Knowledge Versus Ignorance: Criticizing Displays of Historical Artifacts


I have a steadily growing respect for those who take the time to research, organize and arrange, transport and display their collections to share with an audience. Depending on the artifacts and the means of displaying, it takes an incredible amount of time to prepare for a public showing, ensuring that each piece or groupings of items are carefully organized and placed to convey the display’s central message or theme. Regardless of the measure of attention to detail one can employ in assembling a gathering of artifacts to display, mistakes can and often do get made.

Invariably, one can find historical inaccuracies with any re-telling or portrayal of an event, placement and descriptions of artifacts, despite the research and effort for meticulous representations. I have visited some of the finest museums that employ staff and volunteers with more than a hundred years of combined education and experience in researching and curating artifacts and yet they still can assemble displays with pieces that are incorrect. There have been times where I engaged with museum personnel in order to correct the issue, providing sources in an effort to back my assertions. In those instances, I have been thanked for the information and corrections were subsequently made while some times, I have been met with valid contradictory facts (though they have agreed with the information I provided) that support their reasons for decisions to keep the displays as established.

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.

The above saying has many unfounded attributions (Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, etc.) and I chose not to provide a source as doing so is folly. However, the lack of a verifiable originator is as irrelevant as the sentiment is poignant. I take this saying to heart, especially when providing any measure of correction an expert in their field or vocation. To approach a museum curator, historian, educator or serious artifact collector with contrary facts that fly in the face of their efforts requires assured knowledge, facts and a tactfully respectful approach. Before I open my mouth, I want to be certain that my suspicions and thoughts are indeed correct.

The WWI Army uniform belonged to my great uncle who served as an artilleryman in France during the war.

Helmets from three of the combatant nations in the war are (left to right): French, U.S., German. The bayonet in the foreground is a French Lebel.

For nearly the entire month of September, my collection of World War I artifacts was publicly displayed at my state’s largest fair. I chose to select every piece that is related to the Great War and organize, arrange and display them to honor the centennial of the United States’ participation (along with U.S. military artifacts, I included the Canadian Forestry Corps pieces to honor my maternal great grandfather’s WWI service). Included in my display were many artifacts that I inherited from family members who served in that war along with pieces that I collected due to my specific interest in this very troubling era of modern U.S. history. Included within the exhibit were three original WWI uniforms; one, worn by my great uncle when he served in a US Army artillery regiment and the other two were U.S. Navy enlisted jumper tops, complete with rating badges. At the conclusion of the fair, I went to breakdown the display and retrieve my collection at which time, the coordinator handed personal notes from spectators and folks with questions or are in need of assistance with their own artifacts. Among the notes were two criticisms: one that didn’t agree with the placement of the placard that described the entire collection (he thought it should have been adjacent to my uncle’s uniform) while the other person took the time to point out the inaccuracies with the rating badges on the two WWI navy uniforms.

The two WWI uniforms that raised questions from an unknown critic. This display was called out for having the incorrect rating badges on the incorrect sleeves regardless of them being original and untouched from the veterans who wore them during the Great War.

“Your rates are on the wrong arm,” the expert began his note. “Crows face forward, ” he continued, “there are right arm ‘rates’ and left arm (ratings),” the unnamed critic stated. When I first read through his note, I stopped and looked over at the display (I hadn’t’ yet removed the arrangement of uniforms on their mannequins nor the arrangement of period-correct rating badges on the bottom of the case) and stared for a moment and re-read the note again. “What is he referring to?
I thought to myself. “Does he think that I sewed these badges on rather than the sailors who originally wore the uniforms?”

I have authored several articles regarding U.S. Navy rating badges (see below) and have been collecting them since I obtained my first one through advancement during my own service in the Navy when I was promoted to petty officer third class. A few years later, I inherited my maternal grandfather’s World War II uniforms that were complete and had his Ship’s Cook first class rating badges affixed to the left sleeves. In my collection are rating badges dating to 1905, post-1913, post-1922 and on up to the 1960s. I own several hundred badges including some of the rarest ratings that existed during these eras. In my collection are several uniforms from this same era (I don’t have anything dating from pre-1900…yet) and all of it has been thoroughly researched. Though some of my collecting colleagues would infer that I possess expert knowledge in this area, there are many who have far greater knowledge and experience researching the history of enlisted marks and whose published works I often reference. I concede that there is always someone with more knowledge in any given field of research and study. For this reason, I continued to ponder the unknown sender’s critical note.

