Alex Spencer, curator of British aircraft and military flight materiél at the National Air and Space Museum, started his career some 20 years ago as a lowly intern. One morning, as he was riding the shuttle out to the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland, he overheard another intern talking about the great project he was doing that summer: cataloging the Natural History Museum's flea collection. The intern had to identify 500 fleas before the summer was out. "And I thought," said Spencer in a recent talk at the Museum, "Oh my god, what are they doing over there?
"But then," Spencer continued, "cursed as I shall be for making fun of the person cataloging fleas, I came across the Howard Zeimer collection." On that fateful morning, Spencer was handed a thick piece of wire with 300 buttons strung on it, "kind of dangling and jingling around," along with the instruction: "Please identify these."
So he did.
Zeimer collected buttons from military and aviation uniforms, eventually squirreling away more than 300, all unidentified when donated to the Museum.
Need a button identified? In his "Ask an Expert" presentation ("A Sampling of Aeronautical Uniform Insignia"), Spencer noted that the entire collection—scanned and identified ("I hope properly")—is available on the Museum's Web site.