by Sara Hodge (MA, 16)
Editor’s Note: Next week, over 4,000 museum professionals from around the world gather in St. Louis, Missouri for the annual American Alliance of Museums conference. Faculty members Fraidy Aber and Marjorie Schwarzer will be presenting at the conference and Leslie Lombre (MA, 2017) has been awarded an AAM Diversity Fellowship to attend. In honor of the gathering in St. Louis, we are pleased to share reminiscences from alumna Sara Hodge (MA, 2016) of her 2016 summer internship at Missouri History Museum, where she now works full-time as. the collections cataloguer.
When switching from the field of archaeology to the field of museums, I knew it would be a change. I told myself museum work was like archaeology meets a desk job; a little less glamorous, a little less adventurous, a little less back pain, but equally rewarding with a little more job security. I never imagined I would find myself in a situation where the two worlds actually collided. Where going into work each day was every bit as exciting as a desperate battle between Indiana Jones and a gang of Nazis to recover the Holy Grail from an ancient temple rigged with booby traps! Ok, perhaps I am exaggerating a tad, but just a tad.
I spent my summer working with a very talented team of individuals on the Soldiers Memorial Revitalization Project. Through a joint effort between the City of St. Louis, the Missouri Historical Society, and an anonymous third party donor, new life is being breathed into a beloved St. Louis landmark, the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. The museum, which was first conceptualized in 1923 and opened to the public in 1938, honors local veterans, their families, and the sacrifices borne by the St. Louis community during times of conflict. The beautiful art deco memorial was originally built as a memorial to the first world war, but over the years, its collection has expanded. Ranging from a remarkable sword from the War of 1812 to helmets worn during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the collection represents nearly every armed conflict that has touched the lives of the St. Louis community. The museum has truly become a time capsule, encompassing thousands of fascinating objects, each with a unique story, that represent the sacrifices of St. Louis veterans and their families.
As is bound to happen with any institution of this age, regardless of caliber or size, the museum finds itself needing a bit of a face lift. The building needed renovating, the collections needed organizing, and the policies and procedures needed polishing. In November 2015, after the Missouri Historical Society and the City of St. Louis entered into a partnership, a team of collections specialists began carefully packing all of the objects for removal to a secure offsite storage facility, in order to begin the museum’s $30 million dollar renovation. The objects being readied for storage had remained relatively untouched up to this point. Therefore, after making the move the boxes had to be meticulously unpacked and their contents carefully examined. This is where my team entered into the picture.
It was our job to inventory every single item of the collection and rediscover its story. On any given day I open a box and was faced with a fascinating puzzle before me. What is this object? Is there paperwork describing where it came from, who it belonged to, what it was used for? How does this object relate to the ones above and below it in the box? Archaeological terms like stratigraphy and in situ, words I never thought I would use outside of field work, come back to me readily as I attempt to forge connections between the fascinating artifacts before me and their even more fascinating histories. According to the Collections Manager for Soldiers Memorial, Shay Henrion, leader of our team of museum excavators and adventurers, “Without having regular inventories, or the advantages of the new digital age we live in, objects have the tendency to get separated from their purely physical paper trail”. Excavating these boxes to reunite these objects with their paper trail, and then permanently preserving this information in a digital database for the first time, is incredibly rewarding.
For me, each new day at work is an exciting mystery waiting to be unraveled. Every new box I open at Soldiers Memorial is like that first shovel full of dirt dug from an excavation site or, with Indiana Jones, that first time he dons his fedora and enters an ancient tomb, bull whip at the ready. You never know what is going to be unearthed next. From a World War II Nazi dagger used by the German Luftwaffe to a letter from an 18 year old boy to his anxious mother during the Korean War, capturing and preserving these stories is every bit as rewarding as beating the bad guys and finally reaching that Holy Grail at the end of the temple.
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