When Navy Explosive Ordnance Division knows your name…

The Curator Series is designed to showcase the U.S. Coast Guard Heritage Asset Collection; why is there such a program, what do curators do, and what types of amazing things are in their collections?

Written by Jen Gaudio
Coast Guard Museum Curator

Uranium glass was popular from the 1920s to the early 1950s. It contained between 2 percent and 25 percent of the oxide diuranate form of uranium which was added to glass before it was melted and formed into glassware. It has a distinctive fluorescent yellow color in regular light, but will glow under blacklight. Despite registering on a Geiger Counter, uranium glass was often used as tableware or other household items. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Uranium glass was popular from the 1920s to the early 1950s. It contained between 2 percent and 25 percent of the oxide diuranate form of uranium which was added to glass before it was melted and formed into glassware. It has a distinctive fluorescent yellow color in regular light, but will glow under blacklight. Despite registering on a Geiger Counter, uranium glass was often used as tableware or other household items. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

I have a distinct memory of an incident at my first job as curator of the Czechoslovak Heritage Museum in Oak Brook, Illinois. I had just cut the top of my left thumb off with a mat cutter—an injury so common among curators we should all be identifiable by lopsided digits—and I was at the doctor’s office while she cauterized my thumb to stop the bleeding. As if to make conversation, the doctor said to me, “gee, a curator… that must really be a safe job, not too many dangers, huh?” I can’t recall if she was being sarcastic or not very observant because she was in the process of melting the surface capillaries of my thumb to stop the bleeding with a cross between a cigarette lighter and a taser.

Every job has some risk of life or limb, one that makes us grateful for the existence of Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Sometimes the risk is commensurate with the job. Museum curator is definitely no exception, but it does offer an element of the adventurous unknown.

Let’s see. My second job was in an 1836 house with collections stored in the attic and the basement. Every summer when the humidity would reach a certain point a red slime would appear on the walls of the staircase leading to the basement. It appeared as if the walls were bleeding, so much so I kept expecting to hear a disembodied “get out!” Upon examination it was determined that the slime was the condensation of machine oil particles in the air from all the shoe machinery stored in the basement. It was this job that I also had the Lynn, Massachusetts fire Chief verbally slap me around for doing something stupid. An 18th century powder horn was found in collections storage still containing fine-grained gunpowder. Standard operating procedures from the city fire department dictated that the item be destroyed as is. This I could not handle. So I poured the fine-grained gunpowder into a Tupperware container. In my defense I was in my early 20s and had limited experience with gunpowder. Needless to say I understand that I have a guardian angel who prevents me from blowing myself up and I won’t do that again.

Intern Mary Elizabeth Pratt clips hair samples from the fur of bear skin to ensure it is not a hazard to people or would contaminate other things in storage. Pratt then researched and contacted National Park Service conservators and sent the samples off for testing. Fortunately, the tests did not show any arsenic or other heavy metal contamination. It is believed the skin was preserved with rock salt. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Jen Gaudio.

Intern Mary Elizabeth Pratt clips hair samples from the fur of bear skin to ensure it is not a hazard to people or would contaminate other things in storage. Pratt then researched and contacted National Park Service conservators and sent the samples off for testing. Fortunately, the tests did not show any arsenic or other heavy metal contamination. It is believed the skin was preserved with rock salt. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Jen Gaudio.

Fast-forward to my third job working for the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia, on a research trip looking for artifacts to borrow for the exhibit. I was visiting an elderly widow whose husband was a treasure hunter. In his collection in the basement were five shells of unidentified explosive capacity sitting next to the water heater (I convinced her to call the fire department). I also dealt with less explosive issues. My office, once an unventilated electrical room, grew many interesting colors of mold.

As I grew more experienced and gained more wisdom, a lot of these instances were mitigated by proper facilities and keeping to standard operating procedures. The best, most professional place I’ve worked happens to be the Coast Guard Museum (thank you Environmental and Safety Branch!) and even there I’ve had a few hair-raising moments. Like when we couldn’t determine from the records if a hedgehog mine, located in close proximity to the superintendent’s office, was possibly live or inert. Then there was a 1950s emergency kit dropped off outside my office which may have contained phosphorus flares. I was on a first-name basis with the Navy Explosive Ordnance Division by the end of that summer.

It seems funny in retrospect, but curators are often put at risk by their collection. Hat making tools, Fresnel lens baths, and glass thermometers containing mercury, taxidermy preserved with arsenic salts, bits of sharp rusty metal, glass impregnated with an uranium isotope, asbestos from old buildings, unstable elements from early 19th century medical kits, and potential explosive ordnance: I have, at some point, been exposed to everything. That doesn’t even touch on the — dead and alive — snakes, rats, bats, beetles, roaches and other insects of all varieties I’ve run into. Nothing says good morning than finding a few copperhead snakes sunning themselves in front of your museum’s main entrance.

Volunteer Seaman Christopher Goonan and Interns Mary Elizabeth Pratt and Matthew Sanders examine a Kodiak bear rug for insect damage in 2013. The bear rug, which cadets used to pose in the commandant of cadets' desk on a dare, was shot and killed in Alaska around 1900 by the engineering officer of the Revenue Cutter Rush. The museum curator started out looking for insect damage and then learned that sometimes Revenue Cutter Service crews used to send animals hunted as samples to the Smithsonian for study. As they had to be preserved in order to send, the curators were concerned that the hide was coated in arsenic. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Jen Gaudio.

Volunteer Seaman Christopher Goonan and Interns Mary Elizabeth Pratt and Matthew Sanders examine a Kodiak bear rug for insect damage in 2013. The bear rug, which cadets used to pose in the commandant of cadets’ desk on a dare, was shot and killed in Alaska around 1900 by the engineering officer of the Revenue Cutter Rush. The museum curator started out looking for insect damage and then learned that sometimes Revenue Cutter Service crews used to send animals hunted as samples to the Smithsonian for study. As they had to be preserved in order to send, the curators were concerned that the hide was coated in arsenic. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Jen Gaudio.

Fortunately, there are few collections-related injuries and fatalities among museum staff and that is due to institutional procedures and the safety flashes that go out from the National Park Service, online discussion groups, and regional and national museum organizations. Exposure is more of a concern especially with old buildings and unknown collections. The only time I ever passed out in my life was in the Mutter Museum’s collection storage facility. The Mutter Museum is a museum of human anatomical oddities attached to the Philadelphia College of Physicians. One small storage room was full of wet samples in formaldehyde and had little ventilation. Combine the overwhelming smell of formaldehyde, the stuffiness of a small room, and a closet full of women’s deformed livers from too-tight corsetry and down I went.

So, we do our best to protect everyone who works in this unusual profession from harm. We get regular tetanus shots. We wear gloves not only to protect the objects but so that we do not get potentially noxious residue on our hands. We wear masks especially during potential airborne exposure. And we wear hazmat suit when removing mouse-and-bird-excrement-covered objects from abandoned historic buildings. It is a wonderful, fascinating and rewarding job, but safe it is not.

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