An Unnecessary Disaster

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A View of the Royal George Sinking at Spithead, August the 29th, 1782. Wash drawing by John Fletcher, 1792 (Accession#1998.14.01)

August 29 marked the 239th anniversary of one of the Royal Navy’s worst and most unnecessary disasters–the capsizing of the 108-gun first rate ship HMS Royal George. When the disaster occurred there were innumerable family members, merchants and other people on board visiting the crew.  As a consequence, there were wide discrepancies in the number of reported fatalities. Most believe somewhere between 500 and 1400 men, women and children died in the capsize–including one of England’s most respected admirals, Richard Kempenfelt.

HMS Royal George was built between 1747 and 1756 at Woolwich Dockyard. She was a ship of new design and at the time of her launch was the largest warship in the world. Although she spent many years “in ordinary” (which means laid up waiting for action) between the Seven Years’ War and American Revolutionary War, Royal George frequently served as an admiral’s flagship.   Read more

Getting the Collection “Ship-Shape”: The Small Craft Survey

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Objects Conservator Paige Schmidt and Myself examine “Minnow”, an Optimist Class Dinghy, in the International Small Craft Center. Image Credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park.

If you visit the International Small Craft Center on Thursdays, you may spot Objects Conservator Paige Schmidt and me (Summer Conservation Intern) crawling around on the floor between the boats. We have not lost our glasses like a blinded Velma Dinkley. Actually, we’re conducting a conservation survey of the Museum’s collection of 142 small craft.

The small craft collection contains a diverse variety of vessels ranging in size, shape, function, and source culture. Because the Museum’s small craft originate from such a variety of contexts, each boat comes to the Museum with its own quirks and challenges resulting from its history of use. To get a better understanding of the collection, its condition issues, and its needs, it is necessary to evaluate each small craft, one-by-one.   Read more

The Legacy of USS Mayflower: Private and Presidential Yacht, US Navy Warship, Merchant Ship

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From The Mariners’ Museum and Park collection P0001.022-01–PY755

Several years ago, I first learned of USS Mayflower, a presidential yacht. I was studying about the 1905 Portsmouth Peace Conference at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine. I was curious but didn’t have time to delve into the ship’s history.

Since then, I keep “bumping into” stories about this ship as I study and learn more about other topics. I read Erik Larson’s Dead Wake about the sinking of Lusitania and then read more about Woodrow Wilson’s relationship with Edith Bolling Galt. Turns out, they spent much of their time getting to know one another while on board USS Mayflower.   Read more

Hidden Histories: The Quest to Put Names to Our Past

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Construction on the arcade of the Library wing, February 1935.

It began a few years ago with a handful of old, unlabeled photos. Images of workers who placed the bricks and the cinder blocks for the Museum’s walls and also installed the statues on Lions Bridge and in the Park. They were literally part of the very foundation of our Museum. Then the questions began. What were their names and their stories? Why were they so important to our Museum, but we didn’t know who they were? What we found, and are still finding, has evolved into one of the most interesting, impactful, heartbreaking, joyous, and eye opening projects we have ever worked on. A project we named “Hidden Histories.”

The earliest beginnings of the project actually started from several other initiatives. A quest to gather as much information about our Park and grounds as possible, and a look forward to our 100th Anniversary coming up in 2030. The emphasis on our Park is part of a long term project focused on issues like conservation, sustainability, ecology, preservation and the history of the area. This work has helped with the formation of our new Park Department which was announced earlier this month. The 100th Anniversary project is taking a look back at our history and also a look forward to see where we are headed in the future.

Both projects led to the discovery of photos showing the men who did the construction on our Museum and Park. As well as a number of images showing members of our Museum team dating from the 1930s and beyond. The photos are part of our Institutional Collection that documents what happens here. They include famous visitors, parties, exhibitions, large artifacts arriving, personnel photos, and just about anything else related to our day to day activities. While we knew what types of photos we would find in the collection, we didn’t anticipate finding out what we didn’t have. The men’s identities and a realization that despite our Museum’s focus on inclusion and connections within our community, we hadn’t made a connection with ourselves. In the 91 years since the first of those photos were taken, we hadn’t made a connection with the men who were the very foundation of our success. And the hard truth is that because of who they were, no one in the 1930s thought it important enough to label these images and ensure they would be known by their names and faces. The time was way overdue to correct this.   Read more

The Return of IR

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Improvised ‘blunderbuss,’ ca. 1900. Image Credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park.

Back in 2019, Molly McGath and I posted about the Conservation team’s digital infrared camera . The camera has been used numerous times in the intervening two years, but I wanted to share a particularly cool little mystery the IR camera recently helped us figure out!

Last month, two of our curators were looking into the provenance of a really interesting artifact in our Collection: this improvised ‘blunderbuss,’ essentially fashioned out of pipe and a crudely shaped wooden stock. We had little information about this gun, other than the fact that it belonged to Rear Admiral James Kelsey Cogswell in the late 19th century.

In an effort to better understand this unique artifact and where it came from, Curator Jeanne Willoz-Egnor did preliminary research into Rear Admiral Cogswell’s history and the ships he was stationed on. You can check out the object’s catalogue record to read more about the fascinating places he was stationed during his time in the Navy. While Jeanne had good reason to suspect that this DIY weapon was likely acquired while Cogswell was in the Philippines during the Philippine-American war (1899-1902), there was no conclusive evidence as to the gun’s origin.

However, a printed paper label located on the stock of the gun seemed a promising source of information… if only it were legible! At some point early on in the gun’s history, the stock and label were completely covered in a varnish that has darkened over time (oxidation, my old friend). Hints at words are visible, including the word ‘from’ at the center of the label, but a definitive interpretation of the text was just not possible… at least not to the naked eye.

After a quick trip to the conservation lab, this makeshift muzzle was photographed and seen in a whole new light- literally. A series of images were taken of the label with varying infrared filtration to hone in on just the right wavelengths to best see ‘through’ the old varnish.

Et voilà!

Some of the label is physically missing, and the text is worn away in areas, but most of the message is still legible and reads:

“–ippino [f]use [gun], [?] in discharging slugs, small stones and pieces of metal. Taken from B[arrio] o[f] [Napnapan], [Tigbauan], Philippine islands. [U]sed by soldiers of 26th Infantry”

Barrio, or a ‘barangay,’ is a Philippine administrative district similar to a ‘village’ or ‘neighborhood.’ Tigbauan is a municipality on the island of Panay. For reference, here is a location point on Google maps of Napnapan.

As Jeanne suspected, this improvised fuse gun is from the Philippines! When fellow Objects Conservator Erik Farrell saw the first IR images of the label, he noted, “Ah yes, I should have known, since the Philippine-American war is famous for improvised weapons.” Well, that wasn’t common knowledge to me, but now I know!

I guess we all learn something new every day… sometimes with a little help from the electromagnetic spectrum. Stay tuned for other adventures in imaging beyond what the eye can see!