Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Mussels and mother of pearl buttons

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, outreach, photographs

The Collections and Research Department of the Delaware Museum of Natural History recently hosted a class of conservators-in-training from nearby Winterthur Museum, for special instruction in conserving natural materials that might form part of a piece of clothing or artwork.

Some items that were brought out for display and discussion related to the mother-of-pearl button industry that flourished in Arkansas and other southern states from the 1880's to the 1940's. America's rivers are full of freshwater clams and mussels, and many species of the mussels in particular have thick shells composed mainly of mother of pearl. Mainly in the south, some species get quite large millions of shells were harvested for button manufacture.

The upper shell in this picture has been drilled for buttons. The lower shell is an undrilled one, so the students could compare. A shell drilled like this can still be a valid natural history research object, as long as its collecting locality and a date of collection—or harvest—are known. Even in this condition it provides a data point for the existence of this species at a certain time and place.

The conservators in training were quite surprised that the museum doesn't seem to care much about the appearance of specimens. They are taught to exercise extreme care with objects in their charge. A culture museum such as Winterthur has goals quite different from a research collection. They aim to stave off damage and decay as much as possible, frequently with the aim of showing beautiful objects to the visiting public. Natural history specimens don't need to be pretty, although we also work to minimize damage or decay. The data that accompanies the specimens is of equal value.

These two photos show other items that were on display. One is a sample card used by salesmen to show distributor-customers the range of button types a factory could produce. The other is a box of random unfinished buttons. Some have holes cut already, others not. Many have pink or black dopping wax still attached. The wax was used to affix a piece to a post in a polishing jig to flatten the opposite side and cut any pattern, such as a circular groove.

The study of natural history is not just about natural objects themselves, but also about what humans do with them. Though I spend my time in the mollusk ("sea" shell) side, the bird collection takes an equal amount of space. Think of the millions of feathers that were once used to decorate clothing. A Natural History museum collects and preserves specimens, and the field data about them, to support the study of their biology (or geology) through space and time. A cultural museum collects and preserves specimens primarily of human artifacts—which in the years before plastics manufacture, were made of natural materials including shells and feathers—to support the study of cultural trends through time and around the world. It is nice that we work together, each having knowledge to offer the other.

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