Staff at the Falmouth Historical Society never know what they may find when combing through the historical artifacts that have been collected since 1900.
“I know we have a human skull here somewhere,” Jennifer L. Krumfolz, collections manager, said as she approached the natural history section that offers a glimpse of Falmouth’s past.
She pulled down a large acid-free box the size of a hatbox. Inside a skull sat cushioned in acid-free tissue paper. She is not sure where it came from, and it has not been dated.
Ms. Krumfolz, Mark A. Schmidt, executive director, and Tamsen E. George, head of the collections committee, discussed the society’s 1,800-square-foot, climate-controlled facility late last week. The archive room is in the basement of an addition to the historic barn, which was renovated by M. Duffany Builders in 2012.
Last spring movable shelving units were added to make the best use of the space. Since then, staff has been categorizing what they have as the basement becomes filled with articles from the 18th and 19th centuries to the present that have been stuffed away in drawers and in corners of different buildings.
“They never had a plan where to put stuff,” Mr. Schmidt said. “And we got stuff.”
Start at 10,000 items and keep going up.
Artifacts include general household items, toys, weapons, scientific instrumentation and natural history items. About 90 to 95 percent of the society’s collection is now housed in the new space.
A large dollhouse, donated by Alfred Irish in the 1990s, standing close to four feet high and five feet across stands out in the toy section. It is a replica of a house that stood at the site of the Inn on the Square and dates from the 1890s. Mr. Irish’s grandfather made it for his mother, said Ms. George, whose collections committee oversees donations.
The facility stays at 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50-55 percent humidity. This type of control prevents items, such as the dollhouse, from getting moldy or becoming dry and brittle. Certain documents, however, such as ship logs, are kept in the dark in another location to prevent the ink from fading.
“This is one of the first steps in ensuring that an artifact is around for a very long time,” Dewey W. Blanton, spokeman for the American Museum Association, said. “Some small societies have support from the community to upgrade (to this type of facility). Most are not able to do that.”
The society has a lot of 18th century items that support the historical houses on the property and items from World War II. It has less memorabilia from World War I, the Korean War, and Vietnam and is looking to collect more 20th century items. Many people do not think of more recent items as having historical significance.
“We ask school kids who visit when does history stop,” Ms. George said. “The answer is never.”
The only requirement for a donated item is that it be relative to Falmouth and its history.
“If it doesn’t relate to the town, we can move it to a good place.” Ms. George said.
Mr. Schmidt turns the wheel on one of the steel shelves pressed against an adjacent shelf to open access to the shelved artifacts. The wheels can lock so that the shelves that reach almost to the ceiling stay put. From a section of the shelf, Ms. Krumfolz pulls out a part of a tree trunk with a cannonball fired from the HMS Nimrod in 1814 lodged into it.
Part of Ms. Krumfoltz’s job is to track down the original gift of deeds that came with items donated in the 1920s and ’30s as well as file drawers with 3x5-inch notecards and notebooks with information about the donations.
“This is for legal reasons,” Ms. Krumfolz said. “So someone can’t come back and say that it is mine.”
The items are also numbered in the same way that libraries developed the Dewey decimal system to keep track of books. The museum numbers include the year the piece was donated, the order in which the item was given during the year, and the number of items included with the gift.
Clothing and other delicate items are stored in acid-free packaging to prevent degradation. Ms. Krumfolz also handles certain items, such as clothing and paper with gloves to prevent oil from her hands damaging the item. Or when she handles skulls or bones or the Victorian chamber pot on site.
“We hope things will last hundreds of years,” Ms. George said. “If we mess them up now, they won’t be here later.”
Many pieces come from the sea trade history of the town. There is a model whaling boat, the smaller boat that went after the whales, made by a sailor, as well a weapon from the South Sea islands, a stick laced with shark teeth.
The society does not have the expertise to restore items that need it, but sends them out for treatment. A cannon from the HMS Nimrod found off the coast of New Bedford in 1991 and donated to the society has been in an alkaline brine bath for years to reverse the acidification that can eat away at the metal and result in cracking caused by being submerged in sea water for 200 years.
“It’s ready to come out of solution,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Its been about 12 years.”
Keeping these artifacts safe ensures that Falmouth residents will know their history.
“This is a link to our past,” Mr. Schmidt said. “This is who we are.”