Bearded or Ringed or Spotted? Oh my!

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Our new gut skin parka! (Accession# 2019.24.01)

What in the heck am I talking about you ask? Why seal intestines, of course! That question posed a huge conundrum for me after the Museum successfully bid on a gut skin parka at Zemanek-Münster, a tribal arts auction company in Würzburg, Germany.  Although, if I am being honest I had to worry about walrus, bowhead and beluga whale, and caribou intestines as well. The questions of exactly whose entrails made up the parka, its country of origin and its age had to be answered before we could import the object into the United States. It took three months and in the process its provenance shifted from one side of the North American continent to the other.

It all started in October while I researched the native populations of King Island, Kotzebue Sound and Huntingdon Island for the Museum’s Indigenous People’s Day on November 9th. I was primarily interested in how native Alaskans used the umiak, kayak and baidarka* to hunt which led me to study their tools and clothing as well. Using internet sites like the Smithsonian’s Department of Anthropology Collections ( and the Alaska Native Collections of the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center ( taught me a lot about the objects in our collection as well as native terminology.  One of the words I learned was “kamleika” which is actually the word Russian traders used for the gut parkas worn by Arctic peoples.   Read more

External Researchers Benefit Museum

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Kevin studying the builders model of the CSS Florida.

In November we had quite an influx of researchers to the Museum. I frequently heard some of my colleagues quietly grouching about having to drop what they were doing to assist them but you know what I say? BRING IT ON!

Let’s admit it, despite being one of the larger maritime museums in the United States there’s no freaking way we could employ a subject-matter expert in every single area our collection covers. With this reality in mind, about fifteen or twenty years ago the Museum began shifting from the museum-world norm of having specialist curators who oversee a particular aspect of the collection towards a smaller staff of generalists who are able to research and discuss a broad range of topics.  Despite my very long title of Director of Collections Management and Curator of Scientific Instruments if you had to guess my specialty by looking at my blog posts you’d be hard pressed to settle on just one thing.   Read more

A ‘Portable Hole in the Sea’

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Captain Charles Williamson’s “Apparatus for Submarine Work.” Patented December 1, 1903.

Hampton Roads is a pretty amazing place. Besides being one of the most important ports on the East Coast, it’s also been a cradle for innovation.  Some of the “firsts” that occurred in Hampton Roads were Eugene Ely’s first flight of an airplane off the deck of a ship (USS Birmingham) and Robert Gilruth’s (of NASA fame) designing, building and sailing of the world’s first hydrofoiling sailboat. This year I learned about another first, Hampton Roads is considered to be the birthplace of underwater photography* and it led to the first successful underwater motion pictures.

It all started when Captain Charles Williamson, a merchant mariner who was also a bit of an inventor, moved his family from England to Vermont to Norfolk.  Among Williamson’s many inventions were a folding baby carriage and a signalling system for ships. In 1903 he patented an “apparatus for submarine work” which was essentially a waterproof tube that enabled underwater repair, salvage work, commercial harvesting of items on the seafloor or even underwater tourism (in 1911 he patented a “submarine pleasure apparatus” based on the same idea).   Read more

Baptism at the ‘Waist of the World’

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The 1690 Atlante Veneto : nel quale si contiene la descrittione geografica, storica, sacra, profana, e politica, degl’ universo by Vincenzo Coronelli contains the earliest illustration of a the line crossing ceremony. (Call#: G1015 .C82 Rare OO)

When planning this year’s Gallery Crawl I decided to include a station focusing on a well-known seafaring tradition: the line crossing ceremony.  If you’re asking yourself “what the hell is a line crossing ceremony?” and are planning to attend the Crawl let me just say you are in for a real treat!  While surveying the collection for items to display I was surprised to discover that I had to look at some of the oldest books in the library; which, of course, made me supremely curious about the ceremony’s origins and how it developed into the crazy ritual it is today. 

The tradition developed sometime after 1418 which is when expeditions coordinated by Prince Henry the Navigator began tentatively working their way down the Atlantic coast of Africa. By 1473, Portuguese explorer Lopo Gonçalves had reached and crossed the equator. Interestingly, no one on these early voyages mentions celebrating passing the equator, or anything else for that matter other than arriving back home alive! Presumably, these sorts of events wouldn’t develop until voyages became so frequent they were considered “normal.”   Read more

Tornado Saves Capital (and Steals Anchor for Museum!)

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Recently I had the pleasure of giving a behind the scenes tour to attendees of the annual conference of the National Society Children of 1812 (if you follow me on Facebook you might remember they gave us $1850 towards the conservation of a watercolor in the collection).  While planning the tour, I decided to include one of the anchors in our collection because it had a great War of 1812 provenance.

The anchor, a large Old Plan kedge anchor, had been recovered from the bottom of the Patuxent River near Point Patience, Maryland in 1959 by US Navy divers from the Naval Ordnance Laboratory Test Facility.  Luckily, despite spending 145 years underwater, the anchor was in fairly pristine condition and retained many of its identifying marks.   Read more