As I started to dissect the message in an effort to lend a measure of credence or perhaps to give him some benefit of doubt, I analyzed his usage of terminology along with his stated “facts” as I attempted to understand his perspective. One term that he repeatedly misused was “rates.” Though the critic understood certain facts surrounding rating badges, he didn’t understand that there is a distinct difference between two very important terms: rate and rating (see: U.S. Navy Officer Ranks and Enlisted Rates – navy.mil). Sailors (and U.S. Navy collectors) don’t refer to the insignia worn on uniforms as “rates” but rather, rating badge.

The unknown critic pointed out that on my two WWI navy uniform tops, the rating badges were affixed to the left sleeve and that the eagle (universally referred to as a crow) was facing the the rear, vice forward as is seen on present-day uniforms. The inference being made is that the eagles on both badges, each affixed to their respective uniform’s left sleeves, are facing to the rear (the beak of the eagle is pointing towards”his” left wing).

In concert with the eagle’s directional facing, the critic suggested that there are rating badges (“rates”) for either the left or right arms. In the uniform regulations of 1886, specifications were made that established the eagle left-facing with its wings pointed horizontally to the sides. Also, the regulations specified that petty officers of the starboard watch were to wear rating badges on their right sleeves while the left sleeve was to be used for those assigned to the port watch. This arrangement of the rating badges remained in place until the publication of the U.S. Navy uniform regulations of January 25, 1913 called for a change in the location of rating badges so that the were no longer worn on the sleeves corresponding to assigned watches. Right arm badges were to signify men of the Seamen Branch; left arm rating badges were to be used by personnel of the Artificer Branch, Engine Room Force, and all other petty officers. The eagle continued to face left on all rating badges.

The last statement on the critic’s note, “1941 is when it all changed” is only partially correct as it disregards both the 1886 and 1913 regulations and focuses on the changes made just prior to World War II. Within the May 13, 1941 regulations it was specified that the eagle was to face to the left in the rates comprising the Seaman Branch: Boatswain Mate, Turret Captain, Signalman, Gunner’s Mate, Fire Controlman, Quartermaster, Mineman and Torpedoman’s Mate. All other rating badges (worn on the left sleeve) were to have an eagle facing to the right – or towards the front of the uniform. With the release of the navy uniform regulations of April 2,1949, the right arm rates were disestablished, moving all enlisted ratings to the left sleeve and the eagle’s beak pointed to the right wing.

Neither of the two WWI navy uniforms within my Great War display had rating badges from the Seaman Branch – one, an Electrician’s Mate 2/c (with a radio technician distinguishing mark) from the Artificer Branch and the other a Ship’s Cook 2/c was part of the Special Branch.

If the critic had left his contact information, I might have considered a gentle discussion to provide a better understanding of enlisted Navy rate and rating badge history along with authoritative references. Rather than to take offense at the man’s note, I can surmise that he cares about accuracy in displayed naval artifacts enough to correct me. However, his omission of his name, email or phone number might be more indicative of the equivalent of a blind grenade-toss at something he has great disdain for. Unfortunately, I will never know.

I feel compelled to offer my gratitude to this unknown person for giving me a reason to pause for a self-assessment as I strive for accuracy with my collecting, research, writing and displaying these treasure. His note also serves as a reminder for me to maintain humility when I observe historical inaccuracies and to always measure myself before opening my mouth or firing off an ill-informed message.

Related Veteran’s Collection Articles:

Reference:

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About VetCollector

I have been blogging about Militaria since 2010 when I was hired to write for the A&E/History Channel-funded Collectors Quest (CQ) site. It was strange for me to have been asked as I was not, by any means, an expert on militaria nor had I ever written on a recurring basis beyond my scholastic newspaper experience (many MANY decades ago). After nearly two years, CQ was shut down and I discovered that I was enjoying the work and I had learned a lot about my subject matter over that period of time. I served for a decade in the U.S. Navy and descend from a long line of veterans who helped to forge this nation from its infancy all the way through all of the major conflicts to present day and have done so in every branch of the armed forces (except the USMC). I began to take an interest in militaria when I inherited uniforms, uniform items, decorations from my relatives. I also inherited some militaria of the vanquished of WWII that my relatives brought home, furthering my interest. Before my love of militaria, I was interested in baseball history. Beyond vintage baseball cards (early 1970s and back) and some assorted game-used items and autographs, I had a nominal collecting focus until I connected my militaria collecting with baseball. Since then, I have been selectively growing in each area and these two blogs are the result, Chevrons and Diamonds (https://chevronsanddiamonds.wordpress.com/) The Veterans Collection (https://veteranscollection.org/)

Posted on October 2, 2018, in Collecting Risks, Displays, Rates and Ranks, Shoulder Sleeve Insignia and Patches, U.S. Army, US Navy, World War I and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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