Searching High and Low for Historical Artifacts
Written by: Marjorie Anne Portillo
Annual Inventory for Boston NHP
My main project with Boston National Historical Park this summer is assisting Nolan, the Museum Technician, with the annual inventory of their collections. I am a bit familiar with the task of conducting inventory due to my experience working in a library as well as my past CRDIP internship with Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park but I’ve never worked with a collection as big as the ones here.
The office I work in—which is also a part of history due to its past use as part of the Navy Yard—consists of many storage areas for their collections. Most of the museum collections here relate to the Charlestown Navy Yard and the USS Cassin Young while some of the smaller collections relate to some of the Freedom Trail sites such as Bunker Hill and Faneuil Hall. The majority of the museum collections consist of archival material but other cultural artifacts include furniture, equipment, uniforms, plaques, dishware, art, etc. Basically, the Boston NHP museum collection has a little bit of everything!
I admit, when I first toured the office and storage areas, I was a bit overwhelmed by all the items I saw. There were so many different cages, cabinets, pallets, and racks that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to navigate the areas without getting lost. However, when we actually got started with inventory, each day got a bit easier. And thankfully, with Nolan’s assistance, I was able to slowly familiarize myself with the different locations we had to go into.
There are a few lists of items that we have to inventory, but the first one we started working on is called the Controlled Property list. This list consists of items that need to be inventoried annually to make sure they are where they’re supposed to be and that the condition hasn’t changed. While another list we have consists of a randomized list of artifacts, this list never changes. The majority of the items on this list consists of items on loan from the U.S. Navy as well as items of high value so it is important to regularly check on these items.
While we have been able to find most items, there were a few that we haven’t been able to find. We plan to look again as well as look into their catalog records to find out if these items have moved at all, but Nolan has told me that at the end of the day, there will be items that we won’t be able to find. This could be because they were returned or perhaps the item never made it to our facility in the first place. With collections as big and as old as the ones here (many items have been here since the 70s and 80s), it does make sense that some items could have been overlooked, misplaced, or miscataloged. It is just unfortunate knowing that some items can go missing like this.
The Privilege of Working in Cultural Resources
Conducting inventory can seem like such a menial task for some, but I really enjoy it because I am able to see so many different items that I probably wouldn’t have ever been able to see otherwise. While some of the artifacts here are put into exhibits throughout the park, it is worth noting that many of the items in the collections are here for storage. I have spoken to some other National Park Service staff and when I tell them that I’m working with the museum staff to help with annual inventory, they always say something along the lines of: “Oh! So you see the stuff that we don’t get to see!” It made me realize how much of a privilege it is to be able to see items that may never get to be put into public view. I get to see a side of history that not many get to see and so far it has been pretty awesome. One item that I thought was cool to see was a piece of a kamikaze plane that had crashed into the USS Cassin Young during WWII!
We are not finished with the Controlled Property list as of yet, but I am looking forward to searching for more of these artifacts. Most of the ones that we still need to find are all either outside on display throughout the Navy Yard, on exhibit at the Visitor Center, or on board the USS Cassin Young! It’ll definitely be fun stepping out of the office to look for these items!