What exactly is a Curator, anyway?

Greetings!  This special edition of Curator’s Corner is inspired by an article recently published in The Guardian, interviewing curators at various UK museums about what exactly they do everyday in their jobs.

Our regular readers of the blog and the monthly newspage know me as the Gott Library’s resident curator and archivist, Rachel Scott.  Like many curators at small museums, the various curatorial roles at the Gott are broad and deep, including acquisitions, collections management, exhibit design, and many more.  Movies portray curators are erudite professor types with glasses and elbow patches on their wool sports coats, sitting at a desk in an office full of mahogany book shelves and Tiffany desk lamps.  But what do curators really do?

Real curators spend much of their time in jeans and work shirts, climbing on ladders in stark windowless repositories, and sitting in preservation labs building custom mounts for oddly shaped artifacts, and cleaning.  Lots of cleaning.

Let’s examine a curator’s job through the eyes of a new artifact.

Collecting Parameters: When an educational institutions begins collection artifacts and historical documents, the first decision to be made is what exactly will be collected.  This is the primary role of curating a collection.  As the article above explains, this does not mean choosing nice things.  In the case of the Fauquier Heritage and Preservation Foundation at The John Gott Library, we collect artifacts and documents that provide our visitors with a more complete picture of the history of Fauquier county, including its people, places, and businesses.  The intrinsic value, the specific connection to our history, is more important than the monetary value.

Acquisition and Accession: After deciding what artifacts will be collected, the next step is an acquisition.  When a new artifact comes into the Library as a donation, the curator will oversee the accessioning of the artifact.  Acquiring an object is the official hand-off and transferring ownership (usually involving signing a form and receiving a receipt).  An object is then accessioned when it is evaluated by the curator, and detailed notes and photographs are entered into the official record.

Collections Management: After an object has been accessioned, it will be fitted for proper housing.  Housing refers to the packing materials that will hold the object (which can be much more complicated than it sounds), and its place within the repository (special storage).

Objects are not collected to merely be hidden away in storage.  Collections can be used in various ways, primarily research and exhibition.  In both cases, the purpose of the objects in the collection is for education.  Research collections are specifically for – you guessed it- research.  These collections are more hands-on, and are often utilized for traveling collections (when the curator takes objects to schools and other libraries to provide authentic visual aids to lectures and talks), for analysis (such as carbon dating or chemical analysis), and for individual researchers to access within the Library.

Exhibition:  Most objects collected will be exhibited.  Curating exhibits a primary role of the resident curator, and involves choosing a theme for the exhibit, establishing the educational goals, and then selecting objects and documents that best achieve those goals.  Then, the curator would usually create an exhibit proposal, including what is to be included, all text and labels, lighting, housing, and more.  Once the proposal is accepted, installation begins.

Engaging our Visitors:  Museums and Libraries are educational institutions, first and foremost.  While curating collections and designing exhibits, the curator is constantly seeking further engagement with visitors. We ask ourselves:  How do we make our collections resonate with visitors?  How do we make it personal?  How do we make our collections and our mission relevant?  This is the curator’s goal.

In larger museums, the curatorial department is made up of many jobs- Head Curator, Collections Curators and their Assistant Curators, Collections Management, Registrar, Exhibition Design, etc.  No matter how many staff members are involved, or how many hats a curator wears, the work is never ending.  And we love it that way.



Curator’s Corner: The “Mosby” Saddle

Artifact Spotlight: The “Mosby” Saddle


The Mosby Saddle as it stands today, with prominent bullet hole front and center

On June 22, 1863, a bullet pierced the saddle and leg of Private John N. Ballard, a man most notable for losing his right leg twice in battle during the Civil War.

Hello! I’m Rachel Scott, Curator and Archivist here at the John Gott Library.  This month’s artifact spotlight is the Mosby Saddle.  The colloquial name for this artifact around the library, “The Mosby Saddle,” is actually a misnomer.  The saddle belonged to John M. Ballard, a Private in the 43rd Battalion of the Virginia Cavalry under Mosby’s command.  I suppose the “Ballard Saddle” wouldn’t draw quite the attention in Old Salem as does the name Mosby, although maybe it should.  I’ll let you be the judge.

