Terrifying Objects in the Collection

By Alison Seeberger, Museum Registrar ~

Hello again!

Last time I dazzled you with Mysteries of the Collection; today it’s time for Terrifying Objects that We Own, or: the Challenges Inherent in Being a History Museum.

Many parts of history are dangerous. That’s the first and most important thing to know. In history collections there are medicine bottles that still contain cocaine-based remedies; there are scalpels that still have blood on them. There are weapons, there are taxidermy pieces preserved with arsenic. These things exist, and they are integral to our understanding of the past, but they’re also pretty gross and creepy. In some cases, they’re a genuine health hazard – and we have to deal with it as best as we can without compromising the integrity of the objects, their historical importance, or our own safety.

Dangerous collection objext
Oh, good, only possibly.

Here we have a great example of a potentially dangerous object, and this is just one of many in our collection. This is one container of many of wartime ordnance – shells, bullets, musket balls, and so on – and although these projectiles have probably been disarmed, we cannot guarantee that, so they’re potentially explosive. Now, the odds of an explosion happening are low, but they’re not nothing, so what can we do? Move it carefully (or not at all), keep it at a constant temperature and humidity, and – most importantly – keep it away from things that could jar it!

globe of chemicals
Trust me, guys. Super safe.

This is another great example of a potentially dangerous object. Before today’s fire extinguishers – or even their predecessors – were invented, people still needed to put out fires. And what better way to do that than with a thin, fragile globe filled with a flame-retardant chemical? Enter the fire grenade, which is exactly as cool as its name predicts. Firemen would hurl these glass globes, some of which were pretty ornately blown, at the base of a fire, and the globes would shatter and disperse their contents. What were their contents? An unfriendly chemical called carbon tetrachloride, which when inhaled causes respiratory problems, of course! Sometime in the 20s, manufacturers switched to salt water for this reason, but unfortunately, we don’t have enough documentation on our globes to know what’s inside them. So! On one hand we have a fragile, old, delicate globe full of dangerous lung-burning chemicals, and on the other hand we have a big lightbulb full of eyedrops. We don’t know which it is! So we have to treat it as though it is the former. Gently swaddled, kept away from other objects, and babied as much as possible.

scary doll
Aww, she’s dreaming. Of mayhem.

Sometimes, the terrifying objects that we own are terrifying not because of their potential to harm us, but because of the fact that when we see them we are in a dark, windowless room. There is nothing quite like turning around and finding yourself eye-to-eye with a doll from the early 1800s, button eyes open wide, looking just a tad too shiny. The one pictured above is my personal nightmare – she is pretty and not overtly scary, but her eyes open and move, and they have on more than one occasion followed me after I put her down, which is something I’m pretty sure is not supposed to happen. I’m not a professional ghost-hunter, but what I can tell you is this: if ghosts exist, they are imprints of people, a residue left behind, attached to the things they loved in life, and what is a history museum filled with if not these exact things? This may seem like a silly thought now, reading this blog post in a well-lit place, but spend some time in your own basement, filled with just your old possessions, and see how long it takes your imagination to start weaving.

History collections are filled with relics of the past both near and distant, and some of our past isn’t pretty. That’s why it’s so important that we keep these things, that we remind ourselves from where we’ve come. Every piece in our collection had a life, and a purpose, before they came here – some of them before we were even born. They can be creepy, and they can be gross, but they are always important, and we do our best to learn from them. They are links to another time, and that will always outweigh their scariness. Even when they’re really, really scary.

Spare us, giant baby!
Spare us, giant baby!