Revitalizing Soldiers: Processing the Collections
The Soldiers Memorial Military Museum’s collections are a time capsule. Encompassing thousands of donations dating back to Soldiers Memorial's opening in 1938, the collections were relatively untouched when my team and I began processing them in October 2014. In order to gain intellectual control over the collections (to know what we had and where it was), my team and I were tasked with inventorying every single item with the help of a digital database system—a first in Soldiers Memorial's nearly 80-year history.
This has been a massive undertaking. One of the things we’ve learned over the course of the processing project, which has seen the removal of every artifact from the Soldiers Memorial building to a secure offsite storage location, is that the overall collection is far larger than anyone realized. It includes not only numerous three-dimensional artifacts (from tiny lapel pins to the Jeep) but also a library and an enormous amount of archival materials (such as documents and photographs). Soldiers Memorial is a treasure trove of fascinating finds, many of which have an interesting history attached to them.
One of my favorite aspects of the processing project has been reuniting these objects with their histories. Without regular inventories of a collection and basic intellectual control, the information about who donated an artifact, when, and why tends to get separated from the artifact itself. This has happened with some of the artifacts in the Soldiers Memorial collections, so it has been exciting to bring these bits of information back together and learn more about the objects in front of me, as well as the people who owned or used them.
A particularly interesting set of artifacts we’ve cataloged is from a St. Louisan named Grace Sheahan Skelton. Grace was married to John Sheahan, who served in the army during World War II and died in 1944 during Operation Tiger. After John’s death, Grace joined the Women’s Army Corps and served as a nurse at O’Reilly’s General Hospital in Springfield, Missouri. She donated many items to Soldiers Memorial in 1983, including her WAC uniform, letters she wrote to her husband while he was serving overseas, scrapbooks, and recordings of her singing for a wartime radio program.
Another of my favorite parts of the project has been rehousing all the objects for storage. Rehousing—museum-speak for creating storage mounts that both physically support and help preserve objects—is key to the long-term preservation of artifacts. In the past, Soldiers Memorial didn't always have the resources to store artifacts in ideal conditions. Now, as a part of the inventory process, we're able to rehouse these artifacts so they can be preserved for years to come.
One of the collections that requires rehousing is our uniform collection. Because folding fabric results in wear along the folds over time, particularly if the fabric is very fragile (like silk or satin), we’re making sure our uniform collection is hung. Hanging allows the uniforms to remain as they were meant to, without crushing the shoulders or creating creases in the sleeves. Each uniform jacket, pant, and shirt gets its own hanger, which we pad with a combination of polyester batting and muslin or stockinette (that stretchy stuff that gets put under a cast when you break your arm). The padding serves to prevent creasing or wear at the shoulders of the jackets and shirts, or where the pants are draped over the hanger.
As we continue to process Soldiers Memorial's amazing collections, we’re also looking ahead and planning for the exhibits that will be on display when the building reopens. Like many of you, I’m eagerly awaiting the reopening so I can see and appreciate the beautiful art deco structure updated for modern use!
—Shay Henrion, Collections Manager, Soldiers Memorial Project