John Ballard was a young man of 22 years in April of 1861 when he enrolled as a Private in the 2nd South Carolina Infantry.  Two years and one month later, in May of 1863, he would join Company A of what would become one of the most famous battalions of the Civil War, Mosby’s Partisan Rangers, or the 43rd Virginia Cavalry.

Following the Rangers’ raid on Seneca Mills, Maryland, Mosby and Ballard made their way to the Bull Run Mountains on the east, near Ewell’s Chapel, to resume patrol.  Unbeknownst to them, a concealed US Infantry under the command of Union General George Meade lie in waiting for Mosby’s Rangers, and the confederate soldiers were attacked on their approach to the Chapel that June morning.  It is there that Ballard took a musket ball to the right leg, with any structural integrity spared by the bullet being lost on the rough ride back to the Bull Run Mountains.  Ballard was transported to the home of Robert Whiteacre near the top of the mountain for amputation, and then to Bennevue, the home of Mr. William Ayre in Fauquier County, to convalesce.  He was then admitted to the Richmond General Hospital #1.  On a disability discharge from the hospital dated October 17, 1863, Ballard retired to his home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Retirement did not seem to suit Mr. Ballard, as he was back in service with Mosby by winter on a prosthetic leg.  His first prosthesis was crushed in battle near Halltown, Virginia in a charge led by Captain Adolpheus Edward Richards, marking the second time John Ballard would lose his right leg in combat.  Afterwards, the artificial leg of US Cavalry Colonel Ulric Dahlgren was recycled and fitted to Ballard, and it is on this leg that he saw the completion of the Civil War on active duty as a 1st Lieutenant to the 56th Virginia Infantry Regiment.

After the War was over, Ballard made his home in Fairfax county.  Employed as the Commissioner of Revenue for the county for the next 32 years, he would live out the rest of his life in Fairfax married to Miss Lillie Thrift (m. 1874) with whom he had four children.

John Ballard attended several reunions of the 43rd VA Cavalry including the 1895 50year reunion held here in Marshall, where this photo was taken in which Ballard is seen resting his crutch on his wooden leg.

group photo ballard reunion in marshall va

Group Photo taken at the 2nd Reunion of the 43rd Cavalry

ballard civil war pic

John N. Ballard as seen in the photo above, front row, left of center

He also attended the 1897 reunion in Baltimore, the 1905 reunion in Fredericksburg, and the anniversary of Gettysburg in 1913.

After his death in 1922, so Library lore tells us, his bullet-pierced saddle went to his son who was a contemporary of Mr. John Gott.  For years, Mr. Gott offered to purchase the saddle from Ballard’s son with no success.  Years passed, and when Ballard Jr. passed on the John N. Ballard collection became part of his estate.  Mr. Gott approached the executor of the estate regarding the saddle, and unlike the late Ballard Jr, the executor of the estate considered the old, dusty saddle junk and was more than happy to gift it to Mr. Gott free of charge.  John Gott would retain the saddle, held in safe keeping, until the founding of the Fauquier Heritage and Preservation Foundation and the Library in 1993, at which time Mr. Gott gifted the saddle to the Library.


Saddle at the time of accession.

Media source: Fairfax County Photo Archive, Group 168, Fairfax County Library, Virginia Room

Special Thanks to Mr. Robert Sinclair, FHPF President and resident Keeper of Institutional Knowledge, for the background information on the provenance of the object. 

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300 yr old Ship Discovered in our Backyard

The discovery of a 300-year-old ship at a construction site has archaeologists ecstatic

A Washington Post article by Patricia Sullivan

A large, heavy ship, scuttled between 1775 and 1798, is being dug out of its damp grave at the site of a new hotel construction project in Old Town Alexandria.

Archaeologists found the partial hull of a ship at 220 S. Union Street, part of the city’s major redevelopment of the Potomac River waterfront. It’s on the same one-block site where workers two months ago discovered a 1755 foundation from a warehouse that is believed to have been the city’s first public building.

“It’s very rare. This almost never happens,” said Dan Baicy, the hard-hatted field director for Thunderbird Archeology, the firm watching for historic evidence during construction. “In 15 years that I’ve done this work, I’ve never run into this kind of preservation in an urban environment where there’s so much disturbance.”

View the whole article here: