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

A Look at the Unknown and Hope for the Future: The Artwork of Shipyard and Museum Staff Artist Thomas C. Skinner

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CRUISER USS PORTSMOUTH AT PIER, oil on canvas 1945, by THOMAS C. SKINNER 1956.47.04


Thomas Catlett Skinner’s office was a loft overlooking the dry dock at the Newport News shipyard.  Frequently he would gather his tools and wander through the yard, stopping to observe and document the many scenes unfolding before him.  A vat of molten steel.  Red hot metal beams being bent into shape.  Yards of canvas transformed into sails.  The welcome respite of a lunch break.  The intensity of a foreman’s face.  A ship being refitted for the next voyage.  Scenes that were rarely seen by anyone outside the shipyard and activities that many people never knew existed.

Skinner’s tools were paint, pencils, canvas and paper.  His loft workspace shook with the unending pounding from riveting hammers and vibrations from heavy machinery.  And when he set up his easel beside the piers, dry docks and workers, he was surrounded by noise and dirt and exposed to the fickleness of the weather.   Yet despite the adversity, he created amazing drawings and paintings that transport the viewer back in time.  His body of work contains striking, colorful images that make it easy to imagine all the noises in the shipyard, the sound and feeling of waves acting on a ship and the harsh sounds of battle. Today, as part of our 90th Anniversary celebration, we take a look at the Mariners’ Museum staff artist, Thomas Skinner, some of his work, and its importance.

The Early Years

Thomas Skinner probably never imagined that one day he would end up in a shipyard.   Born in Kittawa, Kentucky in 1888, he spent most of his childhood in Waynesville, North Carolina.  From an early age, he was almost always seen with a pencil and sketch pad in hand, drawing whatever caught his fancy, and his parents were very supportive.  So when the time came for the family to move back to Kentucky, they probably weren’t surprised that Thomas decided he wanted to head to New York City to study art.

He arrived in New York at the right time.  An informal group of artists who called themselves the Ashcan Painters or the “Ash Can School” was in its heyday.  Their tongue-in-cheek name was a dig at the numerous ‘schools of art’ in New York and a description of the group’s subject matter, gritty, realistic portrayals of street life and the city’s inhabitants.  Paintings that didn’t romanticize, but showed it all, the ash cans on the sidewalks, prostitutes, street urchins, mud, and even the horse dung in the streets.  The work by these artists dubbed “New York Realists” and his travels in Europe to study realistic paintings by Dutch and French artists with Ash Can painter Robert Henri would highly influence Skinner’s own work.

At 26 years of age, and while in Paris in 1914, Skinner married French artist Therese Louise Desiree Tribolati.  He brought her back to his home in New York City that August.  He continued to work on his art during the war years, exhibiting and selling some pieces for the commercial market and magazine covers.   One of his paintings, an impressionistic depiction of flags flying from the porches of a row of houses, was shown in the prestigious Allied War Exhibition in 1918.  This non-juried show, which was organized by well-known art collector Duncan Phillips, didn’t offer any prize money, but being included as one of the featured artists did serve as recognition of Skinner’s talent and exposed more of his work to the public.  That same year, Skinner would be called up for military duty at the end of the war.  He spent his entire military career (September 1918 to March 1919) at Camp Hancock in Georgia.  The camp served as an airfield and a training facility for National Guard troops before they were sent overseas.  Skinner achieved the rank of private First Class but what his job entailed appears to have been lost to time, and if he spoke of his military service to friends and fellow veterans, that information apparently never made it into articles or his biographical information.  After his return from service, Skinner decided to study at one of the “schools of art” in New York and attended the well-known Arts Students League from 1920-1921 and at some point he also attended the National Academy of Design.

