Liveblog: Our favorite questions and answers from #askacurator Day

The global online Q&A session between museum curators and the public known as Ask a Curator Day takes place today, Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Fourteen of our curators are available in one-hour shifts to answer your questions from 10 AM – 5 PM EDT. Take a look at the schedule and topics areas our curators specialize in. Just tweet us your question and include the #askacurator hashtag to ask one of the participating curators a question. You can also post a question in the comments below. We'll share our favorite questions and answers here throughout the day. Highlights from Q&A action around the Smithsonian are on the Around the Mall blog. 

What collection object makes you laugh? - @erikajoy

Shannon Perich: This 1920 Underwood and Underwood photograph of Santas playing cards. These 1920s Santas were a bit less cheerful. 

 

1920 Underwood and Underwood photograph of Santas playing cards
1920 Underwood and Underwood photograph of Santas playing cards

How are you utilizing technology to bring material culture to life for people in the digital age? - @whitney_nell 

 

Shannon Perich: I love this question about what it means to be a curator in the 21st century! It really means doing all the old stuff that we are legendary for—hours of pouring over objects, reading old and new texts, writing and rewriting to develop our knowledge. And now it means we have so many more ways to share our knowledge, share our objects, have conversations, and bring our excitement to the public.  

You know about collections databases, blogs, and collection information, but we are also working on gaming applications, lesson plans, webinars, 3D printing technology, and our fabulous new media office helps us utilize social media nad the like. 

Nothing beats seeing THE THING in person, but are always thinking about how to present as much of the collections and what we know about them to the public.

As a curator who studies photos, how do you stop yourself form just poring over photos for hours? - @thescousewife

Shannon Perich: Actually, sometimes I don't stop myself! It's part of my job to study these objects. By spending time with the objects and revisiting them, new ideas, observations, and understandings emerge.  

1950s-1960s backyard snapshots of the exact variety that Shannon Perich explores for layers of meaning
1950s-1960s backyard snapshots of the exact variety that Shannon Perich explores for layers of meaning

If you had a week to research just one topic in the music collection, what would it be? - @erinblasco (yes, staff can ask, too)

 

John Hasse: I'd do the research to create a map of where each of our pianos was built, and then a timeline to show the pianos' manufacture, year-by-year. Then I'd seek a way to combine the two data sets into a three dimensional graphic or table. 

 

The maker of this piano is unknown, but it is thought to have been made in Germany or Austria in the 1840s. This is a small square piano contained in a work table, which has receptacles in the top of the case for sewing implements. Such multi-purpose instruments illustrate the importance of the piano to the training of women in the 19th century.
The maker of this piano is unknown, but it is thought to have been made in Germany or Austria in the 1840s. This is a small square piano contained in a work table, which has receptacles in the top of the case for sewing implements. Such multi-purpose instruments illustrate the importance of the piano to the training of women in the 19th century.

Older games you have in the collection? - @thegameaisle

 

Ryan Lintelman: Take a look at George McClellan's chess set. He used it during the Civil War. I also found a cribbage board carved into a walrus tusk. Its owner, a Coast Guardsman, said that it was made in the early 1900s by native Alaskans. 

 

Cribbage board on a walrus tusk
Cribbage board on a walrus tusk

My dad is a Civil War buff and been to DC many times. What might he have missed about the topic at the museum? - @joshuabeatty

One object which he might have missed is the Army of the James Medal (or "Butler Medal"), which is on exhibition in American Stories. This is the only medal ever specifically struck for and awarded to African American soldiers—those who fought during the Civil War. General Benjamin Butler commissioned the medal for black soldiers who fought bravely under his command at the Battle of Chaffin's Farm and New Market Heights.

 

U.S. colored troops medal, commissioned by General Benjamin Butler to honor black troops under his command
U.S. colored troops medal, commissioned by General Benjamin Butler to honor black troops under his command

What item in the collection is unique but sometimes overlooked? - @ruthie77rules

Ryan Lintelman: One really unique object that is on display in our Price of Freedom exhibition is a lanyard and toothpick made from bone by a Confederate prisoner. Next to all the big objects in the exhibits (the uniforms, guns, and other military history items), it might be overlooked. This small, powerful object is an incredible piece of history and a reminder of the long presence of prisoners of war in American history. 

