Coast Guard Museum: Material culture and collections conundrum

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?

Editor’s note: This series was previously posted on the Coast Guard All Hands blog. Click here to see the earlier Coast Guard Museum blogs.

Written by Jennifer Gaudio, Coast Guard curator

The seal was added to the ensign in 1910 to differentiate the ensigns flows on Revenue Cutters from the ensigns being flown over the Custom Houses . Note it is not the Coast Guard Seal that wasn't approved till 1927.

The seal was added to the ensign in 1910 to differentiate the ensigns flows on Revenue Cutters from the ensigns being flown over the Custom Houses . Note it is not the Coast Guard Seal that wasn’t approved till 1927.

Part I:

In the last post I talked a bit about what makes an object an artifact and I introduced the term material culture. In Part I I’m going to explain a bit more what that phrase means and how it affects how we study artifacts. Then, in Part II, one of the museum’s excellent volunteers, retired Chief Warrant Officer Scott Epperson, will discuss his current research on the mystery of a museum donation.

In thinking about this blog post I had to dig deep into boxes of work from my graduate school days and dust off my copy of Jules David Prown’s “Mind in Matter.” Prown, an art historian from Yale, is one of the founding fathers of material culture studies and therefore of the museum profession.

Prown basically says that material culture is the process in which physical objects are used to learn about the community that created them.

“The underlying premise is that objects made or altered by man reflect, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, the beliefs of individuals who made, commissioned, purchased, or used them and by extension the larger society to which they belong.”
(Prown, Winterthur Portfolio, 1982).

Chief Petty Officer Thomas Roguski holds one of Joshua James' medals connecting James' history to his own present service through a historical object. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Chief Petty Officer Thomas Roguski holds one of Joshua James’ medals connecting James’ history to his own present service through a historical object. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Objects are evocative; they are the remnants of historical events that can exist in the present. They can fire the imagination, inspire, and forge connections with the past. Using an interpretive framework objects can be “read” and used to study history. Relatively new to material culture theory is how actual physical contact with an artifact often can underscore a history lesson and provide inspiration to the student. It is an intensely personal thing. One of the most rewarding moments of my career was watching a chief boatswain’s mate hold one of Joshua James’ medals, with gloves on and under my supervision, and witnessing that moment when he connected James’ history to his present service through a historical object.

Another historian, E. McClung Fleming, developed a formula that, along with Prown, has been the basis of material culture research for many years. Fleming states that every object has five basic properties which provide all the significant facts about an object. They are: history, material, construction, design and function. History includes the where, when, why and for whom it was made. Material is what the object is made of. Construction references the techniques and workmanship of how the object was created. Design includes the style, structure, and decorative aspect of the object. Lastly, function identifies the intended function and, in some cases, the unintended function of the object.

We have to be careful in our interpretation of historical objects, however. We are all products of a different time and culture than the object we are studying. We are all influenced by the bias of our beliefs. By that I mean the external influences—religion, politics, gender, region, language, class, occupation—that shape who we are and what we believe. In order to study material culture we have to train ourselves to recognize our bias and observe the object from as close to a neutral and objective standpoint as we can get. Another danger area is presentism, or placing modern values on past practices. For example, we know that some of the early Revenue Cutter captains brought slaves aboard ship as their personal servants. By today’s standards owning a slave is repugnant, but we have to recognize that the practice was not uncommon for the 18th century.

Though any object can be used to illustrate something about the culture that made it and the person that owned it, some artifacts, need more information before we can come to any firm conclusions. For example, museum volunteer, Scott Epperson, has been researching an unusual Coast Guard ensign

Part II

It sounds “geeky” but one of the more exciting thrills that we as curators and historians get is when we need to identify the origin and meaning of a historical object. This is when we get to apply examination and research techniques that are — again geeky — one of the more exiting things that we do.

When an object comes to us that cannot be quickly dated, or has unique characteristics, we have to put on our “historical forensics” personas and look at the clues in or on the object and follow those clues as much and as far as we can to discover more about it.