The Shipyard Years

In 1930, Skinner was asked by his brother-in-law, Homer L. Ferguson, to move to Newport News and serve as the staff artist for the newly opened Mariners’ Museum.  Ferguson, married to Skinner’s sister Eliza, was President of the Newport News Shipyard and the museum’s first Director.  He tasked Skinner with creating art for the museum, while at the same time documenting the scenes at the yard.  Was the job offer made because of any financial issues the Skinner’s might have been having?  Was it influenced by Archer Huntington who was an avid art collector and step-son of the shipyard’s founder?  That is unknown, but what did happen, whether or not it was Ferguson’s intent, was that the drawings and paintings Skinner created served to promote not only America’s industrial might, but also the prosperity of the shipyard.  Both noble causes for a country in the midst of the Great Depression, citizens who were desperately looking for hope for the future and their own lives, and the local community who relied heavily on the shipyard as an employer.   It is difficult to determine whether Skinner’s salary was paid by the shipyard, the museum, or both institutions, but years later his 1942 World War II draft card lists both institutions as his employers.

When he began work at the shipyard, Skinner was still finding his way artistically.  His style was still evolving but it was becoming more and more influenced by what he saw around him.  The grit, sounds, smells, and industrial scenes, that didn’t lend themselves to an impressionistic or romantic interpretation, began to take over, harkening back to his Ash Can School influences.  The longer he would work there, the more the style took over his artistic vision.


He was not only documenting what he saw at the yard, he was also producing paintings of each type of aircraft carriers the yard built.  His first and second of these paintings were of the first carrier completed, showing the USS Ranger shortly before her christening in June of 1934.  Skinner created two different paintings so the Captain and Executive Officer could choose which one they wanted displayed on the ship. It took him only six weeks to do the preliminary sketches and complete both paintings, and they were stylistically very different.  The one rejected by the officers had bold colors, a more industrial look and more focus on the shipyard workers and equipment in the foreground.  The other was a more romantic depiction of the ship with a delicate, but still accurate view as fog partially obscuring the pier and the workers.   Shipyard workers created a gold painted wooden frame for the painting that had corners carved to look like rope and the wood stamped with the Naval Aviation and Naval Observation insignia.  Skinner’s ‘rejected’ painting of the Ranger was put in the museum’s collection in 1934.

It is easy to imagine Skinner developing a fondness for each of the ships as he watched them being built, launched, christened, and then sent out to sea. Possibly even feeling like he shared a small part in their creation.   But during World War II, he saw some of those ships leave and never return. Skinner’s 1937 painting of the USS Yorktown shows the aircraft carrier in her full glory, plowing through the waves.   The ship was lost during the Battle of Midway in 1942.

The same thing would happen to some of the workers he stood beside, spoke to, and painted.  Men like him, who sometimes carried a bottle of beer to work in their lunch bag to help beat the oppressive heat in the yard.  In 1947 Skinner created his Memorial Mural, a three panel, 23 foot long and 6 foot high painting dedicated to the 28 shipyard apprentices who lost their life during WWII.  Battle scenes take up a large portion of the mural, but the right side depicts a soldier mourning a flag-covered coffin and the left side features a young apprentice amid his tools, holding his draft notice and looking out into the yard.  The names of the 28 apprentices are included on the mural.

Although he would still do other types of work like portraits and some nursery rhyme wall murals for a children’s nursery on a passenger liner, Skinner had become known both locally and beyond as a prominent and very talented maritime artist.   Locally, his works were featured in the museum, in shipyard ceremony programs and on the cover of shipyard and apprentice school publications.  Nationally, they appeared in newspapers, magazine articles and books.  When the museum decided to create prints of some of his paintings and drawings to sell in the gift shop, these versions of his artwork found their way around the globe and some still turn up in auctions today.

For the museum, Skinner also created a series of large, colorful murals that give an unprecedented look at the shipyard in the 1930s and its workers. The 14 paintings range between 10 and 12 feet long and slightly over 6-1/2 feet tall.  The bright color and layers of paint Skinner used for texture and depth give these works a gritty and honest look, showing the sweat, straining, and the power of the shipyard and the builders.  Skinner’s depiction of the shipyard’s 50,000 square foot Machine Shop shows the space full of immense tools like lathes and drill presses and boring machines.  A perfect example of why the shop was considered the largest, most expensive, and best equipped shop of its kind in the country.  His depiction of the shipyard foundry looks so realistic, the viewer expects to feel the heat of the molten metal being poured in the molds.

