Our museum is temporarily closed to support the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Read a message from our director, and check our website and social media for updates.

Live blog: Experts answer your #AskACurator questions

Today, many of our staff are participated in a global, Twitter-based Q&A called Ask a Curator Day. Here are a few of our favorite questions and answers. 

Greg Kenyon, Collections on the Web Contractor, Division of Work and Industry: This integrated circuit was collected because it is an example of "chip art"—microscopic doodling on an integrated circuit. Sometimes done to protect intellectual property, sometimes just for fun. Not much in any collection would be smaller than this Godzilla.  

This 21msp50/55/56 digital signal processor chip was created by Analog Devices Incorporated around 1994. The chip contains an image of a fire-breathing Godzilla. NMAH-DOR2011-8750
Front: This 21msp50/55/56 digital signal processor chip was created by Analog Devices Incorporated around 1994. The chip contains an image of a fire-breathing Godzilla.
Back: This 21msp50/55/56 digital signal processor chip was created by Analog Devices Incorporated around 1994. The chip contains an image of a fire-breathing Godzilla. NMAH-AHB2012q12903
Magnified view: This 21msp50/55/56 digital signal processor chip was created by Analog Devices Incorporated around 1994. The chip contains an image of a fire-breathing Godzilla.

Greg Kenyon, Collections on the Web Contractor, Division of Work and Industry: I love our collection of campaign medals from the Scovill Company. This one of Lincoln is my favorite. I think it shows an example of early political messaging in miniature. 

This presidential campaign medal was made by the Scovill Manufacturing Company of Waterbury, Connecticut around 1860. NMAH-AHB2010q16139
This presidential campaign medal was made by the Scovill Manufacturing Company of Waterbury, Connecticut around 1860

 

David E. Haberstich, Curator of Photography, Archives Center: The Greensboro lunch counter has the greatest resonance for me, since it represents the site of a sit-in which challenged segregation in a key, iconic gesture of defiance. We can vicariously connect with that act from decades ago by focusing on the artifact and imagining the scene.

Shannon Thomas Perich, Curator, Division of Culture and the Arts: In addition to a scholarly background that combines material culture, visual culture and history, experience and proof of your ability to interpret and handle objects is important. Take a look at your natural skill sets and your aspirations to see what kind of museum work might be of interest to you. Being in an object collection isn't the only way to work in a museum. Many people who love objects and history are social media mavens, registrars, education and program specialists. Internships are a great way to test out what kind of work you might like, get experience, and build connections.

David E. Haberstich, Curator of Photography, Archives Center: For me, it's the original photographic negative of the "Mid-Winter Assembly" of the NAACP in Baltimore, Maryland, 1912, by Addison N. Scurlock. 

The Mid-Winter Assembly, Baltimore, Maryland [often misidentified as "Formal Dance at the Whitelaw Hotel"] [paper photoprint,] 1912. 618ps0237203-01sc
The Mid-Winter Assembly, Baltimore, Maryland [often misidentified as "Formal Dance at the Whitelaw Hotel"] [paper photoprint,] 1912

The scene depicts W.E.B. DuBois and NAACP members at an elegant white-tie-and-tails ball. For years this image had been misidentified as a much later photograph taken in Washington, and the fact that the photograph celebrates this civil rights organization shortly after its founding is makes it more poignant—and historically significant.

Shannon Thomas Perich, Curator, Division of Culture and the Arts: Jimney Crickets! Most cherished object? That's a painful question to answer! It depends on the topic and day of the week as to what our favorite objects are. In the Photographic History Collection, there are almost 250,000 objects! How to pick? 

I'll tell you what kinds of objects thrill me. The ambrotype of the washerwoman for the Union Army is a compelling object that asks more questions than it answers. 

Ambrotype of the washerwoman for the Union Army
Ambrotype of the washerwoman for the Union Army

There is a photograph by Moholy-Nagy of tiny fish heads that are triangles with circles on a chipped white, octagonal plate that is off center balanced by a dark tablecloth. It's a photograph in which your brain dances between representation and abstraction. 

