View Full Version : Museum Ignorance?

Jerry Oksman
01-28-2003, 05:33 PM
I was over at the Metropolitan Museum last Sunday and of course I had to go into the arms and armor section. So I'm wandering around in my element and I notice that there is missing info in a lot of the pieces. For example I was looking at an old rifle (musket) I don't remember if it was a flintlock or wheel lock, but I did notice the Damascus barrel. The tag (note explaining the piece) just said steel. Technically correct I suppose, but I guess I just expected more from a museum. Also so a bueatiful persian saber that was definatly made from Wootz and there was no mention of that at all. In fact there was no mention anywhere of Damascus (or pattern welded steel) or wootz.

Ignorance or do they assume the public is ignorant? I realize that this is specialized info. Ya gots to be a knifeknut to get it. But we are supposedly dealing with professionals here.

what do you people think of this?

J.Arthur Loose
01-28-2003, 06:15 PM

It's one of my pet peeves as well, and I've actually mentioned it in a couple different threads here and in different forums recently. I've seen pieces that were clearly steel ( exhibiting differential hardening, for example ) described as "iron". As you say... the pattern-welded gun barrel is most likely at least partially steel. To an historian, "iron," is really meant to refer to any <b>alloy</b> based primarily on iron and emerging at the end of the bronze age on up. To the knife-maker, "iron," means anything below .40 - .50 carbon and "steel." means anything above that and below about 1.5% carbon. To the metallurgist steel starts way below the heat-treatable range since carbon still affects the workability of the alloy. That's why we have "mild steel".

I think the most accurate and generalized thing museums could do is state "iron alloy," unless, of course... something turns out to be pure, unadulterated iron...

I wish they'd just put up the complete chemical analysis... :)

Roger Gregory
01-29-2003, 01:32 PM
I'm very surprised at the Metropolitan making that sort of mistake.

It is what I would expect from a lot of our local/provincial museums but it isn't going to happen with the British Museum, Museum of London, Imperial War Museum, Royal Armouries etc, they have serious weapon fanatics amongst the curators.

Maybe you need to give them a nudge Jerry, you can be sure there's someone in the Metropolitan who knows their stuff, I suppose they just have nothing to do with the displays....


J.Arthur Loose
01-29-2003, 04:31 PM
<a href=" rchterm%3dsutton%252520hoo%252520sword%26%257bUPPE R%257d%253av2_free_text_tindex%3dsutton%2bhoo%2bsw ord%26_IXDB_%3dcompass%26_IXNOMATCHES_%3dgraphical %252fno_matches%252ehtml%26%2524%2b%2528with%2bv2_ searchable_index%2529%2bsort%3d%252e&_IXFIRST_=5&_IXMAXHITS_=1&_IXSPFX_=graphical/full/&_IXsearchterm=sutton%2520hoo%2520sword&submit-button=summary" target="_blank">
The Sutton Hoo Sword Page</a> at the British Museum sort of does this...

It describes the pattern welded core as iron, which is accurate enough, but only adds that a "sharp edge," is welded on. In reality that edge is high carbon steel, at least according to other sources I have seen.

I did notice that the British Museum is really good at describing any of the differentially hardened Asian blades as "steel".

I think the truth is that the people who put these things up know that most people don't know or don't care about these kinds of technicalities like we do.

01-29-2003, 04:39 PM
Well the Met isn't the only US museum to fall down on that point. The very good traveling viking exhibit that the Smithsonian sent around last year (The North Atlantic Saga) had the same problem. Several of the swords on display showed the very characteristic corrosion patterns that occur in pattern welded blades. But no mention was made of the technology at all. Not even in the nice little smithy display.

In part I think it is because weapons technology is not a politically correct field of historic study among the US academic community. Which is a very disgusting thought.

