. Virginia L. W. Fox, 1911. In the early 1800s, tourists visiting Plymouth Rock were provided a hammer so that they could take a piece of the rock as a souvenir. Photo by Andres Almeida (@andresdavid on Twitter) used via the Creative Commons license.

Wooden chip cut from a railroad tie, Promontory, Utah, 1869. Traveling west with his mother in June 1869, eight-year-old Hart F. Farwell stopped at Promontory, Utah, to cut a chip from a special railroad tie. The previous month, on May 10, 1869, the ceremonial “Golden Spike” had been driven into the “last tie” to complete the first transcontinental rail link in the United States. Gift of Hart F. Farwell, 1922. Photo by Hilary-Morgan Watt (@bluelikechagall on Twitter) via the Creative Commons license.
Wooden chip cut from a railroad tie, Promontory, Utah, 1869. Traveling west with his mother in June 1869, eight-year-old Hart F. Farwell stopped at Promontory, Utah, to cut a chip from a special railroad tie. The previous month, on May 10, 1869, the ceremonial "Golden Spike" had been driven into the "last tie" to complete the first transcontinental rail link in the United States. Gift of Hart F. Farwell, 1922. Photo by Hilary-Morgan Watt (@bluelikechagall on Twitter) via the Creative Commons license.

 

But what are they? The tiny, easy-to-pocket tidbits of history are relics from a time when attitudes towards collecting, historic preservation, and national memory were different. Getting souvenir from your travels often meant physically taking a piece of history home with you—even if that damaged the original. So many tourists took home pieces of the Promontory Point railroad tie that it needed to be replaced regularly.

Today, pocketing relics at historic sites is against the rules. And what's the point of cherishing a wood splinter that, minus an identifying label, looks like any old piece of mulch? I suppose you could also ask why 15 people tweeted a photo of that same splinter to their friends, sharing a bite-sized piece of history in 140 characters.

For the people around the world following the tour through Twitter, the answer was clear. "I'm obsessed with these #sitweetup posts! Wish I was there!" someone tweeted from Fredericksburg, Virginia. A resident of Germany tweeted, "Trying to pack for my trip to Edinburgh tomorrow but too distracted by all the interesting #SITweetup posts!"

 

A tweet from Shropshire, England. Metrics indicate that as many as 1,156,000 Twitter users may have seen #SItweetup tweets.
A tweet from Shropshire, England. Metrics indicate that as many as 1,156,000 Twitter users may have seen #SItweetup tweets.


As Ott showed us a few keys that were made by patients in a psychiatric hospital from found materials such as nails, wire, and cans, the group had more questions than she had answers. "We don't know who made these or why," she said. Did they use the keys to escape or to access a food pantry? We don’t know. "But there's somebody present in them —through their ingenuity," she said. "You can tell there's a person, an individual behind these objects. This is their tangible history."

 

Patients at Winnebago State Hospital in Wisconsin made these key from "found" materials.
Patients at Winnebago State Hospital in Wisconsin made these key from "found" materials.


Like relic collectors bringing home pieces of historic sites to prove they were there, many of us crave a personal connection to history—a way to connect with the stories behind the stuff. As I looked around the room at tweet-up participants listening to our curators, taking photos, and posting tweets, I saw them each sharing their own take on history.

Highlights of the tweet-up can be seen in this colorful summary.

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the museum's New Media Department. She'd like to thank the participants of the tweet-up for making our first one a success. Serenety, Andres, Lynsey, Erin, Meghan, Karon, Paul, Han, Julia, Erin, Chris, Hilary-Morgan, and Liz, thank you! Another big thanks to curators William L. Bird and Katherine Ott for sharing their enthusiasm for the museum's collections and stories. If you work at another museum and would like advise on hosting a tweet-up, e-mail Erin at blascoe@si.edu. 

Posted at 12:28 pm EST in From the Collections,Teaching & Learning