It’s well documented that Virginia is a treasure trove of historical artifacts. Flags from World War II, a Civil War-era painting of Warrenton, and even a wedding trunk from Martha Washington all have found a home in various museums across state.
Unfortunately, these artifacts, along with countless others, are sometimes stored in places where moth, rust and water take their toll. In response, the Virginia Association of Museums is doing its part to act as a steward of historical heritage. On Monday, the organization announced the 2013 list of Virginia’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts in a campaign to raise awareness about the uncertain future of these select pieces.
“The public visits a lot of museums, but doesn’t always know about the behind-the-scenes work,” says Christina Newton, assistant director of the association. “It’s actually quite an undertaking to preserve an artifact for everyone else to enjoy.” The artifacts are nominated by museums, voted on by the general public and then decided by a panel of judges.
The program does not offer grants, but the historical sites benefit from the media attention involved in the designation, as well as from the label itself. For example, after a Roanoke Museum of Transportation artifact appeared on the 2011 version of the list, the museum cited the designation in a grant application, and won $10,000. Furthermore, the winner of the most votes is awarded the People’s Choice Award, a title that can deliver both grant money and attention from patrons.
Among the top 10 list of endangered items is a haunting set of 1884 illustrations by James Carling for "The Raven" at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond. After being displayed for 40 years, the illustrations were placed in storage in the 1970s to protect them from damage caused by light and humidity. They were displayed for several months in 2012, however, in honor of the museum's 90th anniversary.
Another Richmond artifact that made the list is the 1751 monument for the Rev. Robert Rose at St. John’s Church, the location of Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty” speech at the Second Virginia Convention of 1775. The Rose monument is the earliest visible marker in the graveyard. It honors a Scottish clergyman who arrived in the Colonies in 1724 and who is credited with the invention of the bateau when he lashed two shallow canoes together to transport tobacco down the river from his home in Albemarle County to Richmond.
According to information provided by the St. John’s Church Foundation, the monument has deteriorated because of acid rain, unchecked biological growth, exposure to extreme weather conditions, application of herbicides in the vicinity, damage by mowing equipment and a lack of preventive maintenance. “The erosion has made the marble vulnerable to cracking, splitting, ‘sugaring’ and spalling,” the foundation says. A proposed treatment to preserve the monument was created in 2007, but had not been undertaken due to a lack of funding.
“Being on the list will not only help the foundation conserve the Rose monument but will also create awareness of the need to preserve the rest of the St. John’s Church graveyard,” Sarah Whiting, the foundation’s executive director, says in a statement.
Also included in the nominations — but not the Top 10 list — were a pair of wedding shoes from 1803 worn by James Madison’s sister, Sally Catlett Madison, that can be found at the Wilton House Museum. It’s easy to see why the shoes are endangered, with their gossamer fabric and wooden frames. The oldest nominated item is a lead plaque from 1749 marking French territory in Colonial Virginia, which resides at the Virginia Historical Society.
Newton notes that Virginia's Top 10 Endangered Artifacts program has inspired other states to create similar programs. Among those are Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Colorado.
“Pennsylvania just announced theirs yesterday and they've introduced a pretty awesome fundraising twist to the concept,” she says. “As an online public outreach program, it provides the opportunity for people anywhere to learn about the fascinating items in the care of museums across the country and get involved to help save them.”