Also in the museum’s collection are 51 tiny pencil sketches on simple brown paper that Skinner may have used to experiment with potential subjects, line placements, shading and highlighting before he created the larger works. The smallest of these sketches measures about 2 inches wide and 2 inches high and the largest is about 5-1/2 inches long and 2 inches high.  Despite their tiny sizes, each is meticulously executed and incredibly detailed.

Outside the Shipyard

Skinner appears to have been a modest or very private individual, or perhaps both.  All accounts of him speak highly of his artistic talent and his individual works, but little else.  Newspaper articles about his brother who was a local lawyer and his sister Mrs. Homer Ferguson sometimes included a few tidbits of information about him or his childhood.  And occasionally there were society column briefs that stated Skinner and his wife were traveling or hosting various relatives at their home.  His obituary, where one would expect to read all his accolades, was also very succinct.  And no information could be found that stated how long he worked at the yard.   But it does appear that Skinner was actively painting right up until his death in 1955 at the age of 66.

Perhaps it is more fitting that Skinner’s works are his accolades and speak for him.  That they describe him best.  The individual brushstrokes and the pencil lines that offer a view through his eyes of a shipyard, men, and wartime loss.  The areas on his paintings where he put thick layers of paint to suggest a weathered beam or worn wood.  The grit, the sounds and the smells in our imaginations, and the ships.  The museum’s first, and only, staff artist during our 90 year history left an incredible legacy that has been enjoyed since we opened and will continue be enjoyed and appreciated by researchers and visitors far into the future.  A legacy that allows us to celebrate our shipbuilding past and the shipbuilders that made it possible.

Thank you for being part of our 90 years and thanks for reading.


What is the American Institute for Conservation?

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The Mariners’ Museum and Park’s own Paige Schmidt (left) working as part of the Wooden Artifacts Group Programs Chairs

If you’ve ever read any of our blog posts about conservation, taken a lab tour, or talked to a conservator at any museum, you might have heard one of us mention “AIC” or the American Institute for Conservation. AIC is a national organization with thousands of members, including conservators and other museum professionals. It is a vital way for conservators to share information. So for this blog post, we thought we’d tell you a bit about what AIC is, how it helps us inform conservation decisions at The Mariners’ Museum and Park, and what we do at the Museum to contribute to AIC.

AIC holds an annual conference, which is usually located in a different city every year, giving conservators opportunities to not only attend lectures, but visit museums and conservation labs across the country. The conservation department at the Mariners’ makes an effort to present any new research produced at the annual conference. (You may have read about unique treatments we have been conducting in the conservation department in this blog before.) We make a concentrated effort to share our  results at the annual conference, so that other conservators can benefit from our research. Even if experiments do not yield the results we were hoping for, the information helps other conservators when making treatment decisions. Additionally, we often find colleagues from other museums who want to collaborate in continued research through AIC conferences. 

This year, due to COVID-19, AIC has made the conference virtual, with lectures presented online over the course of the summer. The usual conference is about 5 days long, and jam-packed with interesting content. So, the switch to a virtual conference spread out over time has actually been a boon to many attendees. It allows attendees to view a higher number of lectures, and even go back to review any particularly relevant lecture. The virtual conference has also cut down on the carbon footprint of AIC this year. 

During the virtual conference, several of our conservators will be presenting. Molly McGath is presenting in the Research and Technical Studies Session, discussing what we are learning about the composition and likely provenance of the original rubber from USS Monitor, as well as how it is aging today. This is part of a larger research project with several conservation department staff members, as we study the conservation and degradation of waterlogged rubber. Additionally, Molly and Paige Schmidt are serving on a discussion panel, concerning the use of plastics as storage materials in museums. Erik Farrel is presenting his research, design, and operation of the equipment we used to clean the Dahlgrens back in February and March, sharing that info with the rest of the profession. Will Hoffman is presenting on the turret re-support project last year. I am presenting a poster in the virtual poster session concerning the conservation of waterlogged rubber gaskets

While the annual conference is always informative, AIC is a resource conservators turn to throughout the year. AIC hosts a global online community, which encourages members to post questions about treatment decisions or just general news and updates in the museum world. AIC also hosts a number of specialty groups for those with niche interests, such as those who deal only with books and paper. There are additional specialty groups, including a networking group for students who are just beginning their career, which helps students find established mentors in the field. And the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion group, which works to include diverse voices and thoughts in the conservation community.  AIC also produces a newsletter and a journal. The journal publishes scientific articles relating to conservation, and book reviews on relevant literature. The newsletter publishes information on happenings in the conservation community, health and safety information, etc. 

