Live blog: Answering our favorite #AskACurator questions

Today, museum staff members are answering questions sent in to us through social media, particularly Twitter. Here are a few of our favorite questions and answers. We'll update this blog throughout the day on September 16, 2015. Have a questions? Check the schedule to find out who is answering questions at what time and send us a tweet

Christy Wallover, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: Before I worked in a museum or went to school for museum studies, I was a cultural resources management archaeologist for four years. I excavated sites ranging in time from the archaic period to the turn of the 20th century and anywhere from the Northeast Corridor to the Mid-West. During an excavation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I was able to participate in a public program that connected the present community to artifacts that we recovered from excavations from around that area. We made exhibitions and were able to talk directly to the public. The experience changed the direction of my career—I was hooked on museum work. 

Group answer from staff members on the 10-11 a.m. EDT shift: I haven't read the book but appreciate the recommendation, as someone who values things, joy, and a tidy life. Encouraging people to "discard" could encourage people to contact a museum or archive earlier than they would have, when more information is available. Also, knowledgeable collectors would definitely hold onto objects/papers of significance (or would ask a specialist, like a museum, to help them determine what is significant). And I think some people are collectors and will collect no matter what popular organizing trend is happening. Perhaps this trend toward minimalism means people will go out and see things vs. keep them? That might mean an attendnce boost for museums! 

Hillery York, Collections Manager for the National Numismatic Collection: We have a selection of feathers from Quetzal birds that were once used as currency in Mayan Culture. This is how Fred ended up in our numismatics collection!

Photo of green bird


Patri O'Gan, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: We have a fairly large collection of World War I sheet music. Patriotic music was very popular before and during the war. Our "Women in World War I" object group has a section on music that contains a lot of great info and links to collection objects. Music was also important during the Civil War. Our Archives Center has a collection of illustrated sheet music from both the Confederate and Union sides of the Civil War. 

Hillery York, Collections Manager for the National Numismatic Collection: When Parks and Recreation filmed a scene here in our America on the Move exhibition. The episode and related photos are hilarious.

Jennifer Gloede, Project Specialist, National Numismatic Collection: Obivously, "This belongs in a museum!!!" - Indiana Jones

Christy Wallover, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: We have an extensive collection of Civil War Navy objects. For example, we have uniform articles that include a flat hat from a man stationed aboard the U.S.S. Kearsarge as well as a jumper that belonged to Charles Gillette Pratt, who enlisted on August, 29, 1864, and served aboard the U.S.S. Rhode Island. (Both of those objects will be in an online object group coming soon!). The collection also holds numerous objects from Admiral David G. Farragut. We have models of the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia

Hillery York, Collections Manager for the National Numismatic Collection: These objects give us a detailed look at the intended designs for much of our nation's currency history. The value lies in comparing changes in design and spellings from the approved proof to what was actually circulated and printed!

Sage Xaxua Morgan-Hubbard, Youth Programs Coordinator: Museum professionals can support school teachers with professional development trainings such as our free Let's Do History and Teach it Forward workshops for educators on how best to use objects in their classrooms. We also have a twitter feed @explorehistory where we send daily tweets with resources from our vast collections and an incredible amount of lesson plans and activities listed on our website where teachers can find specific exercises, books, and links to specific topics/subject areas and search by resource type, grade level, historical era, and cross-curricular connections. For more information on commonly asked questions from educators please see our FAQ

Patri O'Gan, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: Yes! Women have been serving with the Armed Forces for a long time! Army Nurse Corps was established in 1901. Navy Nurse Corps was established in 1908. June 1948 marked the passage of Women's Armed Services Integration Act, which helped establish women as permanent part of U.S. Armed Forces. Here are a few links you might enjoy from World War I and World War II. 

World War I: 

World War II:

Katherine Ott, Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science: It depends on how something relates to projects in the works, other objects in the collection, and  can we respectfully care for it (size, materials, condition)

John Hasse, Curator of American Music: We seek to take the long view—500 years from now, what objects will endure and help tell the story of the American musical experience?

