At Fort Stanwix National Monument, I’m fortunate enough to work in a top of the line facility for museum collections. In fact, other parks from across the state store their objects at Fort Stanwix when their own facilities lack the space or the conditions to do so. Yet, inevitably, standards of care change over time as a result of continued research and evolving technology. At any given time, park staff have multiple projects in the works designed to make improvements and maintain the collections.
One of these projects, rehousing, is the process of moving an object from an older enclosure to one that is updated, usually to ensure that the object is better protected or that archival-grade materials are used. For the last few weeks, I’ve been working through a box of small objects and learning how they should be properly stored. I’ve separated them into smaller groups and re-bagged them in modern museum-grade bags.
I find it incredibly rewarding to know that my efforts are helping to safeguard park collections for future visitors. Rehousing is an important part of that effort. However, I’m proudest of another aspect of my work: my contributions toward properly documenting those collections.
The Case of the Mislabeled Pennies
During my rehousing project, I came across an Indian Head penny from the 1870s. I bagged the penny according to the protocol and continued working my way through the box. A few hours later, I found a large “master” bag that contained several smaller bags, a label with a number, and a few loose coins.
I started to rebag the coins as usual, but something about the situation seemed too familiar. A quick search back through my newly labeled Ziplocks revealed that the first penny shared that same number, known as a catalog number. These identifiers allow us to find items in the database and should, therefore, be unique to an object or group of objects.
Of course, there was always the possibility that the catalog number referred to all three pennies. To find out, I got help accessing the database. The entry we found described an 1871 penny and listed a total count of two items. This description presented a problem. We found three pennies in total, not two, and the one in the original bag was from the wrong year. One of the pennies was from 1871, while one was so corroded that I could not read the year, even under a microscope.
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The Plot Thickens
Armed with the information from the catalog, we began the real detective work. First up was a more comprehensive database search. We ran searches for coins minted in the right years and for pennies in general. Next, we narrowed down the results to a few options that looked promising. We took the list of catalog numbers with us back to storage, where the park maintains more than 700,000 objects in hundreds of archival boxes. One of my favorite parts of my internship is opening these boxes to hunt down specific items: in this case, the effort paid off. After a few false starts, one bag yielded just one 1864 Indian Head penny, instead of the two that the catalog had promised.
Now we had a pretty good idea of where all three pennies had originally belonged. What was missing was some link between them. In spite of their similarities, excavators had found the pennies in different places. In archaeologists’ terms, they had different proveniences. They also belonged in different boxes. Without a plausible explanation for the mix-up, our theory about the identity of the pennies was little more than a hunch.
The Missing Link
Though we had already searched the digital catalog, there was one more bit of sleuthing we could try. The park also maintains a physical catalog with files on any objects that have accumulated extra paperwork of some kind. It was a long shot, but we headed to the archives room to check it out.
To our surprise, in all of the relevant files for the dubious pennies, we found printouts of text panels from some long-ago museum exhibit. This exhibit seemed to be the missing link. Now we could account for why the pennies were together and separated from their labels. We now had a credible theory.
So what happened to the pennies? I labeled them and safely rehoused them. We added a detailed memo to the catalog to document our findings for future staff. Without our efforts, the next person to look for one of the pennies probably wouldn’t have found it. Over time, the problem would have worsened. Instead, we set the record straight, and I learned a lot along the way. My inner librarian finds this kind of database correction deeply satisfying. The research and information organization skills I’ve learned at the iSchool have definitely come in handy, too.
The Case of the Mislabeled Pennies was my first foray into “problem-solving.” Since then, I’ve investigated a few other mysteries. The next time I find a catalog problem, I’ll be ready to solve the case.