The National Park Service manages one of the largest museum systems in North America, preserving more than 45 million objects across 385 park collections. Here are 7 of those objects and the stories they tell across time.
1. Wooden bowl, circa 1700-1800
Sitka National Historic Site, Alaska
Some of the most remarkable sights at Sitka are the Tlingit and Haida totem poles along the site’s coastal hiking trail, showcasing motifs that denote clan identities and memorialize leaders, among other purposes. Yet the exceptional woodworking of these Native Alaskan artists went beyond these most visible works and also included smaller items such as masks, rattles and paddles. This Tlingit bowl, intricately sculpted from cedar and spruce, is an example of a traditionally made, uniquely beautiful ceremonial object. The bowl, which may have predated the arrival of Europeans in Alaska in 1741, would have held food at a feast known as a potlatch, a ritual that marks major life events such as births, weddings and deaths. At some traditional potlatches, community members destroy items in a bonfire as a show of wealth. Although elements have changed over the years, potlatches are a tradition that continues today in Tlingit communities and serve as a time for people to come together, make speeches, give gifts and celebrate each other.
2. Fake head, 1962
Alcatraz, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California
Three inmates at the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary carried out a gutsy prison escape in 1962 that continues to confound investigators and capture public imagination more than five decades later. After months of planning, the three convicted bank robbers, Frank Lee Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin, slid through a hole they had chiseled in a cell wall, climbed up the plumbing and out a vent onto the roof, and shimmied down 50 feet of piping to the ground below. The men had made a raft out of more than 50 raincoats that they were given or had stolen from fellow inmates, and they paddled the craft across the cold, choppy waters of San Francisco Bay. What happened after this point remains a mystery. A fellow inmate who had helped to plan the escape but was ultimately left behind, Allen Clayton West, said that the men had been headed to Angel Island more than 2 miles away — but they were never found. Some of the most curious artifacts from the event were fake heads that the men constructed out of cotton, soap and other found materials and finished with paint from art kits and human hair from the prison’s barber shop. They placed these heads in their bunks to help delay word of their now-infamous escape.
3. Cotton sampler, circa 1896-1940
Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, Alabama
Museum collections don’t just add depth to the stories that great American visionaries are best known for. These objects also provide a rich portrait of the personal lives of public figures, whether it’s the Washburn guitar that Carl Sandburg would strum after his poetry readings, the dumbbells Frederick Douglass kept in his bedroom for exercise, or the paperback mystery novels Bess Truman enjoyed reading in the library of the Victorian home her grandfather built. George Washington Carver is best known for being one of the most prominent scientists of his time, a pioneer in the field of botany who advanced soil conservation principles and invented hundreds of uses for agricultural byproducts. But many people may not realize that he also had an accomplished artistic side. He learned sewing and needlework at a young age and studied painting before earning his bachelor’s degree in science. As an adult, he pursued various textile arts and basketry, finding the crafts meditative. He often incorporated his lifelong ethic for reusing materials into these creative pursuits by weaving in discarded items and dying materials with pigments made from soils and plant waste. He was even an honorary member of the Royal Society of Arts in London. This crocheted cotton panel shows his eye for detail and his passion for the craft.
4. Barbed wire, 1944
Eisenhower National Historic Site, Pennsylvania
The National Park Service maintains the homes of 32 past presidents with a wealth of artifacts from their families’ lives, including everything from Mary Todd Lincoln’s needlework kit to Lyndon B. Johnson’s amphibious car. At Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower’s former home, staff also maintain a variety of artifacts from D-Day, the massive military invasion Dwight Eisenhower led prior to his presidency, when he served as supreme commander of Allied forces in Western Europe during World War II. This piece of barbed wire was taken from German defenses at the top of a 100-foot cliff at Pointe du Hoc in Normandy, France. Allied soldiers from the 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled this cliff with grapnel hooks, ropes and ladders while under fire from Axis forces. Two American sergeants were awarded high honors during this operation for using grenades to destroy the firing mechanisms in five cannons at the top of the cliff, preventing massive casualties on the beaches below. The Battle of Normandy ultimately led to the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control.
5. Watercolor sketch, 1871
Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming
Long before America had a National Park System, mountain men and trappers roamed what is now the Yellowstone region. These early European visitors tried to describe this unique place to friends and family back home, though people could hardly believe this place of steaming geysers and majestic colors actually existed. In 1871, naturalist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, then-director of the U.S. Geological Survey, led the first federally funded geological expedition to the Yellowstone region. Among the 32 members of the survey party was artist Thomas Moran. The 40-day expedition allowed Moran, along with photographer William Henry Jackson, to visually document over 30 different sites, showing the grandeur of these places and capturing the imagination of the nation. Historians credit these images with persuading Congress and President Ulysses Grant to establish Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872. According to the Park Service, this particular field sketch of what is now known as the Grand Prismatic Spring was integral to the park’s designation.
6. Wasp, circa 35 million years BP
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado
The National Park System contains a wealth of prehistoric artifacts and specimens, with 16 parks that were specifically created to protect fossils. These ancient remains cover roughly a billion years of history, from some of the oldest forms of bacteria that swam around what is now Grand Canyon National Park to saber-toothed cats and camelops that roamed the Las Vegas area at Tule Springs National Monument a mere 11,000 or so years ago. Specimens at Dinosaur National Monument inspire the fascination of thousands of visitors each year, with single bones that are bigger than some park rangers. Some of the most impressive fossils, however, are the teeny ones. Florissant Fossil Beds in Colorado is one of the most diverse fossil sites in the world and the place to see ancient insects. Because delicate creatures decompose easily, their fossils are relatively difficult to find intact, yet beetles, mayflies, dragonflies, butterflies, caddisflies and many other arthropods survived between the thin layers of shale at this site for nearly 35 million years, since the late Eocene Epoch. This particular wasp was so well-preserved, park staff chose it as its icon to represent the site. You can even see its tiny stinger!
7. Modified spoon, 1950
Kalaupapa National Historical Park, Hawaii
In 1865, the Kingdom of Hawaii passed a law quarantining people with the chronic bacterial infection Hansen’s disease (also known as leprosy) to Kalaupapa, a remote region of Molokai, the archipelago’s wildest island. The quarantine tore families apart and removed native inhabitants from land that their families had occupied for centuries. Scientists found a cure for Hansen’s disease in the 1940s, but the law exiling people to the settlement was not rescinded until 1969. During its century of operation, more than 8,000 people were banished to Kalaupapa, surrounded by ocean and isolated by the world’s highest sea cliffs; 46 percent of patients died during their first five years in exile. A small number of former patients still choose to live there today, and the Park Service tells the stories of the people who spent their lives in this rare community, including the heroic volunteers who helped them. This spoon shows a basic form of assistive technology used at the settlement that helped patients eat independently after suffering nerve damage, tissue loss and permanent deformation from the disease.
Special thanks to Joan Bacharach, senior curator for the National Park Service’s Museum Management Program, for her assistance with this story. Learn more about the Park Service museum collections at www.nps.gov/museum/.
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About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits, and moderates online content for NPCA.