 

Lanyard and toothpick made by a Confederate soldier
Lanyard and toothpick made by a Confederate soldier

 

What collection object makes you laugh? - @erikajoy

Ryan Lintelman: I love finding historic photographs where people are goofing around, wearing costumes, and having fun. New technology, especially the tintype (most popular from 1860s-1890s) made photos cheaper, allowing people to feel freer in front of the camera. 

Three silly tintype photos from our Photographic History Collection
Three silly tintype photos from our Photographic History Collection

What collection object makes you laugh? - @erikajoy

Joan Boudreau: One of my favorite prints in the collection is one of a certain Doge of Venice, Aloysius Mocenico. He doesn't seem to have had many teeth. His engraving was prepared by Leo Sexter.

Print of Aloysius Mocenico, Doge of Venice. Engraving prepared by Leo Sexter.
Print of Aloysius Mocenico, Doge of Venice. Engraving prepared by Leo Sexter.

What is your favorite time zone? When do you think the time zones will be abandoned or renamed or modified? @Daniillvec

Carlene Stephens: I travel a lot, which means I change time zones often. My favorite is always the time zone of my destination.

Since modern time zones came into being (November 18, 1883, when North American railroads adopted them), the zones have occasionally changed boundaries and received new names, so I think that will continue in the future.

Check out the photo below of a clock before Standard Time. 

 

clock from before Standard Time—clock would have been set to “Philadelphia Standard Time” before 1883.
Clock from before Standard Time. It would have been set to "Philadelphia Standard Time" before 1883.

What is the oldest clock in your collection and where did it come from? - @inlikecoolhand

A clock from around 1630 by clockmaker David Ramsey
A clock from around 1630 by clockmaker David Ramsey

What is the oldest clock in your collection and where did it come from? - @inlikecoolhand

Carlene Stephens: One of the oldest and most beautiful clocks in our collection was made by Scottish clockmaker David Ramsey about 1630. It's in a small silver case about 4-inches square and decorated with side panels showing the four seasons. It's a complicated timepiece for how old it is: it tells the time, strikes the hours, and has an alarm.

What is the best "hidden" or "least known" object in your collection? - @ProfessMoravec

Noriko Sanefuji: The soybean was commercially introduced to the U.S. market around 1915 from East Asia—mainly from China, Korea and Japan. I recently came across these soybeans (image above) from The Panama Pacific International Expo which was a part of the 1915 World's Fair held in San Francisco, California. 

Soybeans in the collection
Soybeans in the collection

Is there any overlap between lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender collections and Asian Pacific American collections? - @wordsandnosh

Katherine Ott and Noriko Sanefuji: Overlap exists, to be sure, because LGBTQ issues cut across ethnicity and race. And as LGBTQ people become more visible, we are better able to find people and groups with important materials for us to collect. For example, we have a growing collection of culturally specific HIV and AIDS educational materials. We are currently building networks among South Asian activists groups as well as in the arts and entertainment fields. 

How do you decide what goes in the collection as significant to Filipino/American history? - @wordsandnosh

Noriko Sanefuji: A strong provenance/background to tell the Filipino American history that ties to the American experience at large.  

Is the first lightbulb still working? - @HRMeownessWills

Hal Wallace: No, the mythical "40-hour" light bulb that Edison's lab notes say burned for 14 hours was broken by Edison himself. He put the filament under a microscope to see why it burned out.

How can the First Ladies exhibition be used to teach women's history, particularly for high school students? - @abowllan 

Our History Explorer team: Great question! This lesson is directed specifically at high school students who are learning about women and race history. This one is good for learning through objects and significance of materials, what they mean, where they came from, how the reveal the role of the first lady. 

We like to explore objects from differen angles, as gender markers, class markers, power markers. Who made these things and why? Why were these objects given to first ladies? This blog post on thinking about gender expression has some great food for thought. 

What was the hardest part about restoring the Star-Spangled Banner? - @lapopessa

Conservators carefully unroll the fragile Star-Spangled Banner, seen here with protective covering, onto its new custom-built table.
Conservators carefully unroll the fragile Star-Spangled Banner, seen here with protective covering, onto its new custom-built table.