AIC is a useful and informative community for not just conservators, but many museum professionals. On a final note, it can also be a great resource event for those not in the museum world. For anyone interested, AIC is also  a resource for anyone who wants to learn more about conservation or wants to find a conservator to consult with on their own historic items or family heirlooms.

Plastics in Our Collections: Chapter 1

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Collecting latex from a tree
© User:Iamshibukc / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

The Plastics Age

History is filled with ages that are tied to the innovation of materials:  The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, and The Iron Age. We are currently in The Plastics Age. Plastics have changed so much in our daily lives. Plastics are around us all the time.  They are in every electrical thing in our houses, in the clothes that we wear, in our furniture and the packaging of our food.

This means that as caretakers of historic objects, museums have to consider how long plastic materials will last in our collections. We focus on what we have to do and learn in order to care for plastic objects. We also study plastics in order to store them in ways that better ensure their survival. This is a complicated thing.  Plastics are not simple materials, and what works for one may damage another.  Some plastics have been around longer than others, so we know more about them. We can see how they’ve aged. For other plastics, we can guess at how they will survive (or not) based on their behaviors and chemistries, while still others are a gigantic question mark.

There are so many plastics, and so many questions that I’d like to cover. Eventually. Given enough time. But for today I’d like to time-travel a bit. I’d like to go back to the 1800’s, when science and trade were first beginning to look at a material that we are all familiar with today. A naturally occurring polymer that pioneered, in so many ways, our relationship with plastics.

Chapter 1: Rubber

Note: All written accounts of the use and evolution of rubber I have read come from European and North American (US) authors.  It is vital to note that there is a long history of the use of tree sap (latex) for products (shoes and sporting goods to name two) in South and Central America as well as in Asia where the trees are found that produce the base polymers for rubber, 1,4-cis-isoprene or 1,4-trans-isoprene. The use of the raw materials by European and North American markets started because of trade with cultures in South and Central America as well as Asia.  There was no such thing as waterproof boots or coats in Europe or the USA until someone saw and traded for rubber shoes made by people in Brazil.

Rubber is a plastic that was initially made using the dried latex taken from one of many different species of tree.  There are numerous names for this latex product including “gutta percha”, “india-rubber” and “caoutchouc” (pronounced cowt-choo, or at least that’s how I pronounce it).

Chemically, rubber is made from one of two polymeric backbones, either 1,4-cis-isoprene or 1,4-trans-isoprene.  Which polymer backbone is found depends on the original source plant.  The two materials produce physically indiscernible products.

Natural rubber was processed in the 1800’s using a method called mastication. (A British patent for this process dates to 1820.) Rubber mastication mechanically breaks it up, consequently heating it a bit, until the rubber eventually becomes a uniform material.

The color of natural rubber is the color of a rubber band, which is one product that is still often made from natural rubber because of its superior elasticity.

Carbon black was and is commonly added to reduce the effects of light on the material (the coloring protects it from breaking down). Early in rubber production other dyes were added, allowing a beautiful array of colorful products.

Natural rubber is sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature.  It becomes tacky and chemically breaks down in hot humid climates. It also becomes brittle in the cold. Environmental climate control for natural rubber is a key element of care.

Natural rubber was used to create many objects in Britain, which being an island nation has a more temperate climate. Attempts were made to sell the first waterproof natural rubber footwear in the United States in the 1830s. However, a hot and humid summer quickly soured consumers as they found that the shoes became gummy, sticky and eventually smelly.

