Museum Smell Sticks to Your Nostrils

In August 2010 I did some research on over a hundred bones from the Civil War Collection, which is housed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM), a museum associated with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) and contrary to popular belief, not a part of the Smithsonian. Although the Walter Reed Medical Center is somehow associated with the Smithsonian. Rambling already. And I’m not sure if knowing facts about the Smithsonian is popular in any way.

http://nmhm.washingtondc.museum/

The NMHM is located at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which was in Silver Springs, MD (Washington, DC) when I visited, but then it was moved to Bethesda, MD in April 2011. The museum at Walter Reed was small, in my eyes, compared to the huge bustling medical center. This hospital has been a go-to place for severely injured soldiers for a little over 100 years because it has some of the best medical care. It’s impressive.

How did I get there? Well.. it was a bit of a journey. I stayed with a friend in VA because I could not afford to stay in a hotel. I could barely afford my ticket down there! BU gave me like $150 or something to support my research, which was awesome and I’m thankful for it, but still not enough. The first day I took the metro from VA to Washington DC, then a bus from DC to Silver Springs. This was a pretty good way to go except that I got dropped off at the opposite side of the base away from the entrance, which meant I had to walk around half of the entire base because there’s only one entrance..obviously. When I got to the entrance, I was stopped at the gate, told the guards why I was there, showed my ID (driver’s license) then entered the base. I walked straight up the street that leads you to a giant e concrete (I think) building with about a hundred steps, extra wide..this turned out to be the famous medical center/hospital. So, keeping the guard’s directions in mind I walked to the left of the enormous building where there were tan concrete topped overhangs with which might as well have been Greek pillars holding them up. It was nice and open and the shade felt great after my walk around the 1.5 mile perimeter. I think the base was like 3 miles around to give you an idea. That’s just off of pure memory so I could be lying. Timing wise, it was about 1.5 mile walk around, about 30 to 45 minutes.

To my surprise, I arrived at the museum quickly. I walked through the front door to find some more guards sitting behind a desk. These were civilians though, kind of like a mall cop with a night stick. I asked for Dr. Franklin Damann, one of my advisors, a forensic anthropologist and the curator of the Anatomical and Neuroanatomical Collections at NMHM, but he focused on human decomp ecology when he went to UT. They told me to have a seat in the lobby or take a look at the Civil War museum while I was waiting. Geek am I, I browsed the Civil War displays. Gruesome injuries. Fascinating historical displays.

Dr. Damann came to greet me and brought me behind the scenes to the lab and research area. I dropped my backpack and stuff by a table that I would be working on..kind of like a large wooden drafting table with a light way up overhead, plenty of space though. Then we met Brian Spatola, another curator type person and forensic anthropologist, who was a great help throughout, and an intern who was focusing on Egyptian mummies (I’m gonna go ahead and save some more comments about this for another blog). They showed me that the Civil War Collection was stored in cabinets, oversized filing cabinets with oversized drawers that were super wide and difficult to control most of the time. The doors were probably at least 5 feet tall and mayb 3.5 feet wide each, but not heavy. Then there were about 5ish sliding drawers with bins in them, like a paper bin but larger than an average size 8.5 x 11″. In each bin there were a bunch of bones. Generally, the bones were categorized by type of bone (femur, tibiae, etc.), which helped me navigate through them all but made it a little bit difficult to randomize the selection (more to this too.. for another blog perhaps).

What was next?

“Do you want to see the soft tissue room?”

[Insert screeching awkward scary noise here]

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