I know, it is an over used statement that we have the world in our hands. We have seen it in print, heard it in presentations, and even seen it on TV on various advertisements. But, the saying rings true.
I have expressed before many of the times I have held historic items in my hands and how moving these moments have been, and continue to be when they occur. My home and office are replete with such artifacts; a helmet washed out of the sand from the beach at Normandy, a newspaper announcing George Washington’s death, a bayonett from WWI that was burned in a artillery shelling, a flag from the U.S.S Maine BB10, the second ship to carry that name and the one that sailed around the world with the Great White Fleet, stone tools, military artifacts, colonial homesteading items, Spanish coins from the beaches of Florida,&c., &c.
Upon occasions it becomes daunting worry when I realize how much is actually in my home and I think about its next ownership.
Recently two items popped into my life, both coming from the same discovery locale. The first was an original Hogarth print I found framed in a local Habitat for Humanity restore for the price of a combo meal at any fast food place. I have been collecting Hogarths for a long time, but have only been privileged in acquiring copies of Hogarths that were done in the 1830’s in the Penny Magazine out of England, yet here was an original print, framed no less, in a restore. Needless to state, I acquired it poste haste. Oddly,the same day, in the same store, a gentleman purchased an old canteen for two dollars from the used sporting goods area, an area I missed due to my excitement over the Hogarth.
This canteen was something I came to examine a week later when his wife came into the antique store where I work part time, so that she could confirm what she suspected about the piece. Her husband had purchased it as an accent piece for their book room and had been pleased with finding an old canteen to dress up the space. His wife saw something more.
I was able to confirm her suspicions: what her husband had purchase was a canteen used between 1870 to 1915, its cover and markings permitting me to make a quick assessment of its origins and age. It was also marked in a manner that allowed this old military historian to verify the suspicions she held. Still clear from its stencilling were a pair of crossed sabers, the letter “C”, a soldiers number (also called a rack number designating what soldier had been issued the piece)and the number “9” designating the unit the soldier was assigned. In this case the markings indicated that the soldier(s)who carried the canteen was from Company “C”of the 9th U.S. Cavalry, the famed Buffalo Soldiers.
This was a unit that fought in the Indian Wars, patrolled Yellowstone Park, fought along side the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War, and patrolled along the Mexican and the U.S. border during the time the canteen was issued to troops. I offered my opinions and advised that the couple further their research by contacting a number of resources who specialize in Black Memorabilia and in the Buffalo Soldier history including Fort Jeff Davis in Texas and there the matter rested for the time, except my wish I had gone into the sporting goods section of the restore area that fateful day.
This past week the couple returned having contacted and spoken to all the folks and agencies I had suggested. The consensus: the artifact was an authentic 1870’s o 1910’s canteen that had been utilized by the 9th. U.S. Black Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers.
Now came the question I had secretly worried would arise, how much was it worth?
The couple has limited resources and has their child owing tons of money for college loans and their own needs of funds, a deteriorating water heater, house repairs, &c., and yet the wife had this realization that they owned not only a unique piece of history, but also the story of that famous unit’s history and a personal item with its, and its owner’s history now resting in their home. Who had owned it, what would the rack number reveal of of the soldiers who had drunk from its spout, the campaigns it had been carried in, the rivers it had been dipped in, the possible conflicts in which it had slaked a soldiers adrenaline dried mouth and throat, and how had it come to be in the Restore?
I gave them my professional assessment of value in dollars and my suggestion to where it should go next, if they were not going to keep it. I thought it would be a grand gift for Fort Jeff Davis, with a tax deductable donation receipt. That was a thought they stated they would consider, but they really need the money. It would be something that they need to think about before they decide. There the matter now rests for the time being. One of their concerns is a matter that I understand greatly. They are afraid that no matter where the canteen next continues its trek it will end up in either a museum store room away from the public, or in a collection never to be seen again, or possibly in a future second hand store in another “used sporting goods” bin,its story and importance forgotten or ignored.
We all have had to deal with such issues in all are fields whether we are conveying the stories and importance of historic artifacts, natural areas, environmental items, or dealing with the administration aspects of programming and planning; what do we do with the authentic and important aspects of our sites and materials? Who do we pass them to, how do we preserve their stories while conserving their structures and forms? And, how do we keep their stories and facts uncluttered with myths, misunderstandings, and unauthentic intrusions?
We do hold the whole world in our hands, it is a responsibility that comes with any aspect of our fields or interests and responsibility. It is a difficult task to keep the materials authentic and real to what we know and have learned, and are willing to learn in the future, and we realize we can not acquire it all, preserve it all, or protect it all. So how do we respect it all?
We must remember Tilden’s tenent to understand that information is not the entire story that it is but a foundation of interpretive presentation. That does not mean we should ignore the “facts” but know how to best use the authentic to build our stories. We must not fabricate and bastardize materials because we may not agree with what is known, or we are ignorant of what is known, or that we wish to dress up what is known with “exciting” themes or enhancements so that we can entertain. It is a demanding responsibility. We do hold the whole world in our hands and we must ensure that responsibility is ethically maintained and passed to others.
John C.F. Luzader
Vice President of Programs