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

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.

Lloyd's Casualty Week

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The table of contents for the week of July 1st, 2011. Click for a much bigger view! From The Mariners’ Museum Library collection.

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Library blog. Since the early 1700s, Lloyd’s List has been an excellent go-to source for information regarding shipping news. Lloyd’s List – or rather, lists – cover a large swath of information, from updates on worldwide commercial ports to a tabulation of worldwide ship losses. That last particular tabulation is called Lloyd’s Casualty Week, and here at The Mariners’ Museum Library we have a collection of that exact series that stretches from July of 1950 up to the end of 2011. Inside, an amalgamation of all the recent ship casualties is listed on a weekly basis, from natural disasters to fires and even piracy. That last category is especially relevant nowadays, when the global pirating of merchant and personal vessels is more widely recognized in the media.



There’s something moving about being able to flip to a particular week and having all the incidents that occurred back then detailed and presented to you. It reads a bit like an official document, that’s exactly what it is: it records the data of what happened for those who want to assess it. If you are interested in measuring pirate attacks over the past half century, or any sort of maritime casualty really, Lloyd’s Casualty Week will prove an invaluable resource for your research. It’s currently available in the Library’s reading room if you want to access it.