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Museum Sleuths Gallery Cart


This Gallery Cart gives visitors a chance to think about the purpose of history museums, the things museums collect, and the role of museum curators.


The observer will:

  1. appreciate the role of a museum curator and understand how a curator is sometimes like a detective solving a mystery; and
  2. understand and participate in the process of analyzing an artifact to determine what it is.

Museums collect things—lots of things. History museums like ours collect artifacts. An artifact is a man-made item that tells us about people, culture, and technology at different times throughout history. The Smithsonian Institution and its museums currently house more than 137 million artifacts. The Library of Congress has over 134 million items in its collection. The North Carolina Museum of History collection contains more than 150,000 artifacts and is growing yearly.

Museums, libraries, archives, historic properties, zoos, and aquariums all have staff who care for, maintain, and organize their collections. Sometimes the items that museums collect prove easy to identify. At other times, discovering what something is and where it came from can be like solving a mystery.

Whether a museum houses hundreds or millions of items, its staff have certain roles and responsibilities. A curator (from the Latin word curator, meaning overseer or guardian) is someone who works at a museum, archive, library, or historic site and is responsible for its collection. Along with collecting comes the duty to care for, secure, display, and study the collection.

A sleuth is a detective or investigator. Since curators spend time investigating unfamiliar objects, they resemble sleuths. Sometimes they have to determine not only what something is but how it was used.

Solving the Mystery

What is it? How old is it? Who made it? Where did it come from? Is it important? Curators ask questions like these every day to get answers that will help them determine an object’s identity and history.

What Do I Already Know?

Artifacts often come with information in the form of letters, documents, or stories from the people who owned them. Curators also use their own experience from working with similar objects.

What Can I Learn from Examining the Object?

Careful observation provides clues to an object’s identity. The materials the object is made from, a brand name, a part or serial number, and the item’s construction, function, and design will usually provide enough information for identification.

What Additional Information Do I Need?

Sometimes an object is either one of a kind or so unusual that more research is needed. Curators may have to refer to books, catalogs, journals, photographs, or paintings, or consult museum colleagues to solve a mystery.

Use the information above and the “Analyzing an Object” guide to help visitors identify the mystery items on the cart. Be sure to place only one or two objects in public view at a time.  

Wooden Clothesline Winder (handmade)

For years people have taken pieces and parts of old tools or objects and used them to create a new product that might be a solution to some technical problem they have experienced.  People living on rural farms often keep a wide variety of objects that can be taken apart and then pulled into use for the invention of a new tool or for the repair of an old one. Many folks prefer their own custom-made methods of solving problems over the sometimes costly inventions you can buy in a store or from an online catalogue. Handmade objects will often solve a very specific problem better than a manufactured object can. This clothesline winder was made from scraps of lumber, and a few nails and screws.  The man who made it wanted a way to put his wife’s clothesline up and down easily, so it wasn’t always stretched across the backyard.  (At some point, with younger children, you may need to ask them what a clothesline is! Many of them have probably never seen one.) Also allow the children to actually make it work. That will be part of their analyzing activity.

You probably wouldn’t need a clothesline winder today, but what are some other things you might “wind up” with this object?

Laundry sprinkler

This handy little gadget could be found in most any hardware store, drugstore, or five-and-dime before the invention of the modern steam iron. Household steam irons first appeared in stores around 1926. These new irons were expensive, though, and many women continued using their old electric irons. To create steam, they sprinkled items lightly with water before ironing.

This laundry sprinkler could be used with an old soda bottle or a Certo bottle like the one we have here. (Certo is a brand name for liquid fruit pectin used to make homemade jams and jellies). Clothes were sometimes sprinkled with water, then rolled up and stashed in a big plastic bag to keep them moist until ironing day arrived.

Ear trumpet

Does anyone in your family use a hearing aid? Before these marvelous modern devices were invented, a person with hearing loss might have used an ear trumpet. An ear trumpet has two parts: a cone, which amplifies sounds, and a tube, which is inserted into the ear. When the user directs the ear trumpet at a source of sound, such as a concert or a person talking, the cone picks up the sound, amplifies it, and directs it into the tube. You can get a similar effect by cupping your hands behind your ears and pulling the ears forward slightly. (Try this with young visitors.) Evidence suggests that seashells and cow horns were the first natural ear trumpets. Brass, glass, and tin ear trumpets were developed over time, probably in the 1600s. This tin ear trumpet is a replica of one used in the 1860s in the United States.


The first stethoscope was invented in 1816 by a young French physician, René Laennec. Doctors at that time were accustomed to placing their ear on the back, side, and chest of a patient to listen to the heart and lungs. Laennec found this practice embarrassing, particularly when working with female patients. One day he rolled up several pieces of paper into a cone shape and placed one end to his ear and the other to the patient’s chest. He was delighted to find that the sounds he needed to hear were loudly and clearly conveyed through the paper cone while he kept a comfortable distance from the patient. Laennec, a skilled woodworker, began making the first stethoscopes himself from wood. He died in 1826 from the very disease he had spent years studying with the aid of his stethoscope—tuberculosis. By the 1850s there were several designs for a new stethoscope that used both ears and resembled the ones we are all familiar with today.