Patri O'Gan, Project Assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History: I would say it's definitely a very powerful way! Especially before photography became more widespread. See World War I American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) Art collection. My favorite is below. It's called "On the Wire." 


Sage Xaxua Morgan-Hubbard, Youth Programs Coordinator: This is a great question. There are many ways to engage teens. Many of our exhibits are interactive by design so that teens can use touch screens or games to better understand the narrative of the exhibit. It also is helpful to use our self-guides and prepare the teens before they arrive here for the shows they are going to see. Teens like to be in charge of their own learning as much as possible, so challenge them to do research beforehand or a scavenger hunt competition that makes them dig deeper. You will be surprised by what the teens might enjoy and pay attention to. Each teen is different but our museum is so large, we have something for everyone!


Sage Xaxua Morgan-Hubbard, Youth Programs Coordinator: This depends, but our teens in our summer program this summer especially loved the DJ turntables in Places of Invention. They loved Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves in American Stories, interactive elements in American Enterprise and Object Project. Teens also say that they are "wowed" by the large objects such as the "El" train in America on the Move and Julia Child's Kitchen. There is also always a teen that is blown away by some of our military history objects because "they were really at war." But don't take my word for it. Come in yourself or browse our online collections and see what your teens are wowed by. I bet you will be surprised by what might catch their attention and impress them. I am always surprised by what objects particular teens are impressed by daily. 

Katherine Ott, Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science: I try to keep on top of current practice and events, for sure. But it is very tricky to weigh the significance of an event for the long term and documentation. I wish knowledge of history was a better predictor. 

John Hasse, Curator of American Music: We take the long view, and it usually takes some years to achieve the psychic and temporal distance to put developments into perspective. We use lots of judgment and discussions with our colleagues to determine what ought to be added to the National Collections.


Katherine Ott, Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science: Joseph Lister got that going in the 1860s. He noticed that dressing wounds with bandages soaked in carbolic acid dramatically reduced infections. Sterilizing instruments followed quickly after that.

Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: The Morse Daguerreotype camera was made for the inventor and artist best known for his telegraph. While in Paris in 1839, visiting with Jacque Louis Mande Daguerre, he acquired a daguerreotype lens. There were no camera manufacturers yet, so the box of the camera was made by a furniture maker! The first U.S. patent issued for a camera is the Walcott camera, May 8, 1840. It was tiny and made one little daguerreotype at a time.  It's about the same size as a smart phone like this one used by John Paul Caponigro. Think about the difference in the capacity and power!

Photo of camera

Photo of iphone and camera

Roger Sherman, Curator of the Modern Physics collection: What appeals to me about physics is that it is a never-ending search to find out how the world works, in the most fundamental sense. For many centuries, what we now know as physics was treated as part of philosophy and handled in a speculative way. Then, in the 17th century, the techniques of experiment and careful observation became popular, and physics took off. From then on, we have example after example of clever thinkers, individually or as members of teams, devising and implementing ingenious ways to answer specific questions about nature.  As a museum curator, I am responsible for preserving and understanding the instruments, the gadgets, and the apparatus for asking nature these questions. The opportunity for examining, close up, these goodies can be a real thrill.

Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: I'm not a conservator, but the most pungent identifier of nitrate is the smell. It often has vinegar syndrome. Nitratre film, ironically, usually has the word "safety" on it. If you think you have nitrate film, call a conservator!

Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: There isn't a single moment, but the most noted, and perhaps most deliberate was Kodak's 1888, "You push the button, we do the rest" moment when they separated the processing from the picture taking. But each new innovation seems to open the possibilities for more participation. Photography is patented in 1839, but it took until 1842 until there were good mass manufactured daguerreotype plates. That opened the doors for photographers because it was one less step they had to do. The Brownie camera in 1900 at $1, made cameras accessible because they were cheap! So there a lot of moments where entry into photography is made easier depending on your skill level, ambition and economics.

