More to post museum than meets the eye
February 6, 2014
The artifacts on display at the Fort Leonard Wood museum are literally the tip of the iceberg compared to the entire collection.
The exhibits at the John B. Mahaffey Museum Complex are only about 10 percent of the thousands of historic relics residing and safeguarded in the basement of the redbrick structure that houses the U.S Army Engineer, Chemical Corps and Military Police museums.
Display items are rotated for conservation and to present fresh exhibits to museum patrons.
?"In the museum field, we have to look hundreds of years into the future and make sure what we do today isn?'t harming the artifact and is preserving it for future visitors and Soldiers," said Jim Rogers, U.S. Army Military Police Museum director.
Conservation is not only their duty as museum directors -- it?'s the law, according to Troy Morgan, U.S. Army Engineer Museum director.
?"There are about 27 laws and acts that date back to 1903. We are responsible for maintaining the material culture of the Army. Because of Army regulation any textile that is 1914 or earlier can only be on display for nine months, and then we have to rest it," Morgan said.
Only a few people will ever be allowed to step foot through the museum?'s intricate security system, down to the basement?'s workshops where museum employees are constantly working to lengthen the lifespan of thousands of artifacts.
There are alphabetized rows stretching wall to wall, filled with padded cabinets and drawers stacked from the floor to the ceiling. Much like an antique shop, the scent of history fills this area -- life?'s harsh elements break down the artifacts creating the smell curators call ?"off gassing."
A flag from the Engineer collection, which the public rarely gets to see, is one of Morgan?'s favorite basement items.
?"It was a flag of Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, the Chief Engineer Army of the Potomac . . . this flag was actually on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. It?'s a pretty unique item.
?"It?'s difficult for us to display, because it is very large. We usually bring it out in June for the Engineer Regimental birthday, so that people from the regiment can enjoy it," Morgan said.
?"We have some uniforms that are too rare to display," Morgan added. ?"Our earliest uniform dates back to 1856. It?'s one-of-a-kind across the entire Army museum system."
An item belonging to Fort Leonard Wood?'s namesake is currently fighting the war against time.
?"General Leonard Wood?'s sword was in very bad condition. It has active rust on it. We literally had to create a microenvironment filled with desiccant to absorb moisture and oxygen. This year it?'s going out to be conserved, so when it comes back we will actually be able to exhibit it," Morgan said.
Destined for the eyes of only a few, the Chemical Corps museum?'s Mickey Mouse gas mask from World War II is too fragile to even take out of it?'s protective case, therefore it has to remain catalogued in the basement.
A homemade baby gas protector from the same era, constructed from a vinyl tablecloth, is also too delicate for display.
There is also a large gas mask made to fit a camel in the Chemical Corps?' archive. A photo of it hangs in the animal display.
According to Kip Lindberg, U.S. Army Chemical Corps Museum director, their ordinance collection exists nowhere else in the world.
The Military Police museum also houses artifacts that are crucial to military police history, but aren?'t displayed.
?"One of the highlights downstairs is the electric chair that came out of the old U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. It was torn down and replaced with a modern facility a few years back. Before they tore it down, they took out the electric chair and sent it to us. It?'s historic, but it was never used. It?'s a fascinating piece of equipment," Rogers said.
According to Rogers, they have several hundred military police insignia in the form of patches and pins, and several footlockers in storage.
?"Footlockers that came from individual people or units that are significant, because they represent a specific time period. We have one with a very interesting insignia on it. During World War II, the Disney artists were formally asked to design unit insignias for the armed forces. We have an example of one for a military police unit," Rogers said.
Constant rotation ensures repeat visitors are greeted with something new over time.
?"We are always changing things in the museum. We realize that a lot of our visitor base is from people who live and work here at Fort Leonard Wood. I want you, each time that you come, to get a different experience. We have temporary galleries where we can rotate teams. We also rotate artifacts," Morgan said.
The John B. Mahaffey Museum Complex is located in Bldg. 1607, at 495 South Dakota Avenue, which is the intersection of South Dakota and Nebraska avenues.
It is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. The museum complex is open to the public, and there are no admission fees.