Sunday, October 10, 1999

Prized Tristate Possessions

Three million artifacts collected and preserved at Cincinnati Museum Center

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Architect Samuel Hannaford's original rendering of City Hall.
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        The Art Deco masterpiece that is Union Terminal is one of Cincinnati's greatest treasures, rescued from oblivion when it was reborn in 1990 as the Cincinnati Museum Center. But the building itself is only one of some three million objects preserved under the grand half dome.

        Family heirlooms, rare documents, American Indian artifacts, unique fossils — everything from brachiopods to beer signs — fill storage shelves beneath the terminal. These treasures document our area back to the dawn of time.

        “In the history collection alone, we have 100,000 books and pamphlets, 2,500 Cincinnati maps and 500,000 photographs, everything from daguerreotypes to film footage from local television stations,” says Scott Gampfer, Museum Center's director of history collections.

Uniform hat worn by Civil War Gen. William Lytle.
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        Visitors will be able to look at some of these treasures when Prized Possessions opens in March. On display will be some of oddest, most interesting and important objects in the collection. The exhibition also will give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at what scientists are doing to preserve and protect these treasures.

        Museum Center attracts visitors to its Ice Age exhibit, Cincinnati history displays, children's museum and Omnimax theater. Students, scientists, researchers and genealogists come to use the collections.

        Behind the scenes is a staff of 25 staff curators, conservators, librarians and scientists and 172 volunteers, who work to preserve a vast array of objects and documents used constantly by researchers. Volunteers include scientists, specialists and workers, who do routine tasks such as removing paper-damaging staples from manuscripts.

        It's part of Museum Center's mission to collect and preserve, to advance and share knowledge. About 8 percent of its $14 million budget is spent on conservation and preservation.

        Cincinnati Historical Society's move to Union Terminal from its Eden Park building and the Natural History Museum relocation from its Gilbert Avenue home four years ago allowed these two museums to merge their resources and create state-of-the-art storage systems to help preserve their massive collections.

        There are books and manuscripts, paintings and photographs, archaeological, paleontological, biological and historical artifacts.

        Other treasures include a trolley car, an airplane, a 12-foot long fossilized fish, a drug store soda fountain and a rare round book dating to the 17th century.

        The historical collections date back to the first settlement of Northwest Territory in 1788. Objects in the scientific collections date back 1.4 billion years.

        Floors at Union Terminal were reinforced to carry the weight of tons of paper objects. Inner walls were built to isolate the collections from outdoor temperature and humidity changes.

        Temperature in storage areas is kept between 65 and 70 degrees, and relative humidity is regulated to between 45 percent to 50 percent to retard mold and insect activity. Dust is filtered and lighting is controlled to retard fading and discoloring.

        “What we're doing with the collections are buying time,” Mr. Gampfer says. “We want to slow down deterioration as much as we can by providing a very stable controlled environment.”

Research each exhibition
        Temporary exhibitions help solve the problem of selecting which artifacts to work with.

        “Exhibitions such as Prized Possessions give us an opportunity do research and conservation on a large number of objects in the collections,” Mr. Gampfer says.

        One object being prepared for the exhibition is “our 12-foot fish,” says Colin Sumrall, curator of invertebrate paleontology. “The fish is a Xiphactinus, the fish that ruled the interior Cretaceous seaway when dinosaurs ruled the earth.

        “We call it the fish of a thousand parts because most specimens are found in a slab. Ours is loose. We have a whole crew of people cleaning the fish and building a case so we can put it on display.”

        Olivia Procter's elegant wedding gown will be one of the more glamorous objects in the exhibition. But before the gown belonging to the daughter of P&G founder William Procter can be exhibited, it has to be sent to a textile specialist for cleaning and restitching.

        One of the rare collections within the collection is the Cornelius Hauck Book Collection.

        “It documents the history of the book from 2,500 B.C. to the early 20th century. It has bound scrolls, ancient cuneiform tablets, early printed books, including miniature books, books with jeweled bindings, and the only known round (17th century) book,” Mr. Gampfer says.

        The round book, hinged in the middle to make semicircular pages, is a religious text in Latin, made for a German prince. It is in pristine collection, but the pages and the binding will be carefully examined to look for any indications of deterioration.

        The most familiar objects in Prized Possessions will be from the history collection. They include:

        • The complete uniform of Civil War Gen. William Haines Lytle, a Cincinnatian who died at the Battle of Chickamauga.

        • A baseball glove used by Chuck Harmon, the first African-American to play for the Cincinnati Reds.

        • The drafting board and drawing tools of architect Samuel Hannaford, designer of City Hall and Music Hall.

        • A wooden cage the size of a coffin from Longview State Hospital from the days when it was really an “insane asylum.” Inmates were locked in these cages at night.

Preserving information
        Cincinnati's past is preserved through objects that evoke nostalgia or which provide information about how people lived an an earlier time. For example, the staff has just completed the preservation and microfilming of a large collection of copies of W. P. Dabney's African-American newspaper The Union.

        “We have issues from 1932 up to the end of the newspaper in the 1950s, the most complete collection in any institution,” Mr. Gampfer says. “It gives us a good picture of African-American life in Cincinnati during that time.

        “It was critical to get it on microfilm because the paper is deteriorating fast. In some cases, it was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle just to arrange the pieces to be photographed.”

        Most people don't know that Cincinnati is the birthplace of paleontology in America, Mr. Sumrall says. “You go back 100 years and nine out of 10 major paleontologists are from Cincinnati.”

        Although the stone artifacts from early digs are stable, the paper labels that identify many of them are deteriorating. Often they are in the handwriting of the original researchers, so they are historic artifacts themselves, in need of preservation.

        Paper conservators may seal them between air-tight plastic sheets, the same method used to protect rare maps. “The handwriting of the original researcher is critical. Sometimes its the only documentation we have so we have to interpret what's written,” Mr. Sumrall says.

        Passenger pigeons were once so common that a flock could darken the sky. The last one died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

        If you want to see one for a research paper or a wildlife painting, there are six preserved specimens in the Museum Center collection, along with thousands of other mounted birds.

        They are kept in specially designed drawers, in a collection that began with the natural history museum's first employee, John Audubon. The birds are preserved, with skins and bones stored separately, when the specimens enter the collection. The drawers are inspected frequently to assure that there's no decay or insect activity.

        The acquisition last year of the University of Cincinnati's geology collection has brought scientists to Cincinnati from all over the world.

        “For each species there is one single specimen, called a holotype, chosen by the original person describing that species,” Mr. Sumrall says. “It is the specimen that bears the name. You compare your specimen to the holotype to determine its species. We have 5,000 of these holotypes in this new collection.”

        The merger of the two museumshas brought together a number of collections that reinforce each other.

        “One of the nice things about the merger is that we realized there are a lot of issues that are common to all,” Mr. Gamfer says. “It makes sense to have the collections together and the collections people talking to each other.”

        Prized Possessions will open at the Museum Center on March 4. Guests at the Museum Gala Nov. 6 will get the first look at a selection of objects that will be in the exhibition. Gala tickets cost $125. Information: 287-7031.


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