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A Day in the Life of a Collections Assistant

08/08/2014

I am so thankful to have the opportunity to work as a collections assistant at the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) to help with the redesign of its premier exhibition, The Story of Virginia.

As a collections assistant my first responsibility is to help manage locations of objects. This means that I must keep up with all location changes between storage, conservation, and photography while we are preparing them for display.

VHS Registrar, Rebecca Rose, and I work together to update locations in the VHS catalog.

While I am pulling objects for The Story of Virginia, I also review all the object files to confirm the history of how we received pieces. After I search through the object files I update catalog records on all aspects related to each item.

How would you start organizing the thousands of objects removed from the original exhibition only some which are slated for the new exhibition? One way is to use color coordinating tags. We use color coding to separate graphics from originals and to differentiate objects going into the new exhibition from ones going back into storage. Each tag for a The Story of Virginia object has a set of numbers and letters that is unique to that piece (for example 2005.302.A-B). For the new exhibition, each tag also lists a gallery, area, and section number of the exhibit on one side and on the reverse, a brief description.

We use color coding to separate graphics from originals and to differentiate objects going into the new exhibition from ones going back into storage.

We use color coding tags to separate graphics from originals and to differentiate objects going into the new exhibition from ones going back into storage.

This will help me and my coworkers distinguish what artifacts are going into The Story of Virginia and where in the new gallery they will be located. This may not be the most exciting part of my job, but it will make my job a lot easier down the road.

I am the liaison between the programs and collections divisions at the VHS. The programs department mounts the display for the objects and collections care for the objects. Once a week I get to attend meetings with the design team and curators of The Story of Virginia to discuss the different galleries, what the curators are trying to portray, and the artifacts needed to help tell the story.

On a daily basis I am pulling objects for conservators to look at to determine the state of each artifacts and if it needs conservation treatment or should be rotated with other objects.  Many people don’t understand that some objects, especially paper or textiles can only stay on display for a brief period of time, and other similar objects must be rotated in their places. The major reason artifacts must have rotations is because of light damage. All light is damaging, not just UV light. The society’s conservator, Stacy Rusch, explained it by saying that “just like exposure to light with our skin is cumulative, so it is with objects, and this cannot be reversed. Every object has a certain number of hours that it can be exhibited without causing damage. Paper and textiles have an even lower amount of hours available for exposure to light.”

The Story of Virginia object list is very diverse. I selected two very different artifacts that caught my eye while working on the new exhibition.

Patrick Henry’s spectacles

Patrick Henry’s spectacles (Virginia Historical Society, Accession number 1934.2)

Imagine what Patrick Henry saw through these spectacles. Patrick Henry was an influential leader in the colonial opposition to the British government. He is best known for the speech he made in the Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, at Saint John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia. Most of us know the famous words he spoke that day:

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!

These words expressed the passion that gave birth to the Revolutionary War.

Phyllis Galanti's dress and jacket

Here I am measuring Phyllis Galanti’s dress and jacket (Virginia Historical Society, Accession number 2005.302.A-B)

Moving from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, a new addition to The Story of Virginia is a dress with jacket worn by Phyllis Eason Galanti. She was just a newlywed when her husband’s plane was shot down over North Vietnam and he was captured on June 17, 1966. Paul Galanti spent almost seven years in various POW camps in North Vietnam. Phyllis began a campaign to get her husband and other POWs home. The Richmond “Write Hanoi” campaign was held February 5–13, 1971, and delegation including Phyllis Galanti flew to Stockholm, Sweden, on March 8 to deliver more than 400,000 letters from the Richmond area. The goal of the campaign was to give evidence to the North Vietnamese government that the American public demanded the observance of the terms of the Geneva Convention on behalf of the prisoners. That is when she became known by some as “fearless Phyllis.” The VHS has the dress Phyllis wore on February 15, 1973, when she was reunited with her husband Paul (LCDR, U.S. Navy) at the Norfolk Naval Air Station.

Learn more about Phyllis in our previous post.

The reunion of Paul and Phyllis Galanti was captured in a photograph that appeared on the February 26, 1973, cover of Newsweek magazine. (Virginia Historical Society, Mss1 G1315a, Section 4)

 

What I love about my job the most is that while I am searching around in storage for The Story of Virginia artifacts, I find rare, unique, and exciting objects that make up the history of Virginia. I’m fascinated with the artifacts I come across, as well as astonished with the number of collections in the Virginia Historical Society. After all, according to William Byrd II, “In the beginning all America was Virginia.”

 Brooke Jones is a Collections Assistant at the Virginia Historical Society.

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