By MIKE STILL
BIG STONE GAP — Romano Danelon arrived at Ellis Island from Italy in 1900 with his possessions, including an accordion.
Danelon played that 1890 Fidel Socin on a passenger ship to the U.S. as he made his way across Pennsylvania and West Virginia to Big Stone Gap. He played it as he became a bricklayer and stonemason, as he became Rome Fred Daniel, as he enlisted in the Army and as he raised a family.
Southwest Virginia Museum Collections Manager Martha Wiley said the accordion, like the approximately 60,000 other items in the museum’s collection, carries a story within the broader saga of Southwest Virginia. Preserving it, with the wood, brass, mother-of-pearl and leather worn from Daniel’s hands is also part of what the museum staff and specialists across the state do to make those items last for future generations.
“We also have a picture of (Daniel) playing it, and we wanted to keep that human touch,” Wiley said as she explained how a preservation specialist worked to stabilize the accordion’s condition. “His nephew dropped by a CD of Mr. Daniel playing and singing.”
Wiley said the museum — originally the home of coal baron Rufus Ayers in the late 1800s and acquired by Congressman C. Bascom Slemp in the early 1900s — also has its connection with Daniel, who practiced his trade on parts of the home.
Setting up a computerized cataloging system for museum holdings was complete by 2018, Wiley said, and the system contains descriptions of the items ranging from old household papers and Slemp’s correspondence with U.S. and world leaders to household and farm implements, mining equipment, Oriental ceramics, period clothing, rare books and an 1870s railway sleeper car.
However, keeping an accurate, updated list of the museum’s inventory is not the only part of maintaining the collection, Wiley said.
“One of the things we do to keep things intact and preserved is lots of atmospheric checks,” Wiley said, pointing to one of seven hydrothermographs in the museum to track temperature and relative humidity.
“We try to keep the humidity around 50% because we have such a wide variety of items,” said Wiley. “We have paper which, if the humidity gets too low, it gets brittle, and wood, if it gets too high, it’ll swell. We also try to keep the temperature around 68 to 70 degrees to make it comfortable for visitors.”
Light can also fade or deteriorate papers, photographs, clothing and other items, and Wiley pointed to ultraviolet light filters mounted in the museum windows. Room lighting is also kept at appropriate levels, she added, and color cards are placed in various areas to measure light fading.
Wiley said special procedures for cleaning some exhibits require careful brushing and vacuuming, while many are kept under glass cases to prevent visitors touching them.
Clothing and documents are stored in acid-free boxes and folders, Wiley said, and acid-free tissue paper is used to keep the form of clothes or hats. Staff do not touch items with bare hands, she added; nitrile gloves like medical personnel or police investigators use are the rule.
Wiley said many of the items in the collection reflect Victorian-era ideas on death and how the dead should be remembered.
“One of the things the Victorians did was keep the hair of people who died,” Wiley said as she unwrapped a find. “A woman had gone to an estate sale and she bought what she thought was just a coffee maker in a box. She got home and it also had a wallet stuffed full of receipts from a Valentine Miller, who lived from the 1820s until 1888 in Russell County, and you could tell his whole life from it.”
Wiley opened the packet to show one of the items from Miller’s wallet: a wreath of hair with a satin ribbon sewn onto a piece of cloth.
Military uniforms and equipment from the Civil War make up a large fraction of the museum’s collection, Wiley said, and a series of exhibits on the centennial of the end of World War I included an aluminum matchbox with the name R.F. McConnell and his unit etched on one side and a reference to one of the most violent campaigns involving U.S. troops: Verdun, Argonne 1918.
The museum has entered Virginia State Parks annual events where the department recognizes its 10 most endangered artifact or collections. In 2018, Daniel’s accordion earned that recognition and a monetary award for its preservation. In 2020, the museum’s Jessie Reasor Zander Collection of documents and photos about African American life in Wise County received another award.
Wiley showed one of the Zander collection’s items: a 1950 Bland High School yearbook from when the county’s schools were segregated.
Hazardous material handling can be part of the collection, Wiley said.
“We have a couple of cool old doctor’s bags, but they’re full of vials,” said Wiley, “and maybe one day that’ll be something I can get a grant for. We have a World War I gas mask, and I read that they have asbestos in the lining. That’s not a real problem though, because the only people who have access to it are me, the park manager and some of the staff, but not the public.”
Possibly the largest item in the Southwest Virginia museum is the Interstate Railroad car on the museum grounds. Wiley said the 1870s-era sleeper car had seen rough times in the intervening 150 years. It was once a fisherman’s cabin and eventually sat at the entrance to town as a visitors center before the museum acquired it a few years ago.
With the help of local railroad historian Ron Flanary, Wiley said, the former coal car wheel trucks on which the car was mounted were replaced with more accurate trucks. Progress has been made on restoring the interior closer to its 1870s configuration.
“You watch old movies about railroads back then, and it amazes me how tiny the staterooms are,” Wiley said.
Museum and Park Manager Scott Bowen said that the car interior is not open for public tours because of various delicate items inside, but it has become a popular backdrop for weddings and community events.
While the museum has depended on the public for much of its collection, Bowen said Virginia State Parks now is not accepting item donations because of state COVID-19 protocols.
“We are asking people to keep us in mind and to reach back to us next year,” Bowen added.
For more information on park hours, admission and seasonal events, visit online at www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/southwest-virginia-museum or call (276)-523-1322.