Museum collections in National Park Service sites across the country include an amazing variety and mind-boggling number of items. Thanks to an expanding Web Catalog on the NPS Museum Collections website, it's now possible to search for and view thousands of images and records from those collections.
The term "museum collection" may conjure up mental images of boxes of arrowheads and old documents, and there are certainly plenty of those items in various parks. Many of us would likely be surprised, however, at the variety and scope of those collections: "More than 43 million objects and over 72,000 linear feet of archives that have unique associations with park cultural and natural resources, eminent figures, and park histories."
On-line Catalog Offers a Sampling of Enormous Nationwide Collection
Included in those millions of items are prehistoric and historic objects, artifacts, works of art, archival material, and natural history specimens. In an effort to make representative samples of these collections more accessible to the public, the NPS has re-launched its Web Catalog museum collections website which provides online access to thousands of images and records from the NPS museum collections.
Thus far 72 park collections have been featured on the site, showcasing nearly two million objects. A mobile version of the Web Catalog is being tested and is scheduled for launch by February 2013. Incidentally, lest there be any confusion about the term, this on-line "catalog" has lots of items for viewing ...but none for purchasing!
Browse the Collection or Search for Specific Items
The site's home page features a "Collection Highlight of the Week" (an individual item), a "Park of the Week" and a sampling of individual items from other parks in the "From the Collection" section. Click on any of the associated photos for a more detailed look at that item or park.
Interested in a specific park? A list of all parks included to date on the site is found by clicking on the "show all" link on this page. A few examples will illustrate the variety of items and information available on the Web Catalog.
Entries from Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site in Colorado include a photo and description of a "Native American pipe bag of beaded buckskin, attributed to the Cheyenne leader Black Kettle." Moving your computer cursor over the color photo offers a closer look at the detailed bead work.
Fun for Nostalgia Buffs
Nostalgia buffs might enjoy a look at items which might have been found in a "Well-Stocked Kitchen in the 1930s." The museum collection from Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site includes items from the house at 501 Auburn Avenue in Atlanta where Martin Luther King Jr. lived for the first 12 years of his life. "The kitchen in this house was the domain of MLK's Grandmother Williams, and it is still stocked today with kitchen relics of the 1930s and early 20th century."
Perhaps you're involved in a dramatic production that includes a U. S. Army nurse's uniform from World War II, and you'd like the costumes to be as authentic as possible. The archives at Golden Gate National Recreation Area (which includes former military installations) includes a detailed description of "Trousers, U.S. Army nurse, women's green herringbone twill."
Web Catalog Blog Highlights Individual Parks and Topics
A link in the lower right-hand corner of the Web Catalog site will take you to an associated Web Catalog Blog with a number of interesting articles. Currently featured: "Actresses and Archaeologists at Pecos Pueblo National Historical Park." Pecos Pueblo NHP certainly qualifies as one of the lesser-known NPS sites, and "preserves and commemorates quite a variety of places and events, ranging from Pueblo structures and Native American history, the impact of Francisco Coronado's travels, colonial settlement, Spanish missions, the Pueblo Revolt, and Civil War battles in New Mexico."
If you're interested in a specific item or topic, a new "dynamic user-friendly interface" allows online visitors to " perform simple or advanced searches by keyword, park name, object name, people, places, and date." If you'd like to try this search function, you'll find two short and helpful articles with tips for searching the site here and at this link.
Another source of images and information from NPS collections is found at the NPS Museum Management Program website, which offers a number of "Virtual Museum Exhibits." Those "exhibits" are grouped by subjects, such as "American Civil War," "American West" and "American Presidents and First Ladies."
As I was leaving one of the Smithsonian museums a few years ago I overheard a parent ask a young son what he thought about the place. "Wow," the boy said. "That was a lot of old stuff ... but some of it was pretty cool!" The same could be said for NPS museum collections, and thanks to these websites, we now have new ways to see and enjoy at least some of that "old stuff."