Hidden Treasures at the Rock Island Arsenal Museum
February 12, 2013
ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, ILL. -- A day at the Rock Island Arsenal Museum is an opportunity to unveil hidden treasures from American history.
The RIA Museum is the second oldest U.S. Army Museum according to its website www.arsenalhistoricalsociety.org/museum. The current RIA museum was the second museum established on Arsenal Island. The current museum opened in 1919, replacing the original museum. It closed during World War II and reopened in its current location in 1948.
Kris Leinicke, RIA museum director, said, "The museum was designed to have more natural light due to the lack of electricity in the building."
According to the Rock Island Historical Society, the first museum on Arsenal Island, the Ordnance Museum, opened in 1905. This museum received historical materials from the Ordnance department, St. Louis World's Fair and the local clearance of weapons and material.
"The Ordnance Museum at RIA was established to display ordnance material for research and interest of the public by order of Maj. Gen. (William) Crozier, chief of ordnance," said Jodean Murdock, curator of education.
The museum closed during World War I, but eventually reopened as the RIA Museum. It reopened at the request of the local community. The Ordnance and RIA Museums closed to use the buildings for manufacturing during the world wars.
"Many of the exhibits were packed and moved to the Smithsonian, where they still reside today," said Leinicke.
The Smithsonian took many items, but the RIA Museum was able to collect and preserve new treasures.
"Our museum has five weapons that were confirmed to be present at the Battle of the Little Bighorn," said Leinicke.
This is the largest known collection of weapons used by the Cheyenne and Sioux during this battle.
"The weapons were matched to cartridge casings found at the battlefield, each firing pin of each weapon is unique, like a fingerprint," Leinicke said. "It leaves a distinctive mark on the cartridge cases and this is how the weapons were identified."
"RIA museum has always been known for its small arms collection," said Murdock. The museum contains many small arms, with 75 percent of its small arms holdings displayed.
"Space is a premium, only 3 to 5 percent of the RIA Museum's total collection, is displayed at one time, this includes the small arms display," said Jodie Wesemann, museum registrar. The Spacesaver storage units were installed in 2007 to help with storage.
Among 25 percent of small arms not on display are three rare rifles.
"In 1958, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, gifted a local commanding general on Arsenal Island three exceptional rifles," said William Johnson, curator of collection. "These rifles have not been displayed for more than 20 years.
"The three rifles are handmade and contain intricate carving and metalwork. Two of the weapons were created in 1790 and the third in 1860," Johnson said. Ivory, precious metals and rubies cover the body of one of the older rifles.
"Keeping older items, such as the rifles, in the collection can be a challenge," Wesemann said. "Environmental storage techniques matter; if the items in the storage are not properly stored and monitored it can rot along with the objects around it."
Museum employees use techniques such as storing vinyl objects from the 1970s in a walk-in freezer to reduce off gassing and prevent disintegration, or using cotton tipped applicators to clean the white spots on leather.
"We always reassess the steps we use to protect our collection," Wesemann said. "The techniques that were common 20 to 30 years prior are not the right techniques to use today. Preservation of these objects is a never-ending fight."
"Multiple monitors are used to watch the temperature and humidity," said Johnson, "We use hygrothermographs, along with thermostats, to evaluate and regulate the environment in our storage areas."
Environmental controls protect historical objects and documents in the RIA Museum collection. One such piece is a hand written promotion document from 1863, signed by President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, promoting Thomas Rodman to Major.
The RIA Museum is more than just a museum, it has a research center, which collects donations that meet certain standards, and provides information for research requests. The research center, a closed stack facility, is located in the museum basement. This is where the museum offices are located, along with research and storage zones. This area also contains a location for researchers with prior coordination with museum staff.
"Researchers can call and receive assistance with their research, but they cannot just come in and browse the research facilities," said Wesemann.
Many perishable materials are located in this area, which contains books, maps, training manuals, glass plate negatives, magazines and hundreds of thousands of pictures.
Leinicke said, "Because the composition of the items located in the research center could be problematic in a fire, the storage area contains a clean-agent fire suppression system." If a fire occurs in the area, the system would disperse a liquid to neutralize the fire. The liquid evaporates to prevent water damage to the materials.
Volunteer and intern opportunities are available for interested students and community members. Tours of the RIA museum are available for adult and school groups free; request tours and other information by calling (309) 782-2979/5021.