Cleaning at Varnum’s Quarters
You never know what you’ll find when you begin a curatorial/museum services internship at Valley Forge National Historical Park. Whether it’s experiencing material culture by handling and identifying eighteenth-century objects like carved powder horns and breathtaking officer’s swords in the valuable George C. Neumann collection, or participating in a massive archaeological cataloging project by storing, labeling, and identifying hundreds of horse bones and teacup shards from the encampment, this internship offers fascinating insight into curatorial practices. This semester, I have enjoyed being mentored by Mrs. Dona McDermott, the park’s archivist. Mrs. McDermott graduated from the esteemed Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and brings years of experience in both curatorial techniques and interpretation to her position. She assists interns by offering valuable career advice in addition to supervising their work.
After receiving an introductory orientation to the internship, I immediately began my initiation into preservation practices by watching a 10-part video series on cleaning and preserving artifacts, which offered advice about dealing with metal erosion and rust, moving large objects, storing artifacts of different materials separately, preventing pests, and preserving the integrity of textiles. I was enlisted to help the archival staff clean objects at Washington’s Headquarters and Varnum’s Quarters, which offer unique preservation challenges as spaces through which massive groups of tourists travel on a daily basis and buildings that are often open to the elements. Having only previously served on the interpretive side of museum work, it was humbling to learn the thorough and gentle techniques by which museums clean and house their artifacts.
My most memorable experience to date involved sifting through hundreds of archaeological objects which varied from nearly intact cups and pottery to charred wood from fire pits, so that the archivists could move the collection to better and more organized storage lockers. The most gory aspect of that experience involved handling hundreds of horse bones excavated from the encampment. Even with a historian’s training, it is possible to ignore the stark realities of life in the Valley Forge encampment until you are brought face to face with these remnants of life and death that occurred there. It was another humbling experience which transcended purely scholarly knowledge of material culture.
In the coming weeks, with Mrs. McDermott and Dr. Catherine Kerrison’s consultation, I will be completing a final proposal for an exhibit panel about the lives of women camp followers and families at Valley Forge. My goal with with this project is to reveal some of the sacrifices ordinary people made during army life and work at the encampment site. Volumes have been written about Von Steuben and Washington, mythic harsh winters and heroic feats, but my goal as a public historian is to help visitors connect and empathize with the hundreds of people like them who cooked over the fires and drank from those vessels as they endured tasks like nursing the wounded and doing laundry for troops. I will provide updates on this valuable internship as the semester comes to a close.