Ask a Curator!

by Sam Belles, NMAS Collection Manager and Jennifer Steinhardt, NMAS Archivist

As part of its mission in preserving and honoring the American Sailor’s history, the NMAS preserves and protects the physical relics of their past by monitoring climate, keeping pests at bay, and storing items properly. From century-old uniform and badges to photographs and diaries, what is it like to care for thousands of Sailor-related artifacts and millions of documents? 

This month the museum’s curatorial staff answers questions about what it is like managing one of the country’s largest collections of Sailor-related artifacts. Continue reading to learn more about their favorite artifacts and the daily work they do to preserve the history of the enlisted Sailor. 

  1. What sparked your interest in being a curator and archivist?

Sam: I had a summer internship at a living history museum when I was in high school working with historic pottery since I was going to be going to art school for Ceramics. Working behind the scenes I fell in love with the collection aspect of museums. 

Jennifer: I was introduced to archives in high school while doing research for history class. I later learned that being an archivist perfectly combined my love of history, reading, and helping people into a single job.

  1. What is the most interesting part of your job?

Sam: Getting to know the Sailors stories that go with the objects. Without those personal stories it’s just an ordinary object. 

Jennifer: I love providing information and helping researchers answer questions. When I’m able to provide a photograph of someone’s father from Vietnam or WAVE grandmother in World War II, it is the greatest feeling.

  1. What is something that NMAS has that might be surprising?

Sam: 1. In the permanent collection, we have a two large green metal boxes that house a Field Dental Operating kit that is from about the 1950s.

Field Dental Operating in the NMAS permanent collection, ca 1950

Jennifer: We have a few cookbooks in our collection, and some were used by sailors while they served in the mess aboard ships. Others are compilations from veterans, like a cookbook filled with WAVES’ favorite recipes.

Two of several cookbook in the NMAS permanent collection.
  1. What is the oldest artifact/archive in the collection?

Sam: In our artifact collection it is probable the celluloid pin with small flag from the opening of the base in 1911.

Jennifer: We are always accepting new items into the collection, so whatever is “oldest” can change. Some of the oldest archival items we have stem from the years surrounding the opening of Naval Station Great Lakes in 1911. I particularly enjoy perusing issues of the Great Lakes Recruit magazine.

  1. Sometimes things smell, what is the best way to get rid of an odor on an artifact or archive?

Sam: That really depends on the item. Different materials smell for different reasons. For something like cloth, most of the time just letting the item air out in a safe place can really help if they have been stored in a basement or attic. You should always check with a professional before doing anything with an old item to not cause harm.

Jennifer: Believe it or not, kitty litter!  The tools you need include: a small trash can, a large trash can with lid, and unscented kitty litter. Place the kitty litter in the large can and your item in the small can. Put the small can inside the large can and seal up with the lid. Check on your item periodically and replace the kitty litter as needed. Eventually the smell should dissipate. This process can take weeks and/or months, so patience is necessary!

  1. How do you care for broken, damaged, or fragile items?

Sam: It really depends on how broken or fragile the item is and why they item may be broken. Having a conservator do an evaluation of the items is always the best first step. If it was damaged while being used in service that is part of items story the questions then it conservation vs. preservation.

Jennifer: As a general archival rule, you want any action you take to fix an item to be reversible. You never know when a better solution will come down the line!  I recommend using a conservator whenever you want to fix something. As highly trained individuals, a conservator’s knowledge of a variety of materials and the options for repairing them will stabilize your item to the greatest extent possible.

  1. What is your favorite item in the collection?

Sam: That changes, we are always getting new things into the collection. Right now it is the WWI Yeoman (F) uniform that belonged to Lillian Haub.

Yeomanette, or Yeoman (F) uniform that belonged to Lillian Haub, ca 1918.

Jennifer: I’m partial to comparing all of the Neptune “crossing the equator” certificates. They are pieces of art. Of course, the photos of sailors celebrating Neptune’s Court are a hilarious part of the certificates’ history. The ceremonies look like they were great fun!

Intricate Crossing the Line certificate, 1943, NMAS permanent collection.

  1. Are there practical tips people can do in their home to preserve their treasures?

Sam: Keeping items out of direct sunlight and when storing your families items try to use archival tissue and boxes.

Jennifer: The most important aspects to keep your treasures safe are to store them in a temperature- and humidity-steady environment. Using acid-free boxes to protect everything from light and dust is also key. A linen closet in your home is a good place to store your items in your home.

