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Pusey Museum revamped

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Historic home changes focus of exhibits to reflect impact on culture

By Marty Finley

The Brown-Pusey House has redeveloped its museum dedicated to the belongings of Dr. William Allen Pusey, focusing less on the items he owned and more on what those items represent and what stories they tell of the time period.

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The change comes as the his­to­ric home’s caretakers are attempting to catalog all the objects and papers in their possession, feeding the information into a computer database that will put history a few keystrokes from their grasp. Zoey Larson, curator of the museum, said about 5,000 items already have been cataloged.

The Pusey Museum has a broader focus and has steered away from its former purpose of being a storage space for memorabilia owned by Pusey — a prominent physician in the late 1800s and early 1900s — and his family.

Larson, who has degrees in anthropology and archaeology and worked at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, joined the home’s staff in April 2013 and has dedicated most of her time to digging through the home’s historical archives, finding rarely seen or never-before-seen artifacts in the Pusey family collections.

While family photographs, letters, memos and documentation still dominate the room, Larson said she wanted each piece to tie into a narrative undercurrent that provides more insight into the time period in which Pusey lived and applied his trade in the world of medicine. In doing so, Larson believes the museum may have a stronger draw for the public. She said it is more likely visitors will find a personal connection to the objects if the focus is on their uses and how they impacted greater culture.

For example, dermatological and surgical kits sit alongside medicine carriers and gelatin capsule cases, which she said was a medicinal breakthrough at the time because it meant doctors could compound medicines quickly and in portable form so patients could swallow them.

The carriers also represent a time when doctors made home visits and traveled with their tools. Larson said the artifacts belong to a bygone era when “heroic” medicine — aggressive and often unproven practices, such as bloodletting and blistering, were used on patients without modern day anesthetic or sedatives — still was in use. Larson said the term “heroic” refers to the courage of the patients in withstanding the treatments.

These items are filtered among personal belongings of Pusey, including books and medical journals. Larson said some of the items are in a delicate condition and eventually will have to be placed back into storage.

“We don’t want to put some artifacts on display because of their fragility,” she said.

Larson also has taken painstaking measures to faithfully set the scene of Pusey’s Chicago office based on its look in a faded, black-and-white photograph, depicting the doctor at his desk.

The desk sits against a wall on the left side of the room, its rectangular slots stuffed with envelopes and personal effects. A gold cup and clock sit in front of two chairs, their upholstery torn from the wear of time. Pusey’s cane is draped over one armchair, and his eyeglasses are neatly placed in arm’s reach. A structured arrangement of photographs hangs on the wall, closely matching the sprawl displayed in the old photo.

The museum also is home to a temporary exhibit outlining the history of photography from heliography through daguerreotype, tintype and ambrotype photographic processes — all illustrated through the home’s personal collection. The exhibit will be on display through the summer, or longer if a proper replacement exhibit is not found, said Twylane Van Lahr, director of the Brown-Pusey House.

The temporary exhibit further traces the history to the first hand-held camera through the digital age and the modern cellphone.

“Dr. Pusey had a great love for photography,” Van Lahr said.

The Pusey Museum was full of boxes when Van Lahr came to the home about a dozen years ago, but Larson has used her museum experience to unearth important documents that can better illustrate the story of the home and its ties to numerous events, including the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln, she said.

“A lot of people don’t know we have a museum, but the whole house is a museum,” Van Lahr said.

Further, cataloging the items will better help the home and its staff take inventory of all the items and find specific artifacts without the stress of a detailed physical search.

“It’s going to save us so much time,” she said.

When asked why local residents or tourists to Elizabethtown should care about the history surrounding the Brown-Pusey House, Larson said an area’s past helps inform its present and provides a better picture of where a person lives or is visiting.

Also, the Brown-Pusey House is a great research resource because of the volume of papers they have on medicine and local history and genealogical records, she said.

“It’s a great place to start,” Larson said. “It’s educational and fun.”

Marty Finley can be reached at 270-505-1762 or mfinley@thenewsenterprise.com.