If you think the odds of winning the lottery are low, what do you think the chances are of making it onto the Fairfax County Park Authority’s artiFACTS web page?
The Park Authority holds millions of items in its archaeological and museum collections, and just one item is chosen each month to get the star treatment with a featured post in artiFACTS. With more than 5,000 museum objects (chairs, quilts, baskets, machines, clothing), thousands of archival items (photographs, maps, letters and other documents), and upwards of three million artifacts (archaeological discoveries such as spear points and pottery), how do staff members decide what to feature?
Archaeology and Museum Collections get equal treatment. Each division takes turns selecting an item and providing photographs and historical background for the monthly artiFACTS posting.
Heritage Resource Specialist Chris Sperling says that in the archaeology department, the task is assigned to the team. When the weather is bad and field work is impossible, staff members may work on posts for the County Archaeological Research Team blog, C.A.R.T. Archaeology, and on submissions for artiFACTS based on their individual interests. Sperling provides a final edit before the article is sent to the Public Information Office for posting. He says this approach provides “a good way to keep the team engaged with the larger process of public involvement.” Sometimes, Sperling just finds something that strikes him and thinks it might be of interest to others, too. For example, he recently wrote about a newspaper article on the suffragette movement that likely was being used as part of the insulation in a home. He did another piece on some metal pieces that are keeping archaeologists guessing about their purpose.
In Collections, the process can be complicated by factors such as whether an item belongs to the Park Authority or is on loan from another agency, how hard the item may be to photograph, and how much information is available on the item. Heritage Resource Specialist Megan Leining says her department likes to highlight objects from the permanent collection that are rarely on exhibit. “For example, Sully Historic Site is interpreted to the period when the Lee family lived there, but we have objects associated with the residencies of other families, such as the Haight and Shear families.” Collections likes to rotate the sites and locations associated with the items, too. It also has featured objects from park sites that are open to the public on a limited basis, such as Dranesville Tavern and the Lahey Lost Valley property.
Finally, Collections may try to connect the object to the month or season or time of year when it is going to be featured. A Christmas Day wedding gift was featured in a December post. A Lincoln chromolithograph was featured one February in honor of Lincoln’s birthday and Presidents Day. Collections also has used artiFACTS to stir interest in items appearing in temporary exhibits, such as a top hat that was exhibited at Sully Historic Site. The black silk head-topper may have been worn to President Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861.
artiFACTS has featured items as small as straight pins, thimbles and hand-wrought nails and objects as large as a fire screen, grandfather’s clock and church pew. These artifacts all help to tell the history of Fairfax County through the centuries.
Author Carol Ochs works in the Park Authority’s Public Information Office.