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Creating a Catalog of the Past

"Two University of Washington students are devoting much of their spring to moving furniture, lining shelves and preserving a little Whidbey Island history.Erica Varga and Jim Whitney are completing their masters thesis in museology, a post-graduate program for people seeking careers in museum administration. Instead of writing a research paper, Whitney said he and Varga decided to spend some on-the-job time in the basement of the Island County Historical Society Museum in Coupeville, organizing museum collections and entering more that 8,000 historic items into a computer database.That's meant dealing with everything from doll clothes to cannonballs.People want to see what's down here, Varga said. It can't be open like it is upstairs, but it should be more accessible.The museum basement is generally closed to the public, but it houses a substantial portion of the museum's artifacts, including rare Native-American baskets, dolls and farm tools. Though most every item was logged in and numbered when it arrived, it didn't always end up in a spot where it could be easily found.Though they don't claim to be experts yet, Whitney and Varga do bring a fair amount of expertise with them - particularly on protecting valuable collections. They have added a thin blanket of foam between museum objects and the wood or glass shelves they sit on, wrapped textiles in acid-free tissue and placed items infested with insects into a donated freezer to kill the bugs.A large collection of arrowheads that used to be loose in boxes are now categorized by size and color and are carefully laid out in single-layer drawers. The students even brought a new look to the museum staff with everyone now wearing white, cotton gloves. Varga said the gloves protect precious artifacts from body oils and also protect the wearer from any chemical residues that may linger on the objects.Their exploration of the basement has uncovered some odd relics, including live ammunition that was eventually carted off by the Navy and some cannonballs that still appeared to be filled with powder.One good drop and ... said Whitney, half joking. The balls have been shipped to Yakima for testing, and museum personnel don't expect them to come back, at least not in one piece.Then there was the Invigorator,'' a water crock from the 1920s designed to hold both water and a small dose of radioactive radium. Museum volunteer Murrieal Short said folks used to drink the irradiated water to cure their ills, but 80 years later the crock was still giving off residual radiation.The students have been working about three to four days per week at the museum since January and hope to finish their work by the end of May.It's satisfying to see how far we've come, said Varga, pointing out how much of the museum's permanent collections are now grouped, labeled and properly placed on shelves or in display cases.Varga said she and Whitney split their working time between the Whidbey museum and the Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus.Jim and I live like moles. We move from basement to basement, she said. The university's museology program grew out of its school of archeology in the early 70s. Because museum curating and management is such a specialized field, only 10 students are admitted to the program each year.Though he admits that some people might see their work as less than exciting, Whitney says working with museum objects is always interesting.There's something about seeing an object that just brings history to life, he said."

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