Virginia Historical Society’s odd gems offer uncommon insights into the past
By Marc Fisher,
In 1876, a Virginia man named William Massie, eager to spare his family from smallpox, sent to his father by mail a tiny, reddish splotch of human tissue, the size of a baby’s fingernail. It was a smallpox scab, which the recipients would rub onto an open cut in their skin in an effort to inoculate themselves.
Today, you can view that scab in a strangely alluring exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond titled “Bizarre Bits: Oddities From the Collection.” There is also a disturbing little necklace made from the hair of James Madison, and a block of tree fungus that a 20th-century artist in Wytheville carved into an adoring portrait of Robert E. Lee on his horse, Traveller.
In Washington, the various curated exhibits at the Smithsonian museums draw audiences large and small, depending on the subject matter and perhaps the marketing. But just mention that the Smithsonian is showing a selection from its legendary attic of curios and Americana, and the crowds come flocking, almost without regard for what particular items are on display.
There’s something about a random collection of cool stuff that attracts attention, even though such randomness would hardly be a magnet in almost any other area of the arts: No way you’d get big crowds for a concert of random music, a gallery of art chosen by happenstance or an evening of one-act plays selected by dart-toss. But museums, especially those that have been around for a long time, find themselves with storehouses full of stuff that isn’t quite the work of acclaimed masters, and hauling odd pieces out for a show now and then ends up being strikingly illuminating.
The Virginia Historical Society, which has been collecting since 1831, owns a surfeit of what it calls “peculiar, perplexing or even grotesque objects” that “provide insight into the hopes, fears, assumptions and practices of the past.”
That it does, but that raises a question about today’s museums and curators: Are they still collecting such wonderfully strange and random bits? The Richmond show displays the cigar confiscated from Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured by Union troops in 1865; it was kept by the authorities even after the U.S. secretary of war ordered the other contents of Davis’s trunk returned to the owner in 1874. And now here the cigar is, in a glass vial, a rather thin stogie, lending its onetime owner a slightly severe yet dashing air.
Today’s curators know enough to capture this sort of item. The Smithsonian has an R2-D2 model used in “Star Wars,” and surely the museum would have wanted Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress, but it was returned to its owner after the FBI completed its analysis of the presidential semen stain.
But those are easy calls. What are the contemporary equivalents of the item I spent the most time with in this collection of curiosities? It was a letter written in 1857 from a U.S. Navy lieutenant, Robert Minor, to his wife back home in Virginia. Landonia Minor was so much in love with her traveling husband that she not only saved the letter (and donated it to the Historical Society) but she also kept her man’s fingernail and toenail clippings, which he had lovingly included in the envelope.
The woman did not willy-nilly hand over her most personal possessions to those who would save them for posterity. No, she first took care to black out from her husband’s letters those phrases that described his fantasies of what they would do when he returned home. He would, he wrote, “hug her up, so close” that, well, we’ll just have to use our imaginations because the next bunch of words is most severely blackened, which itself tells us a good deal about the Minors and the world they lived in.
People become amateur collectors and seek to save their treasures in museums either to assure their own legacy or because they’re particularly proud of what they’ve gathered and want to share it with the future. But what will be saved from our ever more electronic lives?
The rise of the Internet has raised questions about whether future historians will have anything quite as intimate a record of the loves and spats and passions of this era as the letters and love notes of past generations provided. Will too many of the most revealing and important documents of our time vanish because they existed only electronically and were erased or simply never extracted from behind a password-protected wall?
Most likely we will have a more complete record of official and legal actions than ever before. But will the electronic records of today’s courts be as revealing as a handwritten account in the Richmond show of an 1832 trial of one Grace Sherwood of Princess Anne County on charges of witchcraft? The account says the judge appointed five “antient weamen” to examine Sherwood’s body in full, whereupon they found “two things like titts on her private parts of a black coller [color]” that she apparently used to suckle demons. Sherwood, who had been accused of bewitching a pregnant woman and causing her to miscarry, was convicted, clapped in irons and put in jail.
As one might hope, the oddities on exhibit in the grand temple of Virginia history — built as a Confederate memorial, the building now houses some well-balanced shows on the state’s struggles with race and slavery, as well as earlier murals that paint the Confederacy in more heroic light — fit no easy categories. Some are here just because they’re bizarre, and once again, inquiring minds want to know: Would today’s curators overcome their ethical qualms and collect items that represent cruelty, ignorance or invasion of privacy?
We can only hope they will, because only then will our descendants be able to figure out just who we really were, in all our glory and infamy. The “bizarre bits” on display here include a bunch of medical specimens and instruments, such as the smallpox scab, various saws used for amputations and neurosurgery, and a trepan, a grotesque device used to perforate the skull, which was believed to aid in treating mental illness, epilepsy and migraines. The thing, from 1908, looks like a particularly powerful hand drill.
To see it, you can visit the oddities show in Richmond. But such are the times we live in that without rising from your chair, you can find the inevitable on the Web: Yes, there are those today who call for a return to trepanation. The International Trepanation Advocacy Group is online, ready to be collected for a virtual museum show of the next century.
runs through March 27
at the Virginia Historical Society,
428 N. Boulevard, Richmond;