  1. What is the best way to preserve family photos and photo albums?

Jennifer: Good question! That depends on the format of your photographs. Are they physical? In addition to providing the proper environment, I also recommend digitizing your photos and storing a couple copies with a cloud-based service and external hard drive. If you don’t have a scanner at home, there are many companies out there that offer digitization services. You can also go to your local library to see if they have a scanner you can use. The archival standard for scanning is at 600 dpi as a TIFF. 

Physical photos albums are a little more difficult to preserve because of the mix of materials present. If you absolutely must keep your photos in the albums, try to make sure the pages are made of acid-free paper. They aren’t perfect, but the photo corners you find in scrapbooking stores are better for your photos than using tape or glue. 

If your photos are stored on digital media like a CD, I recommend transferring them to a computer and storing a couple copies on a cloud-based service and an external hard drive. (CDs only have an accepted shelf life of ten years before they start to deteriorate. I also recommend digitizing your VHS tapes!)  If your photos are already digital, making sure they are properly labeled (dates, locations, people identified, etc.) and stored in on a cloud-based service and external hard drive help protect your images from corruption and natural disasters like fires and floods.

  1. If someone is interested in donating to NMAS, what is the best way to begin the process?

Sam: The first step is to fill out a Donation Proposal Form which can be found on our website.

Jennifer: The best thing you can do is fill out a Donation Proposal Form, available on our website. You can learn more about the process on our website.

Meet the staff in charge of caring for and preserving sailor history:

Sam Belles, NMAS Collection Manager

Samantha Belles was born and raised in Wisconsin. Growing up she became interested in the arts and after high school attended Northern Michigan University, where she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Ceramics. Following her love of the arts, she worked in the ceramics field for several years before receiving her Masters of Arts in Museum Studies from the University of Oklahoma.

Sam has always had a love for both the arts and history, but her path can be traced to one summer internship at the living history museum, Old World Wisconsin. She was encouraged by her high school ceramics teacher to spend her summer working with their Curator of Collection cataloging and housing their historic ceramic collection. That summer was her first experience in the museum collection world, and that experience stayed with her, returning many times to work with Old World Wisconsin during and after both of her degrees. After receiving her Masters, Sam worked for both the Kenosha Museum System in Kenosha, Wisconsin and the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wisconsin from 2011 until 2018.

In July 2018, Sam started as the Collection Manager at the National Museum of the American Sailor and currently works to preserve and protect the history and stories of the enlisted sailor.

Collection Manager Sam Belles looking after uniforms in the permanent collection.

Jennifer Steinhardt, NMAS Archivist

Born and raised in Ohio, Jennifer Steinhardt fled the land of the Buckeyes to attend Penn State University.  She filled her years of study by volunteering and dancing for THON (the largest student run philanthropy in the world), studying abroad at the University of Kent in England, and waking up before dawn as a lightweight rower for the Penn State Crew Team.  She finished her undergraduate years as co-captain of the women’s team and a graduate of the Schreyer Honors College, earning bachelor’s degrees in History, International Studies, and Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies along the way.  Jennifer immediately continued her studies at Simmons University in Boston, Massachusetts and completed master’s degrees in History and Library Science with an Archives Concentration.  She is a Certified Archivist.

Jennifer’s career as an archivist, records manager, and librarian spans various industries, states, and continents.  Some highlights over the years include tracing the evolution of the razors and blades of Gillette in Boston MA, doing research for fellows of the Salzburg Global Seminar at Schloss Leopoldskron in Austria, cataloging consumer products from around the world for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati OH, collecting and organizing dolls and their accessories for American Girl in Madison WI, and setting up an archive and oral history program for The Christ Hospital Health Network in Cincinnati OH.  Jennifer’s latest professional adventure started in August 2019 when she moved to Chicago to become the Archivist for the National Museum of the American Sailor.  She hopes her archival knowledge and experience will serve her well when it comes to preserving the history of America’s enlisted sailor.  

When she’s not busy immersing herself in the history of the Navy, Jennifer likes to spend her time running, reading, baking, and visiting the various craft breweries throughout the Chicago area.

NMAS Archivist, Jennifer Steinhardt

Preserving the stories of enlisted sailors is at the core of what we do and each artifact and document help to tell that story. To learn more about our museum, collection, events, and mission of preserving and telling the stories of the enlisted sailor visit our website. Signup for our monthly newsletter to get the latest news directly to your inbox. 

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