Conserving Artifacts for Museum Display

The National Park Service Harpers Ferry Center conservation labs have started the conservation of artifacts for rotation into the exhibits at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center.  Over 150 artifacts ranging from signal flags to feedbags are now undergoing conservation.  The newly conserved objects will allow the park to remove sensitive artifacts from display cases and allow them to “rest” after four years of being on display. 

The items pictured below are just the first to be completed.  Work continues at the Harpers Ferry Center.  Some items, like a flag, require up to 120 hours of painstaking conservation work.  The Gettysburg Foundation is donating $300,000 to this project as part of its ongoing commitment to the National Park Service at Gettysburg National Military Park.   The installation is planned for the late summer/early fall.

In the following photos, the first image shows the artifact before conservation.  The second image shows the artifact after conservation. 

CWMP 86.38.12 – This is a period US military telegram sent on April 9, 1865 that reports General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia from the collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia.    Brittle, stained, and torn, NPS Conservators used a number of techniques to surface clean the document, mend tears, humidify for proper mounting, and create a new archivally-sound mat board before reframing.

GETT 33318 – This is an English-made Model 1853 saber bayonet, which dates to about 1860.  This particular bayonet was recovered from the battlefield at Gettysburg in the vicinity of the Henry Spangler Farm.   Rust was present across the entire bayonet, but particularly heavy on the guard.  In order to stabilize this for exhibit, NPS conservators cleaned the item mechanically and chemically and then coated with microcrystalline wax at a temperature of 195 degrees. 

GETT 16258 – The sand-cast brass Confederate belt plate shown here, found near the High Water Mark in 1939, showed corrosion on its surface that comes from the natural oxidation of copper alloys such as brass.  In order to preserve the artifact, NPS conservators removed the present corrosion with mechanical methods and solvents.  At the end, they placed a corrosion inhibitor on the surface to prevent new corrosion from happening in the future.

GETT 9899 – This Parrott Shell, made of both iron and copper, is a Culp’s Hill recovery.  It had stable, but heavy corrosion and dust and dirt accretions when delivered to the NPS conservation labs.  It also showed previous, but unsuccessful attempts to coat it with wax.  In order to prepare this shell for exhibit, NPS conservators cleaned the dirt and rust from its surface using a variety of tools and chemicals.  A coating with microcrystalline wax applied at 195 degrees will serve as extra long-term protection. 

GETT 44649 – New York civilian John Righter wrote of hearing of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in this pocket diary in April of 1865, giving us a glimpse into the thoughts of the average northern civilian on this tragic event.  When donated to the park, the diary had a partially detached spine, tears to the pages, and accumulated surface dirt – all common of books found from this time period.  In order to make the object safe a ready for exhibit, the conservators at the NPS conservation labs reattached the binding threads, mended the page tears with Japanese paper and wheat starch paste, and reinforced the covers to prevent further damage in the future.

Thanks to the staff at the National Park Service Harpers Ferry Center conservation labs for their work, and to Gary Tarleton for the photos.  Thanks also to Greg Goodell, Supervisor of Museum Services at Gettysburg National Military Park, for his help with this blog.  And thanks to the Gettysburg Foundation for financially supporting the project.

Katie Lawhon, Management Assistant, May 2, 2012


About Gettysburg National Military Park

Welcome to the official Wordpress page for Gettysburg National Military Park. This page is maintained by National Park Service employees at Gettysburg National Military Park.
This entry was posted in Museum and Visitor Center, Weapons & Artifacts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Conserving Artifacts for Museum Display

  1. Cookie Pieczonka says:

    Wonderful article. I especially liked the before and after images. I will keep checking back for more. How cool that Gettysburg has a blog….

  2. Joshua M says:

    My understanding is that to clean a relic is too decrease its value significantly, was surprised to see to the Park Service cleans relics.

    • The Staff says:

      There is a difference between cleaning a relic and proper conservation of it. For example, removing rust and corrosion stabilizes the metal of the bayonet shown in the blog post. Without proper conservation methods being applied, the item will continue to deteriorate physically, thus reducing it’s value over time. Comparable efforts are those currently underway to preserve and stabilize the Hunley and gun turret of the USS Monitor. Both of these iconic craft would literally melt away without the removal of years of rust and corrosive elements so that each may be viewed and appreciated by future generations. The items in the park’s museum collection are valued for their historical significance first and evaluated for conservation on that basis. Thanks for your question!

  3. Thank you for the explanation. I hope the GNPS will reintroduce some of the old rusty relic displays that were displayed at the old visitor’s center. I appreciate everything the GNPS does in preserving the fields and history. Some of the old displays, though lacking in technology, were eye popping and took one back to 1863.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s