Historical Context and Inexplicable Objects: What makes an Artifact an Artifact?

This is the second blog post in the Curator Series that 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 Jennifer Gaudio, Coast Guard curator

Motel of the Mystery

An image from Motel of the Mysteries portraying the comical interpretation of items with no context.

Way back when I was in graduate school (before the internet was the internet and dinosaurs still roamed the earth), one of the first books my history professor recommended was Motel of the Mysteries, a book that gently pokes fun at historians.

Archaeologists of the future (after all the garbage floating in space fell to earth, burying the US) accidentally discover a motel room outside Las Vegas. The mocking starts when the historians begin to interpret the everyday items found there with no context. Toothbrushes become sacred jewelry. A TV is an oracle through which the gods communicate. Elvis is their prophet. You get the idea.

As you may have guessed, context—the facts or circumstances that surround a particular event or situation—is the key ingredient that makes an artifact an artifact. Without it, we are unable to anchor an object to a point in time and it becomes useless to us. To make an assumption about the use or origins of an artifact risks teaching bad history, correcting which is akin to trying to stop a wildfire with a wind machine once the story is out.

Nothing is known about these deer hoof shoes, other than that they are made from deer hooves. They were given to the U.S. Coast Guard Heritage Collection. Artifacts at the U.S. Coast Guard Museum are carefully catalogued and stored to ensure history is preserved.

Nothing is known about these deer hoof shoes, other than that they are made from deer hooves. They were found in the U.S. Coast Guard Heritage Asset Collection. Artifacts at the U.S. Coast Guard Museum are carefully catalogued and stored to ensure history is preserved. But they have to have context in order to be used in an exhibit.

Objects don’t have to be old to be artifacts. The National Trust for Historic Preservation states something fifty years or older can be considered “historic.” This “fifty years” has less to do with age and more to do with having enough time pass to understand how the object fits into the “Big Picture.” For example, ten years after Hurricane Katrina historians are only now beginning to really understand the impact that event had on the nation. Think of it like a rock thrown into a puddle. The rock is Hurricane Katrina and the waves are all the far-reaching consequences: on individual lives, health issues, social issues, community, etc. We can only see the patterns the ripples make when we step back.

So we need context to properly tell a story and to also teach or inform through exhibits. Context can also be referred to as “provenance,” or the history of an object. Do we have the provenance for all our objects? Well, no. But, then, few museums do.

Some of the objects without context at the Academy are literally the weirdest things I have ever seen: the deer hoof shoes and the portrait of the blonde lady my interns refer to as “Hot Lips Houlihan.”

This portrait was given to the U.S. Coast Guard Heritage Collection, but unfortunately there is no information known about this woman or anything about the portrait.

This portrait was given to the U.S. Coast Guard Heritage Asset Collection, but unfortunately there is no information about this woman or anything else about the painting.

The hoof shoes win the prize for the weirdest; we have absolutely no context. We know only that they are deer hooves somebody hollowed out and lined with pink synthetic silk. They MAY have a connection to Alaska and they MAY be sailor art done in a bored moment off duty, or they MAY have been made by Native Alaskans to sell to Coasties, but we have no proof.

The portrait was part of a donation of objects from an unidentified captain back in the 1970s. The only information we have on the painting is a handwritten note from the file that says she “hung in a bar in Boston.” Which, though a starting point, is not enough context to use in an exhibit. If we knew which establishment, or even that it was a Coastie gathering spot, we’d be able to justify it as part of the collection.

Curators will often do some detective work to try and identify the history and meaning of an artifact by following clues found in an object’s design or construction; this is what is known as material culture research. How we go about this process is the next blog post.

Up Next: I always wanted to be Nancy Drew: Researching a Coast Guard Ensign

 

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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