Roger Gregory
01-29-2003, 05:39 PM
In the excellent book Scott made me go out and buy :) on Mediaeval Knives and Scabbards found in London, it is encouraging to see that the Museum of London used a metallurgist who knows his bainite from his ferrite and his martensite....... there is plenty of discussion in the book on combinations of iron and steel in the knives.

Of course it is then another thing to see what the person in charge of the display decides to include as information.....


01-29-2003, 05:54 PM
Well Roger,

After seeing many museums both here in the US and over in the UK, I am forced to say that the UK museums do more justice to their Arms and Armour collections.

Another example of US Arms and Armor blinders in play can be found in Los Angeles. The County Museum of Natural History has a very nice collection of Arms and Armor (notice proper use of US and UK spellings!). With a very nice selection of oriental Arms and Armor. The unfortunate part of this is that the so call permanent collection has been hidden from view and in storage for years and years. You can't even get a catalog for the collection any longer. I almost had to bribe someone to get my catalogs years ago when the traveling exhibit on the Mary Rose find was in town.

Whereas, almost every museum I went to in the UK seemed to do a bang-up job of displaying and documenting their collections. And Roger, if you think the Museum of London stuff is nice, you have to lay your hands on the Wallace collection catalogs :)

(unfortunately (or fortunately for your wallet) they are out of print right now)

J.Arthur Loose
01-30-2003, 01:20 AM
It is a little known fact that most museums that receive government money ( on both sides of the pond... ) are actually obliged to show you things behind the scenes if you make an appointment and have even the slightest credentials.

Vince Evans showed me a bunch of pictures that he took of Early Scottish Dirks in several museums throughout England & Scotland. He said they were excited to show someone around who could talk shop.

Give it a try, Scott! Post some pics... :)

01-30-2003, 10:29 AM
Oh, I know, it's just a matter of arranging for some time (a precious commodity)

On a related story. While in London a number of years ago I had some great experience with museum personnel.

One of the best was at the Royal Armouries, back when they were still housed in the Tower. They opened the cases for me to get some close up photos. Including taking the Lion Armour all the way out of the case so I could photograph both shoulders (wonderful gold chased chisel work). So I got to see all this wonderful stuff up close. Unfortunately the camera didn't work, so no photos.

However, my very best museum experience was at the Wallace Collection (the best kept secret in London, right around the corner from Herod's). Every piece in the arms and armour collect had a little brass numbered tag next to it. This was a collection catalog number and a hard bound catalog was on a lectern in each exhibit hall. And As I told Roger, the Wallace Collection Catalogs are a must read/see/buy.

But beyond the arms and armour, the Wallace Collect has the largest collect of the paintings of Reuben's (not the nudes). So there was the Laughing Cavalier, with just a velvet rope between it and the world. The docent allowed me to lean forward and almost touch the painting to check out the brush strokes that made his black on black brocade doublet.

J.Arthur Loose
01-30-2003, 10:47 AM
I've been kicking myself in the butt for a few years now because when I was in the British Isles I didn't know about the museum trick.

I did spend an entire day in the Sutton Hoo room though... and saw some great Viking exhibits in Edinburgh and Dublin.

I was a bonehead and skipped York though. time!

Jerry Oksman
01-30-2003, 01:20 PM
I'm not sure if I am happy to hear that this is a prevalent condition.

On another note, most museums will have more stuff off scene thn out on display. My old office had the standing contract for structural work at the Metropolitan Museum. Basically it ment that when they got various exhibits and displays if something was signifcantly big or heavy a structural engineer would have to check it and make sure that the floor where it would reside could hold the load. What it ment to me is I got to go into the unkown (to the public) part of the museum. The back alleys and basements to look at the structural steel. Well basically the back rooms are like your or my garage (well mine anyway) where there's all sorts of things stacked up everywhere. Imagine walking small corridors that are made even smaller by all the objects d'art that line the walls covered in tarps and duct tape and bubble wrap.

I want to go back to the Met again. I want to see the DaVinci exhibit before it leaves town. I will grab my camera and hopefully be posting some interesting "old" stuff.