Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Civil War Lecture Series this May

by Whitney Fehl Birkett

In May, CCHS will be hosting The Blue and the Grey, our annual lecture series on all things Civil War.  The series takes place every Thursday evening at 7:00 pm and is free and open to the public.  So stop on by!  We have some intriguing stories with excellent speakers to tell them.  We’ll even throw in some snacks!

As the Weekend Gallery Attendant, I don’t usually get involved with the behind the scenes stuff here at the museum.  I’ve entered some historic death and burial information and filled in for the Archivist a time or two, but for the most part I open and close the museum, greet visitors, and run the gift shop.  You can come in on Saturdays and say hello.
So naturally, I was thrilled to be asked to set up the May lecture series.  I have a master’s degree in museum studies and am particularly interested in Civil War history.  It was time to put my skills to the test.

Setting up a lecture series isn’t glamorous.  I don’t have any stories to tell you about pretending to shoot a Civil War era rifle or traveling into the mysterious collections room (see Adventures of anIntern, Part One).  I made a lot of phone calls and wrote a lot of emails.  But in the process, I got to know some incredibly knowledgeable people who are dedicated to sharing the history they love.  They made my task so easy I feel like a bit of a sham taking all this credit.  A few exciting opportunities fell through (the experiences of Native Americans during the war, or Civil War music for example), but they were quickly replaced with equally fascinating presenters.  Like Bob Roe, who will be talking about a Confederate scout and sharpshooter who witnessed some of the most significant events in the war, from the first shots on Fort Sumter to General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.  I couldn’t have asked for a better range of topics, and I can’t wait to hear the lectures.
Confederate soldier Berry Benson
For more information, call (607) 734-4167, email cchs@chemungvalleymuseum.org, or visit the museum website at www.chemungvalleymuseum.org.  I’m also in the process of sending out flyers and press releases, so look for the lecture series in the paper, on TV, and on the radio!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Humidification and Flattening

by Rachel Dworkin

Sometimes it’s just easier to store big paper items rolled.  They take up less room and don’t require a big, flat surface on which to store them.  The problem is that after a while they become nigh impossible to unroll.  Here in the archives, we like being able actually read our large maps and blueprints, so when we receive items which are rolled, we have to find a way to flatten them.  So, how do we turn this:

Into this?

We do it through the process of humidification and flattening.  As paper ages, it dries out becoming brittle and inflexible.  By carefully introducing moisture into the document, it becomes flexible again.  Documents are not soaked in water, as that would destroy them.  Instead, they are exposed to water vapor in a handy device we call a humidification chamber.  Humidification chambers come in all forms, some very high tech, some quite low.  Here at CCHS ours looks like this:

  Our chamber is simply a small plastic trash bin with holes drilled in the sides set into a larger, airtight, plastic trash can with a few inches of water in the bottom.  The whole thing is set next to a heater so the water can evaporate and be absorbed by the documents.  Depending on just how brittle the paper is, I leave documents in there for no less than 5 hours and no more than 3 days.  After that they tended to start growing mould.  Once the documents are flexible enough, I remove them from the table and flatten them. 

All in all, the process is fairly simple.  If you have any items you wish to flatten and don’t feel like building your own humidification chamber, I’d be happy to flatten them for you.  We charge a $5 fee to flatten batches of up to 5 documents.  Call my office to set up an appointment at (607) 724-4167 ex. 207

Monday, April 15, 2013

Musing about Museums

by Erin Doane, Curator

A museum is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited.  But museums are so much more than that.  They are places of inspiration.  Museum is Latin for library or study.  The Latin is derived from the earlier Greek mouseion which is defined as a place of study, library or museum, school of art or poetry.  Literally a museum is "a seat or shrine of the Muses" – mousa being Greek for muse.

In Greek mythology the Muses were nine divine daughters of Zeus (the king of the gods) and Mnemosyne (the goddess of memory).  They were goddesses of inspiration in the arts.  Each of the nine had their own domain from various types of poetry and music, to history and astronomy.
Anyone wishing to create a dramatic play or a love poem appealed to one of the Muses to bless them with inspiration.

As a seat of the Muses, a museum should be a place of inspiration, not just a storehouse and showroom for the artifacts of our community.  We here at the Chemung Valley History Museum tell the stories of the people and places of this area as a way to get visitors thinking about history and how it is part of their lives.  We strive to inspire our visitors, not just educate and entertain them.  If we inspire awe in a child seeing a mastodon tusk for the first time in real life or inspire sympathy in those reading the stories of Civil War soldiers, we have done our job.  While I do not call on Clio the Muse of history and make a sacrificial offering every time I install a new exhibit, a little part of me does hope that she is smiling down on us.

comments from visitors about our tusk

Monday, April 8, 2013

United States Food Administration

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist 

The United States Food Administration was created as part of the Food and Fuel Control Act, or Lever Act, in August 1917 as a wartime measure.  The goal was to ensure a steady and cheap supply of needed foodstuffs to the military and our allies.  The administration had broad authority to set prices for staples like grain, license distributors, coordinate purchases for overseas shipments, prosecute profiteers and hoarders and encourage farmers to grow more.  It was headed up Herbert Hoover and his work would later propel him to the presidency.

In addition to working with food producers, the Food Administration worked to change the habits of consumers as well.  President Wilson issued a proclamation asking Americans to have meatless Tuesdays, wheat-less Wednesdays and sweet-less Saturdays.  The directives were voluntary for ordinary citizens but the Food Administration could and did enforce them for bakeries, restaurants and other public eateries.  It also set up organizations designed to help people produce their own food.  The United States School Garden Army helped to train children to produce their own food for the war effort.  The War Garden Commission printed and distributed informational pamphlets on gardening and home food preservation.

The Food Administration was, however, controversial.  The Lever Act banned the use of grains for the production of alcohol as a wartime measure, effectively instituting a sort of backdoor prohibition.  Furthermore, many farmers felt that prices set by the administration were too low.  

The United States Food Administration proved highly successful.  By the end of the war, nearly one-fourth of all American food production was being funneled into the war effort.  The administration continued its work after the war to feed refugees, but by the end of 1920 it had died out.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Fooled by an Artifact

by Erin Doane, Curator

A Civil War breastplate was donated to the CCHS several years ago. It was worn by a guard in Company F at the Confederate Prison Camp in Elmira in 1864.  But wait – April Fools’! The breastplate is actually a fake. 

Fantasy Civil War Breastplate
More accurately, the breastplate is a fantasy piece as no such uniform piece ever existed historically. Apparently fakes, misrepresented reproductions and fantasy pieces are common in the Civil War artifact market. They are even more prevalent now because the sesquicentennial has created a greater demand for authentic Civil War objects. Fortunately, there are people and communities online who are dedicated to teaching others how to tell a real Civil War artifact from a fake. A simple web search will bring up information on what to look for in an original and what types of inauthentic items are out there.  Fraudulent artifacts were created to make money and that bothers me. I see the value of an object in the history it can tell, not in its selling price. In my mind, these fake artifacts make the real things more significant and important to preserve. The museum plans to keep the fantasy breastplate in the collection as a reminder with the hope that we won’t get fooled again.

Members of the 23rd New York Volunteers
Civil War Reenactors
You can come see authentic pieces of Civil War history here at the Museum in Keeping the Home Fires Burning: Life on the Chemung County Homefront.  The exhibit, on display through May, is the second in our four part series commemorating the sesquicentennial.  Then in October, come back to see more in the exhibit, Civil War in the Attic, which will showcase Civil War artifacts owned by local collectors.