Thursday, June 30, 2011

Five Hobos in a Museum

If you’ve been to the History of Diving Museum before, on your next visit be sure to keep a sharp eye out for something new in the exhibit galleries: hobos! No, not that kind of hobo. We still have enough mannequins to display all our diving suits and helmets, so there's no need to worry about the exhibits “coming to life.” I’m talking about HOBO data loggers, small electronic boxes that look like thermostats and monitor fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity.

Before you lose interest completely, I should emphasize just how important this acquisition is in the development of our young institution. Museums are charged with the task of preserving collections ‘in perpetuity,’ so that future generations may enjoy and study their contents. Unfortunately, time can be just as cruel to objects as it is to people, as everything “turns to dirt” across a long enough continuum. While museums will never be able to keep everything in their collections from disintegrating, there are certainly ways of extending the “lives” of objects. One of the biggest threats to an object’s longevity is its surrounding climate, so monitoring, stabilizing and maintaining that environment is crucial. The new data loggers will aid us in this task, as life in the tropical climate of the Keys can be especially harsh on certain materials.

You might being saying to yourself "Why are these objects so high maintenance? A small change in temperature or relative humidity doesn't affect me...and I'm a living thing!" Well, this may be true, but it has actually been determined that some objects are 100 times more sensitive to fluctuations in relative humidity than human beings (Cassar 1995)! Acidic paper, which is basically all paper ever produced until acid-free paper became an option in the 1950's, is a great example of this. For paper, the colder and drier it is, the better. In fact, if the storage temperature where reduced from 70°F to 40°F and the relative humidity from 50% to 5%, the potential lifespan of a piece of acidic paper would multiply by one thousand (Applebaum 1991)! That's the difference between preserving something for 50 years and 50,000 years!

Standard practice for general museum collections dictates a constant "ideal" temperature of 65 to 70° F and a constant relative humidity somewhere between 47 and 55% (Bachmann and Rushfield 1992; Simmons 2006). It can be a difficult task to achieve these conditions in the Keys, but we are trying to get as close to them as possible without completely blowing up our electricity bill. So next time you visit the museum and it seems a little chillier, just remember, it's all in the name of conservation! In the meantime, keep an eye out for those hobos!


Applebaum, Barbara (1991). Guide to environmental protection of collections. Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press. Print.

Bachmann, K. and Rushfield, R.A. (1992). Principles of Storage. In K. Bachmann (Ed.), Conservation Concerns: A Guide for Collectors and Curators, pp. 5-10. Washington; London: Smithsonian Institute Press. Print.

Cassar, May (1995). Environmental Management: Guidelines for Museums and Galleries. London; New York: Routledge. Print.

Simmons, J.E. (2006). Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies. Washington: American Association of Museums. Print.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Getting A Handle on Things

Well, it's my second week here at the History of Diving Museum and I feel like I'm finally starting to get the hang of things. Erin and I have been photographing, cataloging and labeling objects in the museum's collections and I've learned more about diving in the last week than I had in the previous 26 years! One particularly interesting object that needed "collections attention" was a dagger handle salvaged from a Spanish shipwreck by Arthur McKee, known to many as the "father of modern treasure hunting."

Art "Silver Bar" McKee (1910-1979) made a name for himself in the Florida Keys before scuba diving became a popular recreational activity. One of the few "celebrity divers," Art appeared both in LIFE Magazine and on the Dave Garroway Show in the 1950's. He is credited, along with Ed Link and Mendel Peterson, for the invention of the underwater metal detector, jet propulsion vehicle and sift cage. Art was also no stranger to museum collections, starting the world's first "Museum of Sunken Treasure" in 1949, just north of here on Plantation Key (now the Montessori School). In its time, Art's Museum of Sunken Treasure was the premier tourist attraction in the Upper Keys, composed of many local artifacts. Treasures from the shipwrecks of the 1733 Spanish Plate Fleet really built up Art's collection in the early days, as he salvaged them for years after receiving information regarding their fate from the Archive of the Indies in Spain in the late 1930's.
The ill-fated Spanish Fleet left port from Havana, Cuba on July 13, 1733 (Friday the 13th), bound for Spain and loaded with precious cargo. Little did they know of the approaching hurricane that two days later would ground most of the twenty-two ships in the shallow waters of the Keys. Luckily for the Spanish, the hurricane was not a severe one, resulting in many survivors and the opportunity to recover many of the treasures themselves. Still, they couldn't salvage everything, leaving plenty behind for Art McKee to uncover more than 200 years later.

The dagger handle, now on display at the History of Diving Museum, was one of the objects left behind by the Spanish and recovered by Art McKee. It is a wonderful piece of craftmanship, with a design resembling the head of a lion. When I first handled it in my cotton gloves, I couldn't help but imagine whose hands had gripped it in the past, and for what purpose? Art McKee liked it so much that he posed for a portrait with it (also seen in the exhibit)! Perhaps its original owner thought it so commonplace that they discarded it on purpose. Or perhaps it was lost in the mad scramble to shore after the ships ran aground! No one will ever know its exact history for sure, but it will fuel imaginations for years to come. That's part of what's so great about museums! Art certainly recognized that and his imaginative and adventuresome spirit lives on in the "Art McKee and the Treasure Hunters" gallery at the History of Diving Museum. If you are interested in seeing the dagger handle, be sure to visit the museum soon, as it is currently on loan from the collection of Carl Fismer!

Black and white photos of Art McKee courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Getting My Feet Wet

Greetings everyone!

My name is Austin and I'm interning this summer at your favorite place for all things sub-aquatic, The History of Diving Museum! I'm a Museum Studies graduate student at the University of Florida in Gainesville (Go Gators!) and this is my first true excursion to the Florida Keys. So far, my experience has been everything I could have hoped for (and more). The people have been wonderful, warm and welcoming, as have the beautiful blue waters of Islamorada. I feel very "at home" here in the Keys thanks in large part to the generous hospitality of the History of Diving Museum staff, who have gone out of their way to ensure my comfort. Although, I imagine it's difficult to ever be that uncomfortable in a place like this!

Over the next eight weeks I will be updating you on my adventures in the museum's collections, where Erin is graciously instructing me on proper organization, storage and conservation techniques. My background is in archaeology (and we don't have much diveable water in Gainesville), so this is all relatively new to me. Nevertheless, the items in the History of Diving's collection are fantastically interesting and I really look forward to learning more about them and diving in general! There's no better place to do it than in the Florida Keys! I'll be taking the museum's "Eat. Sleep. Immerse Yourself." slogan to heart this summer and hope to meet all of you in the process!