Yesterday, I was invited to do just that at the American History Museum Tweetup that took place as part of #musesocial discussion online (Twitter).
Ten of us were privileged to this experience this week and I can honestly say it was a day I will never forget.
The day was organized with three curators:
- Tim Winkle: Home & Community Life collections
- Bill Yeingst: Home & Community Life collections
- John Hasse: Division of Culture and the Arts
Each brought a few key items from their respective collection to share with us. Every item highlighted the importance of museums and their role in our society. Each piece on it’s own are of little interest … but add the story and the provenance and suddenly it becomes valuable to our social history.
We must never stop telling the stories and more importantly LISTEN to their messages.
Tim started the Tweetup off with a prime example of heritage that comes from a simple item.
We were first shown a pin. But this pin was a Golden Eagle Scout pin awarded in 1930s to Louise Davies in North Caroline. Louise was a lifelong member of the scout and there were family photo albums that accompanied the pin on the sage with all of her badges that showcased this important part of American history. The scouts celebrated their 100 years last year adding to the importance within the American History collection.
Tremont Horse Thief Detective Association By Laws. In Indiana you were legally able to create a horse thief detective association. This essentially spring-boarded the KKK as the were vigilante that had the protection of their by-laws. The first being you had to be white male to join. Again, the item on it’s on is rather mundane but it essentially changed American society towards divided path.
Fireman’s Hat. This was very interesting for me as most people near Philadelphia already know that Benjamin Franklin was the creator of many things (post office, electricity, volunteer fire services within the states). Several items related to fire-fighting were shared with us:
Cigna insurance Co donated fire & maritime material. Date back to 18th c., mostly 19th c. Mostly from Philadelphia. The rumor of if you had the wrong insurance company the fire fighters would let your house burn down are false (thankfully!) Fire fighters were volunteers but were able to be exempt from things like jury duty.
A belt that was worn as part of the official outfit.
Next up was Curator John Hasse with the Music Collection
Now the first thing I’m going to say might shock people but I hadn’t a clue who Duke Ellington was but I soon learned he was an important person in American music history who wrote over 1,000 compositions.
On his 70th birthday, he received both the Medal of Honor from Ethopia and the United States Medal of Freedom both of which have been donated to the museum.
Amazingly, he never wrote down the piano parts within the composition!
We also saw:
Ray Charles has several items in the collection. Some a bit obvious, such as a pair of his glasses and the original Editorial cartoon published soon after his death (reminded me of the Kermit the Frog one after Jim Henson passed away). However, there were a few objects you’d never think to associate with Dear Old Ray …
A chess set. Did you know Ray Charles loved to play chess? The set he used had to pegs on the bottom to ensure the pieces stayed in place.
My favourite story was the Dizzy Gillespie case for his angled bell trumpet. Curator John wrote to Dizzy to request a donation to the collection. The request went unanswered so the curator wrote to the wife. Next thing you know, a box from UPS arrives. Yes, from Mrs Gillespie! No organized collection with curators in white gloves, no detailed paperwork or special transportation organized. Just a UPS delivery man with the items. Now that is the kind of stories we don’t get behind the glass.
We also saw a Vibraphone that belonged to Lionel Hampton from the Benny Goodman Quartet. As April is Jazz Appreciation month it has been arranged to have the Vibraphone played at the Jazz Appreciation Month festival. Jazz was a vital and leading role with integration of changes.
Favorite quote from Curator John: ‘We are in the Forever Business’
Curator’s Holy Grail: Duke Ellington collection.
Last stop on the Curator Tour: Curator Bill Yeingst Immigration and Migration
Curator Bill started his session off with a few questions:
What do curators do? Answers varied with research, collection, etc.
Bill’s point was curators have power but also a duty of responsibility when it comes to their historical importance. The have the power but must use it wisely!
How do people become citizens? Immigration, incorporation, some against their will.
First we were shown a ship manifest document with names of 83 enslaved people and their details such as name, height, weight. Next we were shown Eli Whitney’s Cotton gin model (the original was lost in a fire and this one was made to prove a court case that Eli had).
On face value, these two objects, while both incredible with their importance don’t seem to have any connection together. However, Curator Bill then walked us through their significance: Slaves were used in the cotton fields but Eli’s cotton gin changed the way the slave industry operated.
The day ended with an online discussion related to Tweetups. There was a wiki set up with questions [see link here].
When we were done our day, I made my way to see Kermit the Frog who wore a black arm band in memory of Jane Henson.