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Athenaeum reveals artifacts stashed for decades

For the past seven years, Robert Brown, local historian and chair of the Westfield Athenaeum's Board of Trustees, has led a volunteer committee to sift through the hundreds of boxes, bags, trunks and barrels donated over the past 140 years. What they found were artifacts spanning the course of United States history. Items included a British "Red Coat" found wrapped in a trash bag at the bottom of a barrel.
For additional photos see the slide show below

Reminder Publications photo by Katelyn Gendron
By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD The bowels of the Athenaeum were once dark, dank alcoves of hidden treasures and the attic was an oven where piles of "junk" roasted in the sweltering summer air.

That was until seven years ago when local historian and Chair of the Athenaeum's Board of Trustees Robert Brown organized a volunteer committee to sift through the hundreds of boxes, bags, trunks and barrels donated to the Athenaeum by Westfield residents throughout the past 140 years.

Such finds include a George Washington campaign button amidst a cigar box full of "I like Ike" buttons, a British "Red Coat" found in a trash bag at the bottom of a barrel and several hundred World War I and II bond and recruiting posters packaged between several layers of cardboard flooring in the Athenaeum's basement.

"People were walking on them for 60 years!" Brown said of the posters as he gave a tour of the Athenaeum to Reminder Publications.

He explained that after seven years of work, he and the other volunteers have finally organized, stored, digitally photographed and catalogued every artifact found in the building's basement and attic.

About one year ago, "The Cage" was built in a section of the Athenaeum's basement to house and protect all the fabric artifacts discovered by the volunteer committee. Brown explained that this section of the basement has a consistent, year round temperature ensuring the preservation of the material. He noted that all of the artifacts have been stored in museum-quality boxes that do not disintegrate or emit chemicals that could be harmful to the artifacts.

Within "The Cage" boxes of military uniforms, 1920s flapper dresses, mink coats, hand-beaded purses, quilts, children's dolls and men's and women's clothing from numerous eras are packed high to the ceiling. Brown noted that the volunteers found military uniforms from every war from the French and Indian War to Desert Storm.

"We have a massive collection of antique clothing," Brown said, adding that it is impossible for all of it to be shown within the Athenaeum's historical museum.

He said that every few weeks themed artifacts are pulled from the archives for display in the Edwin Smith Historical Museum. Brown noted that the museum is only open two days a week, on Thursdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. Volunteers also run the museum.

"This place has never been rich enough to have someone [professional] look at the artifacts [and run the museum]," he said. "What we've done is we've saved them [the artifacts from deteriorating]."

Brown explained that the next step for the volunteers is to catalog the thousands of papers given to the Athenaeum. Earlier this year, the building's third floor was glassed in and air conditioning was installed so that the paper artifacts could be stored in a climate-controlled environment.

"The paper we haven't dealt with yet. It takes a great deal more effort," Brown said, adding that the process will take approximately one year.

The paper documents, along with boxes filled with many other artifacts stored in the attic include shoes and instruments.

Among the paper documents is Westfield man's college diploma; he graduated from Yale in 1777. Numerous historical newspapers are also included such as The New York Times reporting of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination and a March 1770 edition of The Boston Gazette, which chronicles the Boston Massacre and the death of Crispus Attucks.

Brown explained that the majority of the artifacts were donated without any record of whom they once belonged to or how they came to be in Westfield. He noted that one such artifact, a battle flag captured at the Battle of San Juan Hill, Cuba in 1898, is currently on display in the Athenaeum's Jasper Rand Art Museum.

"This is the oldest flag in history with Puerto Rico on it," Brown said, adding that the Athenaeum will officially turn over the flag to a delegate from Puerto Rico during a ceremony on Nov. 17.

Athenaeum Reveals Hidden Treasures - Reminder Publications tour of the Athenaeum