Details: we sweat them in our historical clothing, our impressions, our writing. I try hard to pay attention to them, but in my work, I have a lot of details to manage. Some fall away– I can no longer tell the ranks of men in daguerreotypes immediately, or recognize a Colt revolver at 10 paces, but there was a time when I could. I have managed to retain at least a general understanding of how military units are organized, a general sense of various units from my state in wars before 1939, and the uniforms associated with those units. (And I know which side a man’s coat buttons on.)
This helps in my work: knowing what HBT is, knowing what various patches signify, knowing how units were structured and the campaigns they were part of helps me be a better cataloger, curator, and exhibit developer. My job is take the details and make them matter by telling stories about the people who wore the HBT or the machinists’ mate patch or carried an ensign or wore an officer’s coat as part of the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (colored) in the Civil War.
People matter more than things, but 154 years later, all we have are things those people owned, used, wore, and carried. The things now represent the people. So when someone working on a exhibit says, “any epaulets will do” while pointing at the shoulder boards on a Lieutenant’s coat, I’m not just taken aback, I’m upset, and reply, “If it’s just for color, you can buy them.” Because “any old epaulet [sic]” being loaned by a museum goes through a laborious process of loan approval, packing, delivery and installation. For that time investment alone, “any old epaulet” should not do: museums are not prop closets.
I keep saying the same thing, don’t I? There ain’t nothing like the real thing.
We can’t assume that the public doesn’t know or doesn’t care– they often know more than we do, just think of the wildly detailed knowledge some of us have about very particular things– so we owe it to them, and to the people of the past, to use museum objects as more than visual accents.