As part of its commitment to scholarship and educational outreach, Penn State's George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center sponsors internships for undergraduate students at a variety of museums, national parks, and other public history institutions. Through these internships students learn the processes (and the challenges) of preserving historical artifacts and methods of historical interpretation. Today's blog comes to us from Kristen Campbell, a History major at Penn State who interned at Gettysburg National Military Park this past summer. She describes the hard work entailed in conserving century-and-a-half old artifacts for future generations.
"What Do You Even Do Down In that Basement?"
My Summer Interning In Museum Services at Gettysburg National Military Park
By Kristen Campbell
Archives and artifact collections are mysterious places. Buried down in deep basements, these large rooms and expansive shelves form dark and quiet gardens; the eclectic remnants of America's past serve as their curious flowers. The curators of these collections are their gatekeepers. They protect and preserve cherished items. They also add items and foster growth as well as perform a requisite weeding - removing items that do not add to our nation's historical memory. Curators also help share these artifacts, letters, and sites with the public by displaying them in museums, transcribing the contents of manuscripts, and making the gems of the collection publicly available on databases and online exhibits. I spent my summer behind these guarded doors in the collection at Gettysburg National Military Park. The collection is extensive, containing thousands of manuscripts, objects, and even structures. So what do curators do down in these dark realms? At Gettysburg, I was able to try my hand at their job - transcribing letters, cleaning and caring for artifacts, re-organizing and storing artifacts, and even preparing a few for display in the museum.
Performing conservation and restoration work on an artifact requires one to be both a chemist and historian. Since Gettysburg does not have these specially trained individuals on site, we send artifacts greatly in need of repair and restoration to the Harper's Ferry Conservation Center, one of the few National Park Service Conservation Centers in the country. During my internship I was able to visit that facility with curator Paul Shevchauk. Thanks to some donations from private citizens, we were able to take the 150th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment Battle Flag in for conservation work. This was quite a task - this particular flag was currently on display in the museum. It is an enormous flag protected in an even larger frame. Since, like most items in our collection, it holds a lot of meaning to a lot of people, we were careful to package it neatly in furniture blankets and soundly secure it in the back of a Uhaul. Graduate schools offer entire courses on how to package artifacts for transport - there are even companies who specialize solely on shipping museum items! However, on the job I learned that experience counts for more than any class one might take. In reality, supplies are limited and you have to use what is on hand. The ideal vehicle is the one you have access to! We had to rent from Uhaul since the Park Service did not own any trucks large enough to transport the flag. The sturdy frame and carefully taped furniture blankets hopefully would protect it in the back of the truck.
Although there were only a few of us, we were able to load up the truck with the heavy frame and drive down to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, which is only about an hour and half away from Gettysburg. Paul, Lynsey (one of the seasonal museum aides), and I had just crossed the state line when all of the sudden, the lights in the Uhaul went out. Then it started making some strange sounds. We crossed a bridge safely and then the alternator went out! By sheer good fortune, Paul was able to drift the truck into the parking lot of a gas station. Here we were, one ranger, one aide, and one intern stranded along a strange highway with a truck full of valuable government property. So we did what anyone in such a situation must do - called Uhaul and had a tow truck sent. We realized however we couldn't send the flag off to some random mechanic, so thankfully our friends at the Conservation Center found another Uhaul and drove to meet us. And in the middle of a gas station parking lot we had to unload the flag from the first truck and onto the second. Fortunately, the tow truck driver was kind enough to help with the heavy lifting. If only he knew the value of what he was moving! Quite a few hours later, we finally made it to the conservation lab. There we unframed the flag and waited to receive the 149th Pennsylvania Flag, which had been cleaned and restored earlier by the conservators. Very, very carefully using a team of people and lots of little white gloves we lifted the restored flag into the museum frame. Using tiny spatulas we combed the fringe out straight and laid little pieces of colored fabric behind the flag to minimize the appearance of holes. We took a break for lunch, and when we returned we picked up our newly restored 150th Pennsylvania flag. We placed it onto a textile roll, a giant padded tube used to store any fabric artifacts, and slid it into a protective tube. Every few years the fabric items on display in the museum are rotated out and different ones put in their place. Since fabric is incredibly sensitive to light, these artifacts must be moved out of museum lighting in order to be preserved for generations to come.
With both the 150th and now the 149th Pennsylvania flags we returned to Gettysburg. The next morning we unloaded, performed similar moving and combing of flags, and then put the old one into storage and the new one on display in the museum!
Rolling the flag onto a textile roll.
A slow, painstaking process to ensure that there are no wrinkles or creases.