Monthly Archives: May 2013

Cemetery Preservation

Thanks to Michele Patterson-McCabe, Grants Coordinator in the State Historic Preservation Office, for her contributions to this post.

The national holiday, Memorial Day, standardized an Appalachian tradition of honoring the dead with annual cemetery maintenance, floral headstone decoration, and often “dinner on the grounds.” Decoration Day varies slightly from community to community but is always in late spring through early summer. Folklorist Alan Jabbour and photographer Karen Singer Jabbour have traced this tradition to the early part of the nineteenth century and mapped its spread, as Appalachian families migrated further south and west. Click here for a summary of their recent book, Decoration Day in the Mountains.

One of the gravestones in Murfreesboro's Southall Cemetery

One of the gravestones in Murfreesboro’s Southall Cemetery

It is common for cultural heritage institutions to have stewardship responsibilities for cemeteries, either as a regular community service project or by virtue of property ownership. Two examples are the Murfreesboro Historical Association, which maintains Southall Cemetery, and the St. Paul Museum in Randleman, which operates in a former church with a cemetery behind.

St. Paul's in Randleman

St. Paul’s in Randleman

Is a regular “Decoration Day” part of your community’s traditions? If so, there are several helpful online resources to guide your maintenance efforts and warn against overly aggressive (and ultimately destructive) cleaning measures, such as pressure washing. Here are some top tips for gravestone cleaning.

  • A garden hose with a gentle soaking spray is appropriate for most cleaning.
  • A good cleaning brush (natural or nylon, not metal wire) will loosen dirt and clean crevices.
  • Do not use bleach. Although it may have an instant brightening effect, its chemicals will dissolve parts of the stone.
  • Do not yank plants out that may be growing out of the stones. Cut them near the stone and wait several days until they wither before pulling them out.
  • Scrape lichen off with a wooden or plastic scraper.
  • Avoid household soaps and acidic cleaners. Preservation experts recommend non-ionic cleaners available from janitorial supply companies and suggest a solution of one ounce non-ionic detergent to 5 gallons water. (Triton X is one possibility.)

For more practical advice on gravestone cleaning, click here and here. For a comprehensive guidebook on overall cemetery preservation, click here.

Several staff members in North Carolina’s State Historic Preservation Office have gained a great deal of expertise in cemetery preservation and are available to answer questions and give advice. Contact John Wood, Restoration Specialist in the SPHO’s Greenville office, or 252-830-6580 x 225.




Object Values and Evidence



Those involved with cultural heritage collections, be they visitors, researchers, or stewards, value artifacts for many reasons. Some artifacts, especially precious metals and jewels, have intrinsic value. The materials are worth something, independent of their style or provenance. We value our collections for more subjective qualities, such as aesthetics, as well. Architectural embellishments, finished wood, and vintage clothing appear beautiful to many beholders. Age value is also important, especially in history museum collections. Often we prize an artifact that serves as a good example of a bygone way of life, such as this writing slate & abacus.

Collection stewards know that provenance is important, and our C2C workshops stress good collections record keeping. This abacus, for instance, is even more meaningful in conjunction with its provenance. A former slave used this while attending school soon after the Civil War. She grew up and became part of a prominent family in Cary, NC, and her son was the first African American mayor of that town. (To read more, find this object on NCDCR’s online collections database.)

Several years ago writers Rob Walker and Josh Glenn began an ongoing experiment that helps quantify the importance of provenance in their Significant Objects Project. After purchasing thrift-store objects, Walker and Glenn assigned an accomplished creative writer to develop a short story about each one. They then auctioned the object-story combo off on ebay. The significant object project purchased 100 objects for a total of $133.79 and sold them for $3,582.50. (totals from price list/ 2nd table) Every single object sold for at least twice what its thrift-store cost had been. The biggest increase in value had a sale price of 64 ½ times the original price. On average, the imagined provenances increased the value nearly 27 times.  Not only is the Significant Objects Project a fascinating study in material culture, it could also serve as the basis of an engaging public program at your institution. Click here for Walker’s discussion of the project and descriptions of public programs and fundraising events the project generated.

There are times when museum collections can be invaluable as evidence. (Few in the “evidence” category of the Significant Object Project actually functioned as such in their accompanying stories.) In a recent post here, NC Museum of Sciences Geology Curator, Chris Tacker, mentioned that the museum’s asbestos specimens have been used in court to prove the effects of radioactive environments on minerals. Similarly, the Museum’s plant and animal specimen collections can serve as evidence of changes in habitat. Archaeologists often consider the artifacts they unearth as evidence, especially when they make references that documents either neglect or contradict. For instance, wine and liquor bottles uncovered during the Thomas Wolfe Memorial archaeology project offer evidence that at least some folks at the “Old Kentucky Home” were drinking during Prohibition.

Does your cultural heritage collection contain artifacts which, together with their provenances, serve as evidence? One notable institution that values its history collection this way is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The artifacts and their associated records stand as testaments to the veracity of accounts of the murder and torture that have been questioned by fringe groups in recent decades.

Which artifacts in your institution could testify? Which historical trends or events could they prove or disprove?

A Story with Me in It

Thanks to Kate Baillon van Rensburg for her presentation at the NCMC annual meeting, which suggested this topic, and for her additional contributions to this post.

At their best, history museum exhibits can build bridges between the perspectives of participants and “the past [as] a foreign country.” Before we can interest audiences in objects and information that are not likely to be part of their experiences, we have to find “a hook” that can connect them, helping them understand both the distinctiveness of what we want to present and the relevance of it for the present.

