Be the curator: Coast Guard opens contest for artifacts

This post is part of our “Be the curator” series. Join the competition: submit and vote for your favorite 21st Coast Guard artifact!

Written by Jennifer Gaudio, Coast Guard curator

Calling all current and past Coast Guard members!

An officer candidate holds photos from the Coast Guard Museum collection in a Coast Guard history course July 15, 2013, at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

An officer candidate holds photos from the Coast Guard Museum collection in a Coast Guard history course at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

The Coast Guard history staff, CG-0923, (including our collections manager, archivist, and the historians and curators) needs your help. Because we work with the past, sometimes it is hard for us to identify what is important in the present, or what may be in the future. This naturally concerns us because we want to do the best we can to prepare for the future, preserve the present and protect the past of our fine service.

Our challenge to you is to identify artifacts that best represent the Coast Guard in the 21st Century and why. This will be a six-month challenge where people get a chance to vote on their favorite objects and at the end of six months, the top five artifacts will be announced. These artifacts will then be accepted (we call it “accessioned”) into the Coast Guard Heritage Asset Collection.

So what are we looking for? We are looking for any object that best represents you, your mission(s), your unit, sector or directorate’s experience in the 21st century Coast Guard. We need you to send a photograph of the object and tell us, in your own words, why you think it is important and what it represents.

In previous blog posts I’ve talked about what makes an object relevant to the museum. I’ve also mentioned material culture. Material culture is the study through artifacts of the beliefs – values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions – of a particular community or society in any given point in time. Curators look for artifacts that can be used to teach or illustrate some part of the organization’s history. Some suggestions of things were looking for are below:

  1. Your story: An object that can be used to tell the story of your service in the Coast Guard.
  2. Beyond the everyday: Something that makes an everyday item, like a uniform, unique.
  3. Coast Guardsmen are people too: what object shows us the people behind the uniform.
  4. Your missions: what illustrates the modern missions of the Coast Guard.
  5. Technology: the Coast Guard’s use of technology.

    Pennants were created by a commanding officer of a Coast Guard tug and flown as a kind of protest every time they took the garbage out. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

    Pennants were created by a commanding officer of a Coast Guard tug and flown as a kind of protest every time they took the garbage out. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Not really easy, is it? One example of a modern Coast Guard artifact is a recent donation of two pennants that were created, and flown, during of the 1979 New York City tugboat strike. The city used tugboats to take its garbage out to the dump site, and without them garbage was piling up. The city was losing tourism money and exposed to all kinds of pests and sicknesses. Mayor Ed Koch had approached the Coast Guard about supplying tugs to take the garbage to the dump sites, but the Coast Guard did not have a tug to spare. Koch appealed the decision that went from the Governor to President Jimmy Carter. Carter ordered Department of Transportation (the agency is charge of the Coast Guard at the time) Secretary Brock Adams to direct the Coast Guard to supply tugs to take the city’s garbage—and later sewage—out to the dump sites. The pennants were created by a commanding officer (CO) of one of the tugs and flown as a kind of protest every time they took the garbage out. These unique artifacts were later given to the Captain of the Port of New York years after the strike ended.

What can these pennants tell us about the Coast Guard in 1979? Why would the CO risk punishment to protest an order? Why would the president order the Coast Guard to take the trash and sewage out? Would the Navy be expected to take the city’s garbage out to the dump? As we were doing some background research on this topic, we discovered there was a precedent. In 1971, President Richard Nixon ordered the Coast Guard to remove the trash for the city of Newark, New Jersey, during a sanitation workers strike. The president’s rationale: the Coast Guard’s newly expanded environmental mission.

A photo of some examples of Coast Guard artifacts and archival items

A photo of some examples of Coast Guard artifacts and archival items.

These pennants are important in talking about the Coast Guard environmental mission and the Coast Guard of the 1970s.

As I said before, we need help in discovering what is important now – what is happening now. Who are the people who make up the Coast Guard? What are their aspirations, the reasons for joining the service? Don’t be afraid to think creatively, to give us something unusual. As long as we have the story and how you think it fits, it will be exciting to see.

Thank you for your service and your help as we try and present what it means to be the U.S. Coast Guard and preserve “today” for tomorrow and our descendents.

To participate in this challenge, please submit a high resolution image of the artifact, along with a short paragraph describing the artifact and your reasons for its submission by email via history@uscg.mil with “Top 5 Artifacts” in the subject line.

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