Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The VA Historical Society Gets Odd

Smack dab in the middle of Richmond’s Museum District lies the Virginia Historical Society and their recent exhibit featuring some of the most unusual artifacts the nearly 200 year old organization has to offer. Featuring everything from archaic medical apparatuses to scabs, “Bizarre Bits: Oddities from the Collection” contains items from deep within the walls of the society’s massive collections.

William Rasmussen, Lead Curator for the exhibit, spoke about the creation of the “oddities” display and said the time span of collection and lots of cross-department team work, made it easy to create such a display.

“It’s a way to highlight our collection in a odd way. The society was founded in 1831 so the collections are vast. WE have some 7 million manuscripts, 160 thousand books, 200 thousand photos, 5000 maps, 700 paintings, 15 thousand museum objects, so with that kind of quantity, collected over almost 200 years, inevitably there are going be something’s that are strange”

Wile the initial sorting process was simple enough, narrowing down the items to fit the space provided was a practice in playing favorites, though Jennifer M. Guild, media relations specialist for the VAHS, said the exhibit could have many more incarnations.

“we pulled ideas from staff here at the VAHS and we came up with over 100 items that could have been featured in this exhibit. Weird strange, unusual, bizarre, all kinds of different exhibit items. So when we had to pair it down and pick the items that were actually going be in the exhibit it turned into about 45 items that we could actually display in the space that we have. So potentially, this exhibit could be put up again and again with the items that weren’t put up in the original exhibit.”

The other obstacle was defining “oddities.” But Rasmussen followed the OED and used the broad term to fit many different possibilities.

“How do you define oddity? According to the oxford English dictionary, things are odd in the way we think of them today: if they are grotesque or strange looking or fantastic. But they are also a person can be odd; an event can be odd. So we have a couple of odd people, a couple of odd events, we think a duel is odd, we think jousting, dressing up like knights is odd, then we’ve got strange looking and fantastic objects.”

Rasmussen had a favorite item in the collection, a letter detailing the trial of a supposed witch, that was given to the VAHS around 1850.

My favorite has to be the document that records the witch trial of Grace Sherwood in what’s now VA Beach. This woman was accused of being a witch. Lou Cull said that she caused his wife to miscarry, and she had been criticized by another neighbor who said she killed his pig by witchcraft. A 3rd neighbor said that she came unto her in the middle of the night and “rid me,” whatever that means, and then escaped through the keyhole or a crack in the door. She was taken to trial, the judged decide she should be dunked in the water. So she did and she survived it, so they said she must be a witch because she survived it. They had “5 ancient woman” that’s on the document, examine her. And these woman reported back that she had different things than what would be on a normal woman’s body, and that she was nurturing demons. So they clasp her in irons and off to jail grace Sherwood went.

Another peculiar item to grace the exhibit would seem better fit in a medical museum then the VAHS, but it ended up in their archives none-the-less.

A small pox scab taken from an infant sent by one member of the Massie family to another…. This puss filled blisters would cover the body. A 3rd of all the blindness’s in Europe were caused by it. You could be inoculated by using a scab, introducing a scab into the blood stream. So it was sent from one member of the family to another. But people were scared to death. We talk about it today it doesn’t sound intuitive that these things would work, so people were reluctant to use these methods to prevent small pox. But there we have it – the scab had been saved with the letter it came with.

A piece of furniture, covered in sharp wood spikes, stands out in the exhibit. Ed Strasdense and Barbra Dupont, down from Boston Massachusetts to visit their son, said.

“That was a little bit strange – I like the name of it –“triumph!”

The couple found the VAHS after a recent visit to the Virginia Museum of Fine arts, neighbor to the Historical Society. Strasdense considers himself a bit of a history buff, but he was surprised by the collection.

“Just like the sign says out there, oddities, and so you walk around like “well, this is a little bit different, I’d never seen this before. So it was kind of interesting, yea know? I like the medicine and the tools… especially the drilling into the head… that was ‘odd’”

Rasmussen said the exhibit has been successful so far, and that the concept of an “oddities” display puts the idea of collecting into an interesting context.

“I didn’t know what to expect, its been a lot of fun, people have enjoyed it. It has some value to it too. It makes us think about what we’re collecting and what is ‘odd’ and are we collecting things now that future generations are going to consider odd. And it also points attention at our collection, and this is just the tip of the ice burg of what we have here.”

The exhibit runs until February 13, 2011 and is free and open to the public during normal business hours Tuesday–Saturday 10am–5pm and Sunday 1pm–5pm.

/Brad Kutner

No comments:

Post a Comment