Roger Sherman, Curator of the Modern Physics collection: Not only are many everyday things radioactive, but to greater extent scientific artifacts embody radioactive materials. Modern Physics has its fair share of artifacts that embody radioactive materials, ranging from some samples representing the refining of radium, prepared early in the 20th century when that novel energy-emitting element was all the rage, up to a trowel with a uranium blade, made for President Eisenhower to lay the cornerstone for the Atomic Energy Commission's headquarters. (In what ought to take some prize for irony, the White House staff, worried about radiation danger, would not allow the President to use it!)

So, radioactivity in the collections is a real concern, and we take it seriously. I have been designated the museum's Radiation Safety Officer, and provided with a Geiger counter. From time to time colleagues call me in to check things, either new acquisitions, or artifacts they find in the collections. It is quite remarkable how many old watches, compasses, and gun sights turn out to have glow-in-the-dark radium paint on them. In almost every case, the radiation itself is not hazardous; what is important is to make sure the material cannot flake off and contaminate things or get on skin. I keep careful records of what is radioactive and to what degree and this is true acros the Smithsonian Institution. 

Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: There are so many great photographs out in the world! I look for a photograph or group of photographs that make about how individual lives or stories are connected to larger historical narrative. For example, I recently collected a group of snapshots from about 1910-1960. One photo might not tell me much, but the group of them say something larger about this particular tradition in the U.S. One of my favorites is one in which there is a Christmas tree, a Buddah, and a Menorah.  Fine art is one aspect of the collection, as most people would expect, but we collect for the technology, art and history of photography. So, I've even collected a giant IRIS printer to document the history of digital photography. 

Black and white photo


Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: First let me say, the flash is bad for a lot of paper based art and especially textiles, so that's often where the no photography policy comes from and we all want to preserve museum objects. But, today, to take a picture of something is usually do it out of enthusiasm, appreciation, and desire to remember. Often, we use this kind of act of photography as memory making. But if you take a photograph, give credit to the artist and don't do anything with it that takes away from the artist's integrity and rights!

Roger Sherman, Curator of the Modern Physics collection: As most people know, only a small fraction of a museum's collection is on display at any one time, something like 5%. In the past, Modern Physics has had a number of exhibitions, the two most ambitious being Atom Smashers: 50 Years and Atomic Clocks. Both came down many years ago, and at present there is only one single small Modern Physics artifact on display here. It can be a little frustrating to be in charge of a collection filled with remarkable objects, and not be able to put them out for people to enjoy and learn from.

One practical consideration is that many Modern Physics objects are big and heavy. The liquid hydrogen bubble chamber from the Brookhaven National Laboratory is a huge mass of stainless steel and optical glass that weighs many tons and looks like a modern abstract sculpture. It was barely able to fit under the museum's high ceiling in Atom Smashers, and no doubt will not go on exhibit again for a long time. 

Another piece from that exhibition appeals to me more, though: the Van de Graaff accelerator from the Carnegie Institution of Washington. It consists of a big aluminum ball on three legs, with a glass tube going up into it, looking very much like a prop from a 1930s science fiction movie. (Could the movie makers of those days have been inspired by it?  I wouldn't be surprised.) It was constructed in the early 1930s and, despite its outlandish appearance, it was used for some very serious and important research that shed light on the forces between protons in atomic nuclei. It is so tall that it had to be installed in a special pit in the museum floor, with a staircase going down into it. When the time came to dismantle it, I had to identify, number, and tag every one of the hundreds of pieces that we dismantled it into. That was a huge project, but I like to think that some curator way in the future will be able to put the machine back together thanks to my efforts.

Shannon Perich, Curator of Photographic History: At the Smithsonian, there are over seven hundred (no, that's not a typo!) photography collections. Each will have a specific collecting plan, scope, and use. No doubt one of photography's chief attributes is its reproducibility, so there are photographs that exist in multiple collections. This museum has over twenty photography collections alone! The Photographic History Collection is the largest collection, though, with almost 250,000 images and pieces of apparatus. 

