Boston, its not just a Band
by: Danielle Kronmiller
When I arrived in Boston, my basic familiarity with the city was sourced from various history books and the classic rock band that takes its name. Now, nearing the end of my second week here as the Curator’s Assistant with Boston National Historical Park, I can happily report that my foremost familiarity has come from first-hand experience, and I am loving every bit of it!
View of Downtown Boston from one of the piers in
Charlestown Navy Yard, where I am living and working
Before sharing more about my experiences here so far, I think it is important that we officially meet. My name is Danielle Kronmiller, and I graduated with a Master’s in Museum and Gallery Studies from the University of St Andrews in Scotland this past December. Prior to my journey across the Atlantic, I received my Bachelor’s degree in History from Truman State University in my home state of Missouri. I have worked in a special collections library, on exhibitions, and in various behind-the-scenes and front of house capacities within museums. My primary responsibility as the ACE CRDIP Curator’s Assistant intern is assisting with the annual inventory of the Park’s museum collections of over 400,000 objects, and I couldn’t be more excited to take it on!
Dry Dock 1 at Charlestown Navy Yard
My initial introduction to the project was a tour of collections storage, housed in an appropriately historic building. The Boston National Historical Park manages and partners with properties all over Boston, including Downtown, South Boston, and – the home base of my project – the Charlestown Navy Yard. In operation from 1800 to 1974, the Charlestown Navy Yard boasts one of the nation’s first dry docks for ship repair and is the present home of the USS Constitution – the Navy’s oldest commissioned ship – and the USS Cassin Young, a World War II destroyer. Many of the Naval buildings are preserved, managed, and used by BNHP. The Park’s collections encompass much of the Navy Yard’s history, including photographs, archival materials, shipyard materials and more, as well as collections that relate to the other sites connected to the Park. It has been enlightening learning about the collections while living and working in the Charlestown Navy Yard; though they are now properly stored and preserved as museum objects rather than used as working materials, they live within their original context, giving me a stronger appreciation of the site as a once functioning shipyard for the U.S. Navy. (Check out www.nps.gov/bost for more, or I will definitely keep writing…)
The USS Constitution docked at Charlestown Navy Yard
It is important to use white cotton gloves when handling many museum objects to prevent the transfer of harmful oils and residue from your hands
Getting (gloved) hands on with the management of such an extensive and varied collection has been a wonderful learning experience so far, and we are only in the beginning stages. The purpose of the annual inventory is to ensure accountability and proper collections management here at the Park. It involves locating an extensive list of objects and records within the collections generated by the Park’s collections database, checking their condition, and updating their documentation. In some cases, the inventory lists do not already include the location information for an item, and it was up to the curator and I to determine the location. The first few days of my internship were spent cross-referencing the computer database with manual catalog information including catalog cards, accession books and accession files to develop the list of locations to check when going into the collection stores.
What is an accession in the context of museum collections? The addition of a new item to an existing collection, by loan, gift, purchase or field collection. Museum collections, and the processes for managing them, were established long before we had computers, and it is vital to maintain up to date paper files in addition to our modern databases. They provide an invaluable back up of information, and they are often extremely helpful in determining additional knowledge about collections. Following the initial creation of the location list, I went back through accession files for particular accessions and objects to find out more about them, like their catalog numbers, and what they look like – very helpful when looking for one insignia pin in a drawer of many!
After generating the inventory lists, we were able to move into the stores and begin looking for our objects, a process that, as you can imagine within a collection so large, takes some time! Referencing back to the inventory lists, the curator and I commenced with archival records, often locating individual documents within boxes of many papers. This process speaks to the immense importance of documentation within museums. Proper documentation makes access possible, whether locating an object to put on exhibition in one of the Park’s museums or visitor centers or finding a specific pamphlet to answer a researcher’s question. The things that go on behind the scenes ensure you are able to have an interesting learning experience when visiting the Park or other museums!
Using manual catalog cards and accession files to add to the inventory lists
Once we locate an object, we confirm that the information on file is correct, make updates if necessary, check its condition, and continue on in this process that will endure through the summer. Though it may sound repetitive, it is fascinating to see and handle such a variety of historical artifacts. From old photographs, to architectural drawings, to massive anchor chains, I have seen and learned much more in this first week and a half than I could have imagined – and that’s just working on the inventory!
Part of the experience of being an ACE CRDIP intern is visiting other National Park Service sites and cultural repositories in the area. One of my favorite experiences thus far has been my visit to the Boston African American National Historic Site. I visited the Museum of African American History and toured their current exhibit on Frederick Douglass who is, as I discovered, the most photographed American of the 19th century. Even more interesting was discovering the intentionality Douglass, famed orator and abolitionist, maintained in the way he was photographed. In addition to the exhibit, I received a tour of the African Meeting House, a central location of the historic African American community and abolitionists in Boston.
The Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial, the starting point for the Black Heritage Trail tour
Following my visit to the museum, I took an hour and a half walking tour, guided by an NPS ranger, of the Black Heritage Trail. The trail leaves from the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial at the edge of Boston Common and traverses through the Beacon Hill neighborhood, the home of the free black community of Boston in the 19th century. This has been the most striking site visit I have made so far. The tour covered topics of abolition, equal schooling, the Underground Railroad, and more, introducing me to fascinating historical figures that, otherwise, I would never have known. The Black Heritage Trail tour highlights an incredibly important aspect of Boston’s, and the nation’s, history that is so often glanced over in textbooks and shadowed by the spotlight of more widely known historic sites in the city. Emphasizing diversity in history is fundamental – there are so many stories to tell in order to weave together the whole complicated tapestry. If ever in Boston, the Black Heritage Trail tour should be on your list.
My very thematic blogging set up
Though I could go on and on about my experiences up to now, I suppose I need to save a bit for future posts and keep this at a reasonable length! Nearing the end of two weeks in this new city, I am simultaneously feeling like a seasoned Bostonian and marveling at all I have yet to discover and experience. I am eager to continue the inventory process and delve further into the BNHP’s collections, and I cannot wait to explore more historic and cultural sites here in Boston. On top of it all, I look forward recording and sharing my experiences here, and hope that I am able to truly convey the excitement and history that surrounds me here!