The Levine Museum’s founder, Sally Robinson, shaped the approach of the Charlotte institution and its award-winning exhibits with a grandchild’s request, “Tell me a story with me in it.” Kate Baillon van Rensburg, VP of Exhibits at the Levine, attributes the Museum’s success to this approach. “Everyone wants a story that reflects their experience in some way. We think of our exhibits as stories…That is what engages people and keeps them coming back.” van Rensburg points to “Courage: The Vision to End Segregation, The Guts to Fight for It”  and “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers”  as important manifestations of this design philosophy. “We have objects that resonate with people through the exhibit….something as simple as a washtub or kerosene lantern can bring memories back to people, create environments to help tell the story and give aspects of the story a familiar feel. Our exhibits are not telling a story about ‘the other’ but telling the story of us – how we work….. the community.” By allowing room for multiple perspectives in each story/exhibit, the reference for any one individual becomes part of a larger narrative.

LevineCommunityResponseQuiltSometimes museum leaders want to tell stories that may be painful for audiences to identify with. That connection between topic and visitor may still be nurtured, and often participatory design elements can help build the bridge. The Levine installed a “community response quilt” as a colorful comment board within a photography exhibit on lynching. The heading above the comment board asks questions that help visitors connect with the exhibit’s difficult subject matter: “What would you do to make a difference?” and “How would you stand up for those without sanctuary?”

The visitor does not have to identify directly or completely with the subject matter in order to have a moving museum experience. In fact, one goal of historical interpretation is to emphasize the “foreign”-ness of the past. Participatory design advocate, Nina Simon, recently offered this guidance: “Visitors…want to see reflections, expansions, and distortions of their experiences in ways that allow them to form new connections. That’s what compelling relevance is about.” A forum for participants to record the new ideas an exhibit suggests and to contribute to its content, via a comment board or video feed within the interpretive space, will transform distant history into “a story with me in it.”

Mineral Hazards

ChrisRockThanks to Chris Tacker, Curator of Geology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, for this guest post. 

Museums and cultural institutions frequently get phone calls from prospective donors who want to give away Daddy’s or Granddaddy’s rock collection. Rock and mineral collections can support interesting and educational programs. However, these collections may hold a few surprises that open the institution to a number of unexpected regulatory and/or safety concerns. Radioactivity, radon, asbestos, toxins and carcinogens can all arrive as a part of amateurs’ collections.

To put this in perspective, any rock or mineral is a hazard if it’s moving fast enough. Any rock and mineral above a certain weight is a hazard to your head or feet. With reasonable care, hard hats, and steel toed shoes, these hazards can be minimized.

North Carolina has a remarkable mineral diversity, so there are some North Carolina specialties that turn up frequently in collections. Pegmatites in the Spruce Pine area are known for uranium-bearing minerals that are highly radioactive. Uraninite (pitchblende), torbernite, autinite, clarkeite, or samarskite are all NC minerals that have uranium as one of the principle structural elements. Apatite, monazite, zoisite (especially the pink variety known as thulite) and zircon can carry uranium or thorium as a minor or trace element. There are actually some collectors who specialize in radioactive minerals. Others prize torbernite and autinite because it fluoresces brightly in ultraviolet light.

If enough of these are gathered in one place, the radiation does represent a workplace hazard. These minerals will emit radon, which is a regulatory concern. More than one geologist or collector has possessed a stash of radioactive minerals, then discovered that they can’t sell their house, because the buyer’s radon tests show phenomenal levels of radon. More information on radon is available here.

Asbestos specimen from Polk County, NC

Asbestos specimen from Polk County, NC

Ultramafic rocks are composed of high magnesium, high iron, and low silicon minerals such as olivine and pyroxenes. Ultramafic bodies in the state can produce, and have produced, industrial sized portions of asbestos where the rocks have been metamorphosed. It’s easy to recognize because there are few furry minerals. (You can check out the fuzzy stuff at this site that sells asbestos minerals to collectors) But there are federal regulations on asbestos in all its forms. Problems with regulatory control are minor compared to the problems that museum staff will face if parents learn their child has handled asbestos, even if it is in a ziplock baggie.

You may not think of minerals as fire hazards, but several toxic minerals represent significant fire dangers. Cinnabar (mercury sulfide), orpiment (a very pretty orange or yellow arsenic sulfide, As2S3), and realgar (a very pretty red arsenic sulfide, AsS) emit very toxic gasses in a fire. Steam may make it worse. Firefighters are not prepared for arsenic and mercury gas. Worse, cinnabar and realgar are photosensitive, which means that they break down under visible light. They shed dust as they are displayed, a dust that is quite toxic. If these are in a collection, they need to be stored in a fireproof safe. There is no reason for any of these to be accessible to the public, much less to children.

These minerals double as ingestion/inhalation hazards. For example, realgar is a carcinogen, and is toxic because it contains arsenic. Aresenic accumulates in the human body, as does the mercury from cinnabar. Pretty silver cubes of galena are made of lead sulfide. Lead accumulates in the body, so I recommend that children don’t handle it. A good handwashing will take care of most of the ingestion hazards, but handwashing combined with staying far away from it works even better.

If these are hazardous, why do we keep them in our collection? The Geology Collection at the Museum of Natural Sciences supports education and exhibits, but we are primarily a research collection. We have loaned out asbestos samples from defunct mines to support asbestos research and litigation. Radioactive minerals are extremely valuable for research into isolation of radioactive wastes. What happens to the atomic structure of a mineral or a glass when exposed to long-term radioactivity? Nature has already conducted the experiment. Where else are you going to find a material that has been subjected to radiation for thousands or millions of years?

So be suitably careful and remember: Any mineral moving at high velocity is hazardous.