More than meets the eye at Fort Riley museums
Debbie Clark, museum technician of Cavalry collections, DPTMS, handles a variety of riding crops in the U.S. Cavalry Museum’s collection. About 30 percent of the museum’s collection is on display. Photo by: Julie Fiedler, POST.
Story by: Julie Fiedler
1ST INF. DIV. POST
Strolling through the 1st Infantry Division and U.S. Cavalry museums at Fort Riley's Main Post, visitors have an opportunity to soak in a plethora of sights, sounds and information. But there is a whole world behind the scenes that many are not aware of.
"There's a lot involved here, really, behind the scenes at the museum," said Robert Smith, director, Fort Riley museums; Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security; as he strolled from the museum's offices to the facility housing artifacts from the two collections not currently on display.
With more than 12,000 holdings in their combined inventories, the 1st Inf. Div. and Cavalry collections are comprised of artifacts ranging from muskrat hats to action figures.
"This is very much like an organized grandma's attic," Smith said as Debbie Clark, museum technician of Cavalry collections, DPTMS, opened cabinet after cabinet to reveal polo helmets, boots, holsters, riding crops, china, corrective horseshoes (as in orthopedic shoes for horses), leggings, uniforms, buttons, ribbons, canteens, bootstraps, spurs, grenade pouches and more.
"We can't display everything at once," Clark said, explaining that about 30 percent of the museums holdings are currently on exhibit.
Having a substantial portion of the collections in storage allows for certain items to go into conservation, and provides an opportunity to freshen up exhibits by rotating in other artifacts.
The process to create a new exhibit can take about six months or longer, Smith said, and starts with a brainstorming session.
"Basically, a museum's a teaching institution," Smith said. "It entertains, but it also teaches. So, (we discuss) what do we want to teach with this exhibit."
Once a theme or narrative is decided upon, the staff search the database of artifacts to see what is available that would work for the exhibit. Then the "grunt work," as Smith calls it, begins.
Each item must be looked at in person and evaluated as to its condition and whether or not it will fit with the exhibit.
"We want to look at the condition. Is it something too delicate to display? Some of the artifacts we have are very delicate and are in conservation," Smith said.
Conservation can be a painstaking process. For instance, old metals can build up a growth called verdigris, which can be found on some of the antique leather artifacts. Clark worked with an expert to learn new techniques for cleaning and preserving leather.
"Taking (verdigris) away is painstakingly slow," Clark said. "You have to be careful not to scratch the leather."
Not only is the process slow, but it also requires upkeep. Currently in the midst of her biennial inventory of the collections, Clark has come across more verdigris as she takes stock of the collections.
"It's a process," she said.
Once all the artifacts are evaluated and decided upon for an exhibit, then the space is designed and built – including setting the display case and writing informational cards – with every detail serving to illustrate the narrative of the exhibit.
"A thing we have to be conscious of is our audience when we write the narrative and when we choose the artifacts," Smith said. "An exhibit here at Fort Riley is going to be probably quite different from something we design for the (Flint Hills) Discovery Center because we've got different audiences."
The process of creating exhibits is ongoing as Smith and his team look for ways to keep the museums at Fort Riley fresh, as well as collaborate with other local institutions. One exhibit Smith hopes to have in the works soon features a door from Nuremberg Prison.
"We definitely have plans that this is going on display," he said. "This came from the 1st Infantry Division Museum in Germany. When the division came to Fort Riley, a number of artifacts came to us from Germany. This is one of the objects."
In addition to conserving artifacts and creating exhibits, staff members also serve as detectives from time to time when visitors bring in their own antiques. While they do not appraise items, they often help visitors track down information and do research.
"The visitors are a lot of fun," Smith said. "A lot of times it's like solving a puzzle with a lot of pieces missing."
The museum also has a "prop shop" of uniform replicas available for use at ceremonies and other Fort Riley special events.
"We're kind of a collection of everything," Smith said holding up an action figure of a 1st Inf. Div. Soldier that came from Europe.
But for artifacts like a dragoon jacket, one of two known to be in existence, according to Smith, there is a sense of pride as well as responsibility to take care of the history.
"We have to be very careful stewards," he said.