On the technology side, it's a comparison between the first US patented camera and John Paul Caponigro's iPhone. Not a lot of difference in size, but Holy Toledo! What a difference in power, capacity, utility, commercialism, art, history, and technology!

a comparison between the first US patented camera and John Paul Caponigro’s iPhone
A comparison between the first US patented camera and contemporary fine art photographer John Paul Caponigro's iPhone

David E. Haberstich, Curator of Photography, Archives Center: We don't have very much from New Hampshire (we need to collect more) in the collections I work with, but I like this picture of a boys' band in Manchester.  

Faris and Yamna Naff Arab American Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. NMAH-AC0078-0000041
Industrial School Band in Manchester, New Hampsire. Faris and Yamna Naff Arab American Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Shannon Thomas Perich, Curator, Division of Culture and the Arts: I love to just open up a drawer or a box and see what's in there! Because of how our objects are stored (by maker, format, size) rather than by subject, there are often two seemingly unrelated objects adjacent to each other. The game I like to play is to figure out how they might be related historically, technologically, or artistically. Because it isn't an obvious relationship, it opens up avenues of discovery to deep how I understand the depth and power of photography.

Shannon Thomas Perich, Curator, Division of Culture and the Arts: There are many activities as we gear up of the new culture exhibition and we don't have a typical day! The beauty of the job is the diversity of challenges and problem solving as we select objects from the collection, acquire new objects, research our many topics and dense theme, work with our designers, plan interactives, plot for a media-rich website, fundraise, plan for public programs around the country, in the building and around the exhibition itself! So much to do!

David E. Haberstich, Curator of Photography, Archives Center: First, I don't think there's a "typical" curator. I think we're all different in our responsibilities and in the ways we schedule our time.

For me, a typical week would be easier to explain, as I may concentrate on a single activity on a particular day and exclude other things. So—in a week I might do my own research and writing for publication; answer public inquiries; work with collections, including inspecting, arranging, and documenting; negotiate with photographers and other potential donors to arrange gifts of photographs for the collections; read journals, magazines, and online material in my field to try to keep up; catalog collection photographs online and edit catalog entries by interns and other staff. (I must be leaving something out.) 

I have an additional responsibility, which is unusual, that I share with another curator in the museum—arranging a series of weekly lectures by other staff, fellows, and outside speakers, setting up refreshments and taking care of the AV for them, introducing the speakers, etc. The latter is valuable to me because it exposes me to many other disciplines and research in areas outside my own. 

Timothy Winkle, Associate Curator, Division of Home and Community Life: Unfortunately, we don't have any leather buckets from Union Fire Company, which Benjamin Franklin and several other volunteers officially founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in December 1736. 

However, Franklin was a pioneer in fire insurance as well as fighting fire, and we do have an object from the mutual insurance company he helped to found in 1752.  

The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire (or the Philadelphia Contributionship for short) is still around, the oldest successful property insurance company in America.

When they insured a house or business against fire, the policy owner was issued a fire mark to install on the property to show it was insured. These fire marks were originally designed as four clasped hands, cast in lead and mounted on a board.  

Fire mark with four clasped hands
Fire mark with four clasped hands

Ours is the second oldest surviving fire mark in the US, issued by the Contributionship in January of 1754, just two years after Franklin and his fellow Philadelphians founded the company.

Naturally, as a founding father of firefighting, Benjamin Franklin became the namesake of many a volunteer fire company, and his image appears on a number of objects in the collections, including fire hats, decorative panels from fire engines, and even a portrait, painted decades after his death, where he sports the fire helmet and uniform of a 19th century fire chief. So while we may not have buckets that belonged to him, we do have buckets that speak to his legacy.

19th century leather fire bucket, probably from Massachusetts
19th century leather fire bucket, probably from Massachusetts
19th century leather fire bucket, probably from Massachusetts
19th century leather fire bucket, probably from Massachusetts

Katherine Ott, Curator, Division of Medicine and Science: In the medical collections, we have early 20th objects removed from patients' throats and saved by Dr. Chev Jackson.