18th Century Buckle and fabric strip with buttonhole

Zippers were not a common item on clothing until well into the 20th century or the 1900s. Items of clothing either tied on, or you would have buttons holding your clothes together. This small brass buckle would have been worn on a very fancy pair of men’s knee breeches in the 18th century or the 1700s. The breeches had a band of fabric that went just below the knee and buckled together on the outside of the leg. Metal buckles like this one would have been very expensive at that time. So the breeches were designed with a buttonhole on one side that would actually take the blunt end of the buckle and hold it in place while the other end of the band could then go through the buckle to be tightened. This unique design allowed you to remove the buckles very easily and transfer them to another pair of breeches. So you didn’t need to buy a pair of buckles for every pair of breeches you owned. The sharp prongs on the buckle simply punched through the fabric making the strap or band adjustable for the size of the leg.

Use the buckle and fabric strip to demonstrate how the buckle works.

Can you think of a similar item that men use today on their shirts? (cufflinks)

Grater (handmade)

Does this object look anything like the cheese grater you may have at home in your kitchen? Early settlers in North Carolina often used graters like this one for grating a certain type of vegetable. Corn was an extremely important food source and when dried could be ground into cornmeal. If you had a large family and lived near a grist mill, you could take large amounts of corn to the mill for grinding. But you would have to pay the miller for grinding your corn. Small subsistence farmers may not need such large amounts of cornmeal at one time, and they may not have the money to pay for grinding their corn. So a handmade grater, like this one, could be used to grate just enough cornmeal for a few meals at a time. You would grate the corn while it was still attached to the cob. It was easily made from a piece of wood, and a strip of tin with holes made from a nail. These were supplies that most any farmer would have readily available in the early days.

What are some foods you use a grater for today?

Leech box

Using leeches for bloodletting is well documented from early history to the present day. Early physicians believed that a person became ill when something in the body was out of balance. They often suspected the cause was in the person’s blood. The remedy, they thought, was to rid the body of the “bad blood” by bleeding them.

The leech is an aquatic worm that lives in fresh water. It is a parasite that attaches itself to both cold- and warm-blooded animals to feed on their blood. Doctors would use boxes like this one to store and carry leeches when they were called on to treat someone. Leech boxes were filled with marsh sod and clay, kept in a cool place, and often immersed in rainwater to keep the leeches alive and healthy.

The leech has three sharp teeth, and it secretes an anticoagulate substance that thins the blood and keeps it flowing for as long as the leech feeds. Leeches are still used today in modern medicine, particularly in reattaching severed fingers. They are attached to the tip of the finger, and the sucking draws fresh blood and oxygen into the damaged tissue.

And you thought getting a shot was bad!

Rotary telephone dialer

While familiar with the features associated with iPhones and other modern mobile telephones, many elementary-aged students will find the rotary telephone perplexing. But during its prime from the 1920s-1960s, the rotary phone provided callers with a new technology called automatic dialing. Telephone Operators, who were mostly women, were no longer needed to connect calls using large switchboards since callers could now dial a specific number and be connected to their desired contact.

Rotary telephones feature shallow holes in a circle, called a dial, which correspond to numbers on the phone. Each time the caller spins the dial around to a number, it rotates back to its original position. A caller can use their finger to rotate the dial, or use an object called a dialer. Why use a dialer? Some people feared breaking their nails, catching germs, or getting a finger stuck in the dial.

Dialers can be rather fancy (sterling silver) or made of plastic and used to advertise a local business. The dialer on our cart is a plastic pen dialer that features a worn ad. One end used to jot down messages, and the other to dial a rotary phone. If time allows, ask your group to mimic a dial tone or a busy signal!

Rotary telephone lock and key

Back in the days of rotary dial telephones, the dial could be locked out with a device that was inserted into one of the finger holes. The lock was designed to prevent calls from being made since the dial could not rotate freely. This particular lock was used in the office of a construction site. Locking the phone discouraged workers from making unauthorized long distance calls that could cost the company a great deal of money.

Plastic record adapter and 45 RPM record

Molded plastic record adapters came along in the 1950s and allowed you to play a 45 RPM record on a record player. (RPM stands for “revolutions per minute” or the number of times the record will make a complete spin in one minute) The patent for the plastic insert was filed in 1951 and issued in 1955. It was invented by a Mr. James L.D. Morrison. Some record players at that time had a round cylinder that would fit onto the thin spindle in the center of the turntable. (see images). This cylinder was used with the 45 RPM records or it could be removed to play a large album (33-1/3 RPM) using just the spindle and a smaller hole. But if you lost the cylinder or simply didn’t have one, then the plastic adapter was the perfect solution.

What Is That Thingamajig?

Analyzing an Object

Look at the object carefully and answer the following questions:

  1. What material is the object made of?
  2. What other details do you see?
  3. Is the object handmade or machine made?
  4. Is the object decorative or functional?
  5. Who might have used the object?
  6. How was the object used?
  7. How old is the object?
  8. Can you name the object?

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