Roger Sherman, Curator of the Modern Physics collection: Before World War I, physics in this country was a minor discipline that lacked prestige and did not attract much attention from the general public. At schools and universities, it was generally treated as an academic discipline whose chief value was to train minds in careful thinking and teach that the world is fundamentally an orderly place. Little emphasis was placed on research, and what research there was came from universities. 

Industries at that time were far more interested in supporting research in chemistry, and the government provided little support. Nevertheless, the field was growing slowly. 

Albert Michelson won the first American Nobel Prize in physics for his optical researches. Experiments by him and others to measure the speed of light attracted attention, and right around the turn of the century Nichols and Hull carried out an elaborate, carefully performed experiment that detected the pressure of light and confirmed James Clerk Maxwell's prediction of this extremely delicate effect. More and more, students with a serious interest in physics went to Germany for graduate work, and came back, building up a corps of young physicists whose accumulated expertise before long began training the next generation here. The result was that by the time of World War II, the nation had built up a highly competent, motivated generation of physicists whose exploits transformed the discipline and brought it to world prominence.


Dan Gifford, Manager, Museum Advisory Committees, and Project Historian: I guess my favorite is actually a whole bunch of stories—women's stories. One of things I find fascinating about the history of charities and giving in American history is the role of women. Women in the 1800s were incredibly active and successful fundraisers, running charitable organizations that often were basically large, complex businesses. And this gave women access to financial worlds, contracts, investments, bookkeeping, etc. –realms that supposedly were reserved just for men. So the history of charities is in part the history of women gaining access to that kind of power… and of course, ultimately demanding more. 

Jon Grinspan, Jefferson Fellow, Division of Political History: Alcohol is inherently political, and has been from the start of the country. Some campaigners have used it to rile up voters, or as a cheap give-away to win friends, while others opposed alcohol, preached Temperance and Prohibition, and saw it as the root of all evils, from poverty to prostitution to domestic violence.

Most important, alcohol blurs the line between politics and culture, which is really what I'm most interested in. It makes it impossible to distinguish what parts of a campaign are about ideologies and personalities, and what parts are about getting drunk and hollering in the street.

Harold Wallace, Curator in the Division of Work and Industry: That depends on who's doing the consideration. Building buyers began demanding electricity in the 1890s in urban areas. But building codes are set at the local and state level and they vary widely. Most codes began including electrical sections in the early 20th century and not all require a building to be electrified. Even today, people can build a recreational cabin, for example, and if they don't want electricity, they don't have to install it. Some interesting history here.

Jon Grinspan, Jefferson Fellow, Division of Political History: There's a long history of drinking before, during, and after debates, not just in taverns but in the public square and even in Congress. Before amplification, when debates were held by two shouting men in a town square, the drinking often got out of hand and many spectators couldn't hear the candidates. We have records of all these debates, including the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but very often the audience just heard the drinking going on around them.

And in the Capitol, especially before the Civil War, congressmen often drank openly while their colleagues were speaking. Rachel Shelden wrote about it in her book on the social lives of congressmen before the Civil War.

As for me, I'm not much of a drinking-game guy. I don't like to have to wait for an excuse to pour myself another drink, especially when the debates get dull.

Monica Smith, Exhibition Program Manager, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation: From an invention perspective, I'd say the construction is extremely interesting because it provides insights on the inventive process of the inventor making it. What problem were they trying to solve and why? Then how did they design the solution? Did they do sketches? Build prototypes? What materials did they test and end up selecting? How did they tinker and tweak their design? The 3D product is just the tip of the iceberg of a fascinating creative process!


Jon Grinspan, Jefferson Fellow, Division of Political History: P.T. Barnum's American Museum, in lower Manhattan, in the 1830s through 1860s. He put up something like 10,000 exhibits a year, and always kept his visitors guessing. He often went too far, but no one ever did more to define American museums, or popular culture. I'd like to get to watch a flimflam-artist like Barnum at work.





Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department. She's facilitating the Q&A today and appreciates your questions.