Objects removed from patients' throats and saved by Dr. Chev Jackson
Objects removed from patients' throats and saved by Dr. Chev Jackson

Eric Jentsch, Deputy Chair and Curator, Division of Culture and the Arts: When collecting modern artifacts, we try to find items that will help examine and reflect the American experience. So they should be able to tell broad stories, and not just be celebrity-driven. All acquisitioned items become part of our permanent collections. 

Daniel Gifford, Manager of Museum Advisory Committees, Office of External Affairs: One thing I find fascinating about 1962 Seattle and 1964 New York—which we are currently highlighting at the museum—are the number of religious pavilions. Historians often focus on the science exhibits as evidence of the Cold War, but religious freedom, diversity, and focus was on display at American fairs too for the same reasons—Cold War politics.

Eric Jentsch, Deputy Chair and Curator, Division of Culture and the Arts: When I was a kid I saw Fonzie's jacket on display here at the museum. Not only was I excited that something I was so interested was on display, but also that I was shocked at how different from how it was than the image in my mind. For example, it was brown, (while I thought they were always black,) and it was much smaller than I would have thought (no offense, Mr. Winkler). It sounds goofy but it really made me examine the things I thought were "cool" more critically. Now that's basically my job! 

On December 8, 2010, Henry Winkler ("The Fonz") paid the museum a visit. He is pictured in this snapshot along with Fonzie's jacket and the Museum's entertainment curator Dwight Blocker Bowers.
Henry Winkler ("The Fonz") paid the museum a visit in 2008. He is pictured in this snapshot along with Fonzie's jacket and the museum's entertainment curator Dwight Blocker Bowers. Note: The jacket is not currently on display but look for our new culture exhibition opening in 2017.

Hillery York, Collections Manager, The Value of Money: My advice would be to find out what you are passionate about, do you care about the denomination of the coin or the iconography on it? There are many ways that a collector can collect coins. Some examples included:

  • All the dates in a series of one denomination
  • Collecting all denominations for a certain period of years
  • Collecting a series of commemoratives
  • Collecting all of one country

Some examples of collectors whose collections have made their way to the National Numismatics Collection that I now work with include:

  • Grand Duke Georgii Mikhailovich: Collected the coinage of the House of Romanov.
  • Paul A. Straub: Collected Gold and Silver coins from around the world.
  • Josiah K. Lilly Jr.: Collected only Gold coins from around the world.

Hillery York, Collections Manager, The Value of Money: Some of the strangest currency we have would have to be our lovely, and large, Yap Stones. Yap Stones are large round stones with a hole through the center. They were used as a form of currency on the Island of Yap.

Yap stone, used as urrency on the Island of Yap
Yap stone, used as urrency on the Island of Yap

Our largest stone in the collection weighs over 160 pounds! Luckly, these obejcts were not intended to circulate like the coins we use today and were mostly used for large payments, such as a dowry.  

Yap stones function as a medium of exchange as well as a representation of accumulated wealth and social status within the community. The larger the stone, the more value it holds. A majority of these stones are too large to be moved each time they are exchanged, however the change in ownership is acknowledged by the community giving the stones their value. Interestingly, some people still regard Yap stones as money today. 

Katherine Ott, Curator, Division of Medicine and Science: When a person who loves their stuff indiscriminately starts to look for patterns, context, provenance, wider/historical significance, and similar, they become a curator. 

Shannon Thomas Perich, Curator, Division of Culture and the Arts: Good question! The word "curate" is getting bounced around a lot these days!  For the sake of your students, it's the difference between randomly writing a bunch of words on a page and editing an essay AND simply dumping your toy box out on the floor versus having a collection of action figures, dolls, coins, stamps, and so on. To curate is to create a group of objects based on a set of highly selected parameters so that the resulting group makes a statement of some sort. To curate implies that there has been a thoughtful and educated process used to select objects that reveal something important.

Eric Jentsch, Deputy Chair and Curator, Division of Culture and the Arts: The culture hall will feature a "permanent" exhibition that will be chronological in nature, as well as a music hall and changing exhibition space. We are still early in the process, but how American identity and culture are influenced, perceived, and transformed by others is of great interest. For example, think of the British transformation of American blues, which led to a "British Invasion" of artists into the United States.  

