Berks History Center Awarded the PA Museums 2018 Special Achievement Award

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The Berks History Center is pleased to announce that PA Museums, Pennsylvania’s statewide trade association serving museum professionals and institutions, has awarded the Berks History Center (BHC) an Institutional Achievement Award for the BHC’s Collections Management Project.

Each year, PA Museums recognizes the special achievements of museums and historical organizations in Pennsylvania. The PA Museums Institutional Achievement Award distinguishes the BHC for establishing and maintaining standards of excellence in the BHC Museum. The award specifically recognizes our Collections Management Project, an initiative that aimed to inventory, organize, and evaluate the BHC’s entire collection of museum artifacts.

The project began in August 2016 when Bradley K. Smith, former Senior Curator of the Pennsylvania State Museum, was contracted to undertake the project through generous support from the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust and other friends of the BHC. The project involved several phases beginning with an inventory of the entire collection, a process that took several months and revealed nearly 30,000 artifacts.  The inventory was followed by a justification process, which compared the inventory records against catalog, accession, loan, deaccession, and other institutional records. The project was completed with a reconciliation phase, which sought to review the discrepancies uncovered during the justification process in an effort to solve problems.

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Curator Bradley K. Smith and Intern Erin Benz conducting the inventory in the BHC Museum

The BHC’s Collections Management Project was one of several institutional leaps at the BHC in recent years and the initiative now serves as a springboard for ongoing improvements in the BHC’s collections management practices. Curator Bradley K. Smith, now a full-time staff member at the BHC, is establishing full physical and intellectual control over the BHC’s collections. In other words, we are improving the knowledge of exactly what artifacts are in the collection, where they came from, how they were used, and where they are currently stored.

As explained by Bradley K. Smith, “The Berks History Center has been collecting historic artifacts for more than a century. Preserving these artifacts for present and future generations, and making them available to the public, is a critical component of our mission. Completing the Collections Management Project enhances our ability to realize this facet of our mission, and it will facilitate the creation of richer exhibits, programs and publications. We take our role as community stewards very seriously, and we consider it an honor to be recognized by PA Museums for our efforts.”

By conducting a collections management initiative in the BHC museum, and subsequently in the BHC Research Library archives (2019), the BHC will be fully equipped to share Berks County’s most important history with our community. Getting our collections organized means that we can tell more accurate, relevant stories about the history that matters most.

“We are very excited about this award and we are proud of the work that Curator Bradley K. Smith, his volunteers and the BHC staff have done on this project to be recognized by our peers in the museum profession. We couldn’t have achieved this award without the support of the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust,” says Executive Director, Sime Bertolet. “We are deeply grateful for the Trust’s commitment to our mission for preserving Berks County’s historic legacy.”

The PA Museums Institutional Achievement Award will be presented to the Berks History Center at the PA Museum’s Annual Conference on April 15, 2018 in State College, PA.

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About PA Museums

PA Museums is Pennsylvania’s statewide trade association serving museum professionals and institutions. Based in Harrisburg, PA Museums was founded in 1905 and during its long history was known as the Pennsylvania Federation of Historical Societies and the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations. PA Museums creates and supports the museum community in Pennsylvania through advocacy work, professional development programs, information sharing, and an annual awards program to recognize exemplary work in the Commonwealth.

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Among the Greats: Victor Nehlig Painting in the BHC Museum Collection

 

Daniel Boone by Nehlig 2.jpgVictor Nehlig (1830-1909) was a French-born painter renowned during his lifetime for historical paintings.  While no longer a household name, Nehlig’s works are preserved in institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and even the Berks History Center.

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Berks History Center’s Nehlig painting, shown above, depicts Berks County native Daniel Boone in a frontier scene. This was one of several studies which Nehlig completed while he lived in Frankfurt, Kentucky in the 1870s.  Nehlig hoped to earn a commission painting scenes of the iconic frontiersman for display in the Kentucky State Capitol, but the commission never materialized.

Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith

Riding the Rails of History: How the Railroad Industry Sparked Government Intervention

 

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The artifacts we collect at the Berks History Center have the power to tell compelling stories, especially when they relate to issues that are still relevant today. This is certainly the case with a simple iron pin which we recently found during our collections inventory.

In the 19th century, railroad “brakemen” coupled cars using pins like this one in conjunction with large iron links. Because coupling required a brakeman to work between moving cars, it was extremely dangerous work. By 1890, the average brakeman had an 11% chance of being injured – with nearly half of their injuries occurring during coupling.

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Drawing depicting a Breakman using a coupling pin & link to couple railcars. (Source Unknown)

Inventors were aware of the problems posed by the link-and-pin system, and they sought to develop safer coupling methods.  One of these inventors was a dentist from Bernville, Berks County, William H. Scholl, who designed a new coupling system in 1868.  We do not know what prompted a Berks County dentist to design couplers, and there is no evidence of him seeking a patent for his creation, but his design survives in the form of a model, also located in the collections of the Berks History Center.

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Scholl’s Model of a Coupler from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

Railroads were hesitant to jettison their links and pins, even after the advent of a commercially viable and safe alternative, known as the knuckle coupler, in 1873.  Outfitting an entire fleet of equipment would be expensive, and they feared that upgrading would render them unable to interchange their cars with railroads that still used the older coupling method.

While railroad executives grappled with this quandary, their industry was becoming increasingly dangerous. In a four-year span between 1887 and 1890, North American railroads broke annual records for employee fatalities on three occasions, reaching a staggering 806 deaths for the year of 1890.

While the United States Government had been largely indifferent to the affairs of corporations, this railroading safety crisis caught its attention and led to intervention. In 1893 Congress passed the Railroad Safety Appliance Act which mandated a variety of safety upgrades, including a provision specifying that any railroad engaged in interstate commerce must adopt “automatic couplers that can be uncoupled without a man going between” prior to 1900.

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Example of a Knuckle Coupler (Photo of the Reading Railraod Locomotive Model in the Berks History Center Museum Collection)

 

This was a radical and unprecedented move for a government which had never involved itself with worker safety or corporate regulation.  It opened the door for subsequent regulation including additional railroad safety acts and the Adamson Act which established an eight-hour work day for railroad employees.

Despite some corporate resistance, implementation of the Railroad Safety Appliance Act was a relatively smooth process, and studies showed that employee injuries declined sharply after 1900, despite the fact that railroads were greatly expanding their operations. With the link and pin coupling system obsolete and illegal, most coupling hardware was discarded and lost to time.

The “P&R” marking on our coupling pin is the abbreviation for the Philadelphia & Reading Railway – the corporate predecessor to the more commonly known Reading Railroad.  It was discovered by a resident of Leesport who generously donated it to the History Center in 2014.  We also discovered a coupling link in our collection, though its railroad of origin is undocumented. These artifacts are unique survivors that remind us of an era when industrial jobs were extremely dangerous and the United States Government took unprecedented measures to address the problem.

Article Researched & Written by Curator Bradley K. Smith