We have to perform physical examinations of the object and dive into historical records to find out more information to help us identify it better. We take a look at the details in the object—the way it was put together, the materials used in its creation, how it might have been altered—and we compare those details to known characteristics from certain cultures or time periods when those techniques were being used. This will give a date or range when the object itself was made or used.

It’s a sort of reverse engineering approach to Prown’s use of objects as material culture. Instead of determining the ideas of a culture from the object, we can identify the origins of an object by its cultural characteristics.

The way an object is put together tells us a lot.

For Example:

Recently an older Coast Guard ensign was donated to the Museum. The donor had bought the flag years before at an antique market and had no defined origin of the ensign – no “paper trail” as they say.

So we had to turn to the flag itself for clues to find out how old it was. At first look, the ensign wasn’t extraordinary. Most of us have seen the Coast Guard ensign before – vertical red-and-white stripes, a flying eagle clutching arrows and wheat stocks, and a seal placed on top of the stripes centered on the right side of the flag – but as we examined it more closely we started to notice differences compared to a modern ensign – clues that told the flag’s real story.

Our first clue was the style of the eagle itself. A quick look at the Coast Guard Historians website showed that many variations of the eagle have been used on the ensign since the Revenue Marine started flying it as a symbol of authority in 1799. The style of the eagle, wings spread with an arch of stars positioned at the tips of the wings, dated the flag at sometime after 1868 when that specific version was adopted.

Closeup of Eagle and stars.  Eagle does not have feathers on the back of its head and the arch of stars are located at its wing tips.  According to the Historians web site this is the configuration of the 1868 version of the Eagle.

Closeup of Eagle and stars. Eagle does not have feathers on the back of its head and the arch of stars are located at its wing tips. According to the Historians web site this is the configuration of the 1868 version of the Eagle.

The next clue was the presence of the seal on the right-hand portion of the flag. The Revenue Cutter Service seal was added to the ensign in 1910 by order of President William Taft to distinguish the ensign being flown on the cutters from those being flown over the customs houses on shore. That narrowed down the date to after 1910 since the flag has the seal.

Then in 1915 the Lifesaving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service were combined into a single service, the Coast Guard. The new Coast Guard regulations stated that the RCS seal on the ensign was to be replaced with the Coast Guard seal. But the only problem was the Coast Guard didn’t adopt an official seal until 1927.

Upon closer examination of the seal itself we saw that it didn’t say “U. S. Coast Guard 1790” in the outer circle with a striped shield in the center, it simply said “Semper Paratus 1790”. So at this point, granting that the “Semper Paratus” seal was the one added in 1910, we could date the flag to between 1910 and 1927.

Another ensign discovered in our collection with the Semper Paratus seal on it had an eagle that was yet an even older version (pre 1868) one but the flag still had the post 1910 seal on it. And a closer look at the seals on both flags also showed that they had a different stitching attaching them to the flags than the stitching that the eagles were attached with. Also both seals were printed and then attached while the eagles were sewn on in parts directly to the flags. The speculation at this point was that both flags may have been in use before 1910 and the seal was then added to the existing flags, per regulation, rather than having to replace the flags.

We’re still continuing our research to see more precisely when the flag is from. And as we delve into the design and makings of the flag we’ll be able to narrow it down further.

Jen Gaudio

Jen Gaudio

Jennifer Gaudio is a bit shocked to realize that she has been a curator for 20 years. For most of her career, Gaudio worked for small and midsize museums to make museum collections relevant to the public through exhibits and programs, and establishing or renovating museums. During that time she had really only wanted to be a curator for the Coast Guard. Growing up in New Jersey, spending time on the Jersey shore learning Coast Guard history and realizing how many people didn’t know anything about the Service, Gaudio felt that promoting Coast Guard History was a good way to say “thank you” to an agency that doesn’t get a lot of credit. She was hired in 2008 as curator of the U.S. Coast Guard Museum located at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. Gaudio still finds it to be the most rewarding job of those 20 years.

To learn more about the U.S. Coast Guard Heritage Asset Collection criteria, click here.

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