Work as a collections manager or registrar provides a consistent source of party small talk material, of the guess-what-I-did-at-work-today variety. We puzzle over the best way to preserve paintings done on discarded pizza boxes, we rediscover stunning Tiffany vases and 1950s Dior gowns in storage, we become experts on obscure local figures, the origins of street names, and neighborhood politics in response to a new accession
that requires cataloging.
Recently I organized a display in the auditorium lobby of the Museum of History and Industry, And Now For Something Completely Different: Unexpected Artifacts from the Museum’s Collection. Visually communicating some of the more unusual aspects of museum work, this display showcases a few of the quirky
(a 1930s coin purse made from a mink’s head) to the frightening (a 1870s medical scarificator used for
bloodletting) objects uncovered in MOHAI’s collection.
Featured in the exhibit are a few recent acquisitions. Butterworth Mortuary, a Seattle fixture since
1892, recently donated a 1930s mortician’s cosmetic kit and an embalming table that dates from 1886.
The table’s eye-catching Pennsylvania-Dutch style design is almost charming – until one remembers
that the perforations were used for drainage rather than as a strictly stylistic choice.
The exhibit features a model of the locally-invented prosthetic “Seattle Foot,” a set of early and disconcerting dental instruments, and a brass diver’s helmet from ca. 1890. Also on display is a piece of
artwork by local artist Dorothy Rissman, whose 2008 “Hairshirt: I Love Dick’s” repurposes discarded
Dick’s Drive-In hamburger wrappers.
There’s a mug carved from a walrus jaw – four teeth are still intact; it’s a souvenir from 1930s Alaska
that one hopes was used to store pencils rather than serve coffee. There’s a lamp fashioned from three reindeer legs (no word on
what become of the remaining leg), an 1895 X-ray “therapy” machine, and WWII-era Japanese Katana sword with a large bullet hole
in the blade.