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National Museum of African American History and Culture Visits Mississippi

Curators review family heirlooms brought in to the B.B. King Museum in Indianola

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Residents of Indianola, Mississippi, share stories about their family "Treasures" with curator Elaine Nichols, of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo courtesy of the museum

As part of the museum’s “Save Our African American Treasures” program, representatives from the National Museum of African American History and Culture made a trip to Indianola, Mississippi. For two days earlier this month, people were invited to bring family heirlooms and other items of historical and cultural significance to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center for a one-on-one consultation with a Smithsonian expert.

The mission of the “Treasures” program is twofold: to raise awareness about how important family heirlooms are in telling the story of African American history to future generations, and to provide information about how to care for them. Occasionally, the museum even acquires some of the artifacts for its collection. (In April 2008, we included a story about a sleeping-car porter’s hat that turned up at a Chicago event.)

I spoke with Elaine Nichols, supervisory curator of culture at NMAAHC, who reviewed the items that were brought in to the B.B. King Museum. Nichols joined the museum’s staff in October 2009 and has attended other “Treasures” events in Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia.

What were some of the most exciting treasures that came in?

Well, of course, they are all exciting, because people are bringing in their family objects. For the most part, there were items that were passed down through individuals’ families. Some were purchased. Some were gifts. There were some interesting ones. There was a child’s organ that we looked at that was made by the Magnus Company. It was an electric organ, and she said her mother gave it to her in 1948. She would have been about a year old at the time. It was in great condition. It looked like it was probably made out of Bakelite, but it actually played. It was the first time I had seen a child’s organ. She was quite proud and quite pleased to bring it in. Most of the people are excited about the items that they are bringing in.

A woman brought in a rectangular, wooden box. On the outside, it said it was made by a particular tobacco company. It had their label on it. So people kind of got excited because they recognized the name of the tobacco company. And, she said, “Oh no, that is not what is in the box.” It had about eight to ten locks and braids of hair, hair that would have belonged to different individuals. Some were brunette, some were blonde, some were very fine, some were coarse, and a few pieces were wrapped in newspaper. Probably one of the earliest was from 1848, and one of the latter pieces was from 1861. Then, a few had notes attached to them that gave the date and the name of the person whose hair it was. My thinking is that it was hair that was going to be used to make a hair wreath, which is sort of like a genealogy chart with hair. You can shape the hair into attractive flowers or other kinds of decorative designs. But sometimes it is used for mourning jewelry. We don’t really have an idea of knowing how it would have been used, but since there are so many locks of hair, there is a good possibility that it could have been used in that way.

There was a woman who brought in two silver coins. One was a Mexican coin dated 1828 and then another coin from Peru that was dated 1835.

Pocket watches, there was one that was there that was made by Remington Watch Company. We probably needed to do quite a bit more research, because in some cases you have the watch workings that are made by one company and then the casing made by another company. We think that might have been the case with this particular watch. In those cases, we point people towards their local libraries, where they can get lots of resource information and, of course, the Internet.

Someone brought in a tire repair kit. Now, someone else might look at that and say, wow, I wonder why that is a big deal? But, again, it was something that was important to that individual. We consider all of the items that people bring in important items because they belong to them. We try to encourage them to tell us their stories before we begin talking about the item, trying to date it or to talk about the material or condition. We let them talk to us about the history of the item.

I think they are all precious stories because, again, when you see someone coming in with whatever it is, the dictionary, the photograph, the quilt, the doll, it is important to them. So if it is important to them, it is important to us.

What are you looking for as a reviewer?

Our role is to be there to talk to people about how to take care of the objects that they bring in. If something is rusting, what are there options for stopping the rust and preserving it? Or, if it is a photograph and it is starting to fade, what do you do? In an instance like that we often recommend that people copy those photographs and distribute them to other family members, so that if something happens to the original, you have another resource for accessing it. So it is about conservation and care of the items that they have.

In some cases, we would make a new box or what we call “housing” for the object. For instance, someone had a Bible dictionary that belonged to their father and grandfather who were both ministers. It was in somewhat fragile condition, so we recommended that they allow our person to make a box to house that item, an acid-free box that they could take home.

One lady brought in an alligator purse that probably belonged to her mother because it was found among her mother’s things. It had a few condition problems, and we talked about that. It was an odd shape, because it had the head of the small alligator and the feet, both the front and hind feet, attached to it. But we created a special box for it.

They were all pleased that someone was looking at those items, that we were talking to them about the specific objects and about how to care for them. People said, you know, the fact that the Smithsonian has come to Indianola, Mississippi, really makes us feel special. We just think it is really important that we include rural communities as part of these services that we offer, as well as large urban areas. It is all America’s history and the history of African American culture. And, we are excited to provide this service to them.

Will you be considering any of the artifacts for the museum’s collection?

We were not at that level of conversation. What will happen is we will review all of the information that we collected and then we might follow up with individuals that we feel like we need to have additional conversations with.

The next “Save our American Treasures” event will be in Houston, Texas, at the Houston Public Library on October 29, 2011.

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