Sunday, January 08, 2012

Fate of the New York State Collections in Archaeology and Ethnology in the Capitol Fire.

January-March, 1911, American Anthropologist, Vol. 13, Part 1, pages 169-171. Fate of the New York State Collections in Archaeology and Ethnology in the Capitol Fire.

— In the New York State Capitol conflagration of March 29 the archeological and ethnological collections of the State Museum were almost totally destroyed by fire and water. The collections were installed in vertical wall and square alcove cases about the corridors at the head of the western staircase. The location seemed to insure singular protection from fire, there being nothing inflammable in the vicinity save the molding that held the cases together. The damage seems to have been done by the long sheets of flame that burst through from the large corridor windows of the library bindery on one side and of the Education Department offices on the other. The immense amount of inflammable material there fed the flames once established and the draft caused by the breaking of the heavy plate windows that opened out into the hall about the staircase carried the blast directly against the cases, shattering the glass and exposing the specimens within. The archeological cases suffered most from breakage brought about by the crumbling of the sandstone ceilings that had been subjected to the intense heat.

The falling of the ceilings in great blocks broke the shelves that had so far resisted the fire and spilled the specimens into the water and debris. The continual dropping of masses of cracked rock from the walls made work of rescuing valuable objects most hazardous. However, despite the choking smoke, the sudden blasts of heat, and the falling walls the majority of the more valuable articles, untouched by the fire, were carried to safety. The ethnological exhibits consisted principally of three large collections; one made by Lewis H. Morgan before 1854 and embracing some 200 objects, the Harriet Maxwell Converse collection of about 350 specimens, and the collection made by Arthur C. Parker embracing nearly 200 rare objects, exclusive of silver ornaments. The famous Morgan collection of old Iroquois textiles and decorated fabrics went up in the first blast of flame, and the cases were burned to their bases. About 50 Morgan specimens were in the office of the archeologist of the museum for study purposes, and fortunately have been preserved. The Converse collection of silver articles was rescued intact.

Many of the less inflammable objects were rescued during the fire and carried out of the danger zone. None of the wampum belts of the Six Nations was injured.

One of the odd features of the calamity was that hardly a single object connected with the ceremonies of the Iroquois totemic cults or the religious rites was injured. The hair of the 30 medicine masks that hung in a line across the westernmost cases was not even singed.

Of the 10,000 articles on exhibition, including about 3500 flints, only 512 have been identified by their catalog numbers. One thousand other articles, more or less ruined by the action of flame and water, will entail a great deal of work to identify. In this connection it is interesting to note that catalog numbers applied directly to the surface of the stone, bone, or clay specimen with waterproof ink, withstood the action of fire and water better than the numbers painted on white varnish or on paper labels. Even when the object had been considerably heated the ink number on the surface was still legible. Paper labels proved valueless especially those with typewritten numbers. Those with numbers written in waterproof ink came through better. Arthur C. Parker.

March 27, 2011, Associated Press / Huffington Post, 1911 Fire Commemorated In NY, by Chris Carola,

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