PHMC Highlights presents stories and information about PHMC programs, events, exhibits and activities.

Sarah Buffington was quick with her response. The longtime curator at Old Economy Village in Ambridge, Beaver County, had expected the question and she was ready. “Probably a static electricity machine,” she said. “The communal Harmony Society had a science museum, which we’ve recreated. They tried to make electricity in the 1820s and ’30s. It didn’t work though.”

Within seconds, Buffington’s reply to “What is the strangest item in your collection?” was acknowledged by thousands of other curators and lay people around the world. From her computer, the expert in historic textiles and clothing tweeted her reply while taking part in one of social media’s fastest growing virtual events, Ask A Curator Day. Between 1 and 2 p.m. on September 17, Buffington fielded questions ranging from “What is the oldest piece in your collection?” to “How did you become a curator?” Two other curators, Todd Galle of Pennsbury Manor in Morrisville, Bucks County, and Susan Beates of Drake Well Museum in Titusville, Venango County, also lent their expertise to the event.

“The reconstructed buildings themselves require the most attention,” said Galle in response to which artifact at Pennsbury Manor needs the most attention. “The object collection is extremely stable, given its age.”

Jim Richardson of MuseumNext fame launched Ask A Curator Day in 2010 via Twitter in an effort to connect curators with those curious about what goes on behind the scenes at museums. For one day each year, curators hailing from countless fields, areas of study and locations across the globe take a break to log on Twitter and answer questions.

Inquiries such as “How much coffee do you drink?” are likely asked for comic relief. Other questions, however, draw out valuable information, especially for those looking at careers in curating. Here is a sampling of the questions fielded by each of the PHMC curators:


Todd Galle, Pennsbury Manor

How much education/training does it take to become a curator?

Currently, a master’s degree is usually required, although experience can overcome this.

What is your favorite artifact at Pennsbury Manor?

A large pewter charger owned by William Penn and his first wife Gulielma Springett Penn, who received it as a wedding present.

What’s the story behind the green tiles around the fireplaces at Pennsbury Manor?

They are the tiles used during Penn’s time. Archaeologists uncovered and reused them around several fireplaces. Also, the English or Dutch apparently brought over the tiles in the holds of ships as a useful ballast.


Sarah Buffington, Old Economy Village

In your role as curator, how do you care for fabrics? How do you clean them?

We touch as little as possible. We wear gloves. We keep the fabrics covered and away from dirt. We vacuum with a screen.

What is the oldest piece in the Harmonist collection?

I think it has to be a Bible from the 1600s.

What is the procedure/procedures for dating period/historic clothing?

First, know the styles throughout time. Second, look at stitching – hand vs. machine, fasteners. Types of fabrics.


Susan Beates, Drake Well Museum

Which artifact at Drake Well has the best story?

The story of the Copper Working Barrel used in the Drake Well. It was stolen soon after the well ceased production and sold to a store in Tidioute. The owner realized what it was, saved it, years later donated it to Warren High School. It was eventually donated to Drake Well Museum.

Do visitors of Drake Well Museum ask to see John Wilkes Booth’s cane?

It is included in the permanent exhibit, which opened August 2012.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Helping researchers find material for scholarly works – finding historic data no one has looked at in years.


Sean Adkins is an information specialist for PHMC. Look for his updates at Pennsylvania Trails of History on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.