Eric, what's your favorite sports-related item in the collection, and why does it resonate with you? #AskACurator

Eric Jentsch, Deputy Chair and Curator, Division of Culture and the Arts: Tough question! I like objects that reveal how sports inform, impact, and reveal our history. So with that said, I would like to say this pugilist belt from the 19th century.

A pugilist belt from the 19th century
A pugilist belt from the 19th century

It features two bare knuckled boxers, along with Irish imagery such as harps and clovers. In the center are US flags with the text "United America." An object like this shows not only how sports were an outlet for success for Irish immigrants at the time, but also how, in this country, one can identify with a particular group; cultural, political, ethnic, e.g., but still consider oneself part of a "United America."  

Laura Simo, Museum Specialist, C. Malcolm Watkins Fellow, Division of Home and Community Life: We recently finished cataloguing a collection of almost 500 pocket knives. They were all collected in the early 20th century by one gentleman (who also owned his own pocket knife company). I think of pocket knives as being for the outdoors, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were used every day by men women and even children.

One of my favorites is a bronze-plated novelty knife made in the shape of a woman's heeled shoe as a premium or promotional giveaway with purchase of a pair of Star Brand Shoes. It is tiny (less than two inches!) and contains a pen blade and nail file—very convenient for the woman carried it. Another favorite of mine shows a boy in a sailor's suit with the words "OUR BOY." Both of these knives were made around c. 1905-1910.

Judy Gradwohl, MacMillan Associate Director for Education and Public Engagement: One of my favorite objects is the parlor gas meter. Although we relegate gas meters today to the basement or outside the house, in the late 1860s when this object was produced, gas lighting was not common in homes. Parlor gas meters like this object were a thing of beauty and status symbol. This particular meter is gorgeous, and I can imagine the owners proudly observing their gas consumption. Note the decorative cupids, golden roses, and glass window showing the meter's inner workings. 

Parlor Gas Meter about 1867
Parlor gas meter, about 1867

Judy Gradwohl, MacMillan Associate Director for Education and Public Engagement: Those of us working on Object Project get pretty excited about everyday things that change everything. One of those everyday objects that surprised us is the bicycle. 

We're looking at how bicycles changed women's lives in the late 1800s, creating a greater sense of mobility, independence, and coinciding with the rational clothing movement to abandon corsets and move to split skirts and bloomers. Of course, bicycles were also central in changes in manufacturing (first ball bearings!), sports (breaking the color barrier), help lead to the Good Roads Movement, and ultimately the highway system. Think about all that the next time you hop on a bike!

Have you ever been overwhelmed emotionally by an item? If so what? 

Susan Evans, Program Director, American Food History Project: This museum is the national repository for September 11, 2001, collections. For the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we brought the objects out of storage for a very intimate display for the public. It was incredibly powerful and an important experience, but also very difficult to work with that collection.  

 

Laura Simo, Museum Specialist, C. Malcolm Watkins Fellow, Division of Home and Community Life: We have a lot of kitchen-related artifacts! I've been working mostly with pieces from the 1800s and early 1900s and, right now, it is tough for me to think of one that I've catalogued that is totally obsolete or wouldn't be useful in today's kitchen. In fact, I am always amazed at how many household devices and tools from the past are still being used or made in some form today. For example, we have two Universal Bread Makers made by Landers, Frary and Clark of New Britain, Connecticut, c. 1904. One makes up to four loaves and the other eight. Basically, it is a big bucket with a crank on top that you clamp to a table for mixing and kneading the dough. The company promoted it as "Simple to use, even a child can operate it." These were incredibly popular and durable.

One early utensil I'd like to try (that requires very little work) is an ice-cream cornet or cone disher, patented by William Clewell of Reading, PA in 1876 and manufactured by Valentine Clad of Philadelphia. It's the original ice-cream scoop! (A "cornet", by the way, is a cone-shaped paper or wafer container for ice cream.) It has a cone-shaped bowl with a V-shaped blade inside that scrapes out the ice cream when you turn the little key on top. I think it would be so fun and pretty to have a plate full of cones of all different kinds of ice cream. Yum! 

Thanks to everyone who asked us a question during Ask a Curator Day! Many thanks to the museum staff who participated as well.