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Curator Nathan Jones stops and ponders the oldest item in storage at the General George Patton Museum of Leadership, which is less than a month from its public reopening.
The museum’s namesake, Gen. George S. Patton, toured European palaces during his time in the military, often stopping to admire and praise artifacts on display. Jones said Patton’s kind words led to loads of souvenirs, including knight’s armor and a sword dating back to the 1600s, which is set for display at Fort Knox in June.
The age and weathered condition of the artifacts requires caution and gentle preservation to maintain museum quality.
Jones, who is trained to identify artifacts in need of conservation, faced a conundrum as he stared at a bridle belonging to one of Patton’s horses — relegated to a box, where it sat in storage unmoved for decades.
He requested help from Fort Benning, Ga., to move the bridle without causing harm.
“If you keep it long in one place, it gains a memory,” Jones said.
While still weighing options, he said staff likely would wet the bridle so it would regain its pliability before attempting to move it.
Steve Allie, museum division chief at Fort Benning, meticulously scrubbed verdigris — an oxide that forms on aged brass, bronze and copper when exposed to air or seawater — from brass buttons on Patton’s fencing jacket, which he wore while competing in the modern pentathlon during the 1912 Olympics. Some had stained the jacket.
Allie said the museum could not attempt to clean verdigris from textiles, however, because doing so could break down or destroy the fabric. He used Q-tips and toothpicks to apply a cleaning solution, installing a mylar buffer underneath each button to keep it from spilling onto the cloth.
“It’s about 20 minutes a button,” he said of the cleaning process.
Staff members also wear gloves before touching any artifact because bare hands leave residue and attract dirt and grime like a magnet, Jones said.
To illustrate his point, he pulled a hat from the collection belonging to Harold K. Johnson, a former Army chief of staff. The hat, a resplendent white, was pockmarked with black smudges left by a bare handprint.
Other headaches for Jones came from Patton himself, who created a rudimentary labeling system for his belongings that potentially could compromise their quality.
For instance, a label affixed by Patton to his baby boot has fallen off, leaving adhesive behind, which eventually can start eating the leather it is attached to. Jones said he is a “purist” who prefers to keep an artifact as close to its historical origin as possible, but he makes an exception for the boot because the label was lost.
Jones could not recall an instance in which an item inside the museum was damaged beyond repair, but said the museum attempts to remove whatever is causing damage to prevent further destruction.
If carrying an artifact more than 10 feet, Jones places it on a cart.
When shipping artifacts for more extensive conservation, the museum employs crates padded with foam.
“You crate that bad boy up,” he said, laughing.
They also attempt to counteract the environment, which can further damage fragile artifacts.
The museum has purchased display cases with self-contained climates, giving Jones and other staff the ability to control humidity and temperature, which can harm the object if unregulated. Jones said the climate control system can work as a humidifier and de-humidifier, depending on the situation.
Lighting, particularly UV rays, can bleach textiles and put unnecessary strain on artifacts. To counteract this and control the amount of electricity used, the museum has purchased fiber optic or LED lighting with the least amount of UV and has put motion sensors inside display cases to shut off internal lights.
The museum also avoids placement of metal on metal to avoid rusting, ordering mounts coated in non-metallic materials or tubing to present the artifacts in an attractive fashion.
Staff also place labels on artifacts to process them as part of a collection. Jeff Reed, a curator for the National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, was processing a uniform donated by retired Gen. David Petraeus, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Each patch was removed and labeled to ensure it could be identified and returned to its proper collection should it fall off, Jones said. Any modification made by the museum, he said, must be completely reversible.
Reed said one must evoke a surgeon’s care in applying a label without destroying fibers. The smallest of utensils can serve as microscopic “saws” or “battering rams” if used haphazardly, he said.
Curators search for authentic artifacts from war, coveting an old GI helmet or dirty and rumpled uniform because they tell a richer story.
“It just has that lived-in look,” Reed said.
It is a rare find for World War II artifacts, he said, because most uniforms and helmets used in battle were confiscated by the Army before the soldiers returned home.
Jones said his ultimate goal is to preserve artifacts for as long as time allows. Pointing to a pistol belt owned by Patton, he said it will be a pile of dust in 200 years in spite of everyone’s best effort.
“The only thing you can do is slow down the decay,” he said. “You can’t stop it. You should just enjoy it while they’re here.”
Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or email@example.com.