Jeff Brodie: Thank you for this question. First though, it is important to distinguish between "restoring" and "preserving" and object. Restoration is the act of making something look "new." Preservation is the act of ensuring that no further damage occurs and that further or degradation of the object is limited. So our goal with the Star-Spangled Banner project was to take action to "preserve" the flag and limit the factors that threatened its stability.

There is an inherent tension in the work of the museum to both make the objects available and accessible to the public and to ensure their long-term protection. The most difficult challenge for us working with the Star-Spangled Banner was to balance the need to exhibit the flag and keep it on view for the public while also providing the necessary environment (temperature, humidity, exposure of light, security) required to ensure that it would still be there for future generations.

The current presentation and display of the flag reflects this balance. We worked very, very hard to provide a dramatic display for the visitors while also providing a chamber that maintained the necessary requirements for preservation.

What's the longest running display at the museum? - @klainereunites

The heaviest object in the Smithsonian, the Southern Railway No. 1401 locomotive, has been on display since our building opened. The locomotive was built in 1926 and was collected as a good representative of steam transportation. When the National Museum of History and Technology (our former name) was being built, we had the opportunity to collect and display the locomotive. It's been there ever since. The process of getting it into the building was quite dramatic

Southern Railway No. 1401 locomotive entering our building
Southern Railway No. 1401 locomotive entering our building

What is more fun: the hunt for acquisitions or opening an exhibition? - @arttwiddle

Jeff Brodie: Defining "fun" for these activities is a little hard. Opening a new exhibition and acquiring objects for the national collections are both extremely important and gratifying activities. It is always exciting to share a new exhibition with the public, but acquiring objects for the collections and knowing that you are contributing to our shared history forever is special. 

Opening an exhibition pulls you in many different directions.

On the one hand, I am really excited to share the work, the story, the objects, and the history with a public audience. But after spending a very long time—years—researching, planning, designing, and building the exhibition, there is some natural trepidation about how the public—visitors, peers, critics—will respond. And candidly, once the exhibit opens to the public it is no longer "yours" any longer—it's "theirs." When developing an exhibition, we do take quite a bit of time and care to study and explore the public's feelings and opinions about what we are doing. But such studies can only tell you so much and can only guide you so far. Ultimately, it is not until the exhibition is opened and the visitors experience what you have provided that you really understand how effective your work has been. We do conduct studies and evaluations with visitors to help us understand what is working well in an exhibition and what could be improved. 

Each object acquisition follows a similar process, but all are unique in their own way. Each experience brings its own set of challenges and emotions. For example, I went to the World Trade Center in October of 2001 to collect objects for the collection. I suppose I did this both out of my own personal desire to do "something" in the wake of the attacks and to fulfill my sense of public duty to record the event in a meaningful way. But of course, visiting the site was extremely difficult and I felt that what I was doing was inconsequential in comparison to the other work still going on at the site.

But more often acquiring objects is quite exciting and "fun." Recently, I have been studying the relationship between invention and innovation with creativity and skateboarding. In June, the museum hosted the Innoskate event which featured a mini-ramp in front of the museum where we conducted skateboarding demonstrations and panel discussions. Many of skateboarding's iconic figures participated including Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen and they were so gracious in donating their personal objects to the collections including Tony Hawk's very first skateboard given to him by his brother.

Immediately following the donation ceremony, I heard this strange "whizzing" and "whirling" noise and I saw that Tony was taking his board for one last ride on the ramp. This was a total surprise to us and wasn't planned. It was such a fabulous moment and I was really proud to have been part of the team to help make that happen.

One final object that makes you laugh?

Carlene Stephens: It's a chewing gum holder called the Lunken's "Peggy," sold by the Luckenheimer Valve Co. and patented in 1898. Inside of the top, there's a peg on which gum was placed and container was closed. 

 

Need a break from you gum? Stick it in the "Peggy" gum holder.
Teacher tell you to take our your gum? Stick it in the "Peggy" gum holder

 

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. She coordinates the museum's social media accounts and coordinated curators' replies to Ask a Curator Day tweets. She does not encourage using chewing gum holders. 

Posted at 10:43 am EDT in From the Collections,You Asked, We Answer