Charles Goodyear in the United States became obsessed with finding a way to make rubber usable at every temperature and humidity.  There are some excellent accounts of this obsession and I’ve linked to one here.  I also was very interested to learn that the Goodyear Company is not tied to Charles Goodyear, but that is another story that you can learn about on their page.

Charles Goodyear found that the addition of sulfur to rubber created a material that didn’t break down in heat and humidity and didn’t become brittle in the cold.  It lost its elasticity, but retained some plasticity depending on how much sulfur was added.  He patented his “vulcanization” processes in the United States (1844, 1851), however only his descendants saw the proceeds of this.

Vulcanized rubber is more robust a material than natural rubber.  However, the presence of sulfur in the rubber can cause problems as it ages, oxidizes and generally breaks down.  Formation of chemicals like hydrogen sulfide and sulfuric acid are possible from vulcanized rubber, and these chemicals are dangerous to nearby objects, with sulfuric acid able to damage the rubber object itself.

Note: Don’t store your silver near vulcanized rubber, it will tarnish much more quickly.

Both natural rubber and vulcanized rubber materials oxidize over time in normal environmental conditions.  This oxidation causes the material to become brittle, may cause cracking, and the surface becoming “dusty” or sticky (depending on the object and its environment).  The best storage for rubber is in a cool anoxic environment with no or low light.

Unintentional but Good Rubber Storage

One place where there is low light, low oxygen, and it is pretty cool (both physically and metaphorically) is a wreck-site at the bottom of the ocean.

The USS Monitor wreck preserved many rubber objects.

As a research scientist, I am working with our team of conservators to document the chemical fingerprints of our rubber objects using our attenuated total-reflectance-Fourier transform infrared spectrophotometer (ATR-FTIR).

ATR-FTIR allows me to document the type of rubber that we are seeing, whether it is 1,4-cis or 1,4-trans isoprene, as that identifies which plants were potential sources and may help us understand trade routes during the Civil War.  I am also looking to track how much oxidation we are seeing in these objects by monitoring the formation of epoxide and peroxide species.

The spectrum of the gasket above allows me to identify the rubber as 1,4-cis-isoprene, typing it to a South or Central American species of tree.  I also found a tell-tale peak for epoxide, meaning that the rubber is undergoing oxidation.  However the spectrum overall looks pretty good for a 150-160 year old rubber.

This is on-going research and it has already shown me how well some of our rubber objects have survived the last century and a half. My hope is that this work will also allow future researchers a window into each of these objects’ chemical status at this moment in time.

This is why I love scientific research of museum objects.  I get to connect with the past, tell y’all now about the cool things we discover, and pass the informational baton off to the people who come next.

A Byte of History

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People who remember traveling on the great ship have bought bits of the places that were special to them, like the Promenade Deck pictured above. From The Mariners' Museum Collection.

Hello readers, and welcome back to the Library blog. Julie Zauzmer, a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, posted an interesting article on Philly.com today (article HERE). The SS United States Conservancy has created a virtual copy of the SS United States in order to raise money for the conservation of the real ship. Donors can purchase virtual pieces of the vessel for the price of $1 per square inch, and use that space to display things like photographs and messages. Creating a virtual ship like this is an interesting step not just the SS United States, but for museums in general: when you need to quickly raise funds or awareness for a project, what better way than by using the internet? The Conservancy has given an electronic version of the ship to the people, and let them run with it.

Financially, the project is off to an admirable start. The Conservancy needs $25 million to renovate the ship and convert its interior into a museum, and has raised $6 million already. The catch is that their current allotment of money will only allow them to hold on to the ship until November of this year. After that, the SS United States will be sold for scrap metal. A poor end for the flagship of the American merchant fleet and the world’s fastest transatlantic passenger ship.


I think the SS United States needs help. Selling space a dollar at a time may not seem like much, but I get the feeling that the Conservancy is hoping that engaging the public with a virtual ship will garner them enough publicity to raise the bulk of the funds they need. Perhaps enough publicity for a few large-scale donors, even. After all, they say that big things have small beginnings: give the virtual ship a look at http://www.savetheunitedstates.org/ and see if you feel like being part of something grand.

Second article HERE.