Thursday, June 11, 2009

It's Not Just Art Historians That Plague Museums

I may have left the impression in my last posting that the only problems museums have are with art experts and historians who fail to do proper research on military and war related exhibits. However, the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History has had a similar problem now for several years. In the year before it closed for renovations, the Museum unveiled an exhibition called "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, this presents a survey of America's conflicts and their costs. This exhibition is again on display, unchanged, after these renovations.

An obvious element in such an exhibit would be the American Civil War, described by many historians as the conflict that defined America. The photo included with this article is one that I took earlier this year after the museum was re-opened. I took an almost identical photo before the closure for renovation and attempted to alert museum curators to the errors thus illustrated. Whoever placed the equipment upon the mannequin did it backwards - a fact that as an active reenactor of a Civil War Union soldier immediately struck me when I first visited the exhibit.

The most visible item of equipment is the canteen covered in brown blanket cloth. This is resting on the mannequin's left leg when it should be resting on top of the oilskin cloth haversack and both lying atop the left hip, out the way yet still accessible. The haversack on this mannequin has been reversed from its proper position and can be made out hanging close to the body at the right front.

On the mannequin's left hip, resting approximately where the haversack should be is the black leather cartridge box which would have carried the soldier's rounds of ammunition. This should be resting on the right hip where the soldier can easily use his right hand to reach back, open the pouch, and pluck out a single paper cartridge containing both one bullet and the black powder that when the weapon is fired would propel the bullet towards the chosen target.

The next most important accessory is the cap pouch, a small coin purse sized leather pouch that contains the soldier's percussion caps. After the soldier has poured the black powder down the barrel of his musket, dropped in the bullet, and then used his ramrod to force all of this down to the bottom of his weapon's barrel, he would hold the musket in his left hand while his right hand would reach down to remove a single cap from this pouch which should be just the right side of the buckle of his waist belt. This cap is placed upon the cone or nipple of the musket where it will be struck by the weapon's hammer when the trigger is pulled. The hammer's blow should set off the fulminate of mercury contained in the percussion cap which should create enough of a spark to ignite the black powder already poured down the barrel, firing the weapon. In this instance, the mannequin's pouch is in approximately the right position though the haversack being incorrectly placed just below it makes it difficult to reach.

It would be reasonable to surmise that neither the mannequin nor the curator or individual who kitted out this mannequin was ever dressed down by a sergeant major or any kind of sergeant for being a "slovenly soldier" because their kit was all a scramble. It is not impossible that the individual was using an original image of an actual Civil War Union soldier as a reference aid when placing the equipment on the mannequin. If this is the case, the individual was either unaware or had forgotten that in some forms of photographs or images from this period, the image is in fact a mirror image of the original subject, i.e., backward or reversed so that the real person's right side is on the leftside of the image. The sad result is that the exhibition misinforms the public and leads knowledgable visitors to conclude that the museum is ignorant on this subject and reluctant to admit that fact.