Written by Jennifer Gaudio, Coast Guard curator
Back in 2009, when I’d been on the job about six months, I took advantage of a Faculty Afloat program and spent a week on board the Coast Guard Cutter Cypress. I was having an awesome time, despite nearly falling overboard causing the world-weary chief to keep me in arms reach. Cypress happened to be hosting lunch during a Blue Angels show in Pensacola, Florida. While in the lunch line I was asked by some Navy personnel what I did in the Coast Guard. In my best frosty voice, I said, “I’m their curator.” Completely dumbfounded, they replied, “The Coast Guard has a curator…Why?”
“Why?…” I knew from that point on, my job would be challenging. I am actually one of two curators for the U.S. Coast Guard Heritage Asset Collection. The Heritage Asset Collection is slightly over 20,000 objects and is spread all over the United States. There’s a lot on loan to other museums, but it’s mainly kept in two storage facilities one at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and the other is in Maryland. The core of the collection originated at the Academy from all the gifts given in honor of the Service. The most famous being the sword surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur in 1945. Since then the collection has also been the service’s best-kept secret.
I volunteered to write this blog because the dedicated staff responsible for preserving Coast Guard history is probably the second best-kept secret in the Coast Guard. Compared to the U.S. Navy’s 137 person historical staff and substantial budget, our Curatorial Services Program (part of External Outreach and Heritage) has four staff members and an equally small budget. Not many people in the Coast Guard know what we do or why, unless you are responsible for heritage assets on property in which case I’m sure there might be a slight annoyance with the Curatorial Services Program because of our seemingly inexplicable and whimsical rules. Therefore, I envisioned this blog as a way to let the Coast Guard get to know us and our work. Each post will tackle some part of the museum profession and use examples from the Coast Guard’s wicked cool collections.
So, what is a curator? According to a handy online dictionary, a curator “is a content specialist charged with an institution’s collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material.” As one of the curators for the Coast Guard’s Heritage Asset Collection, I am responsible for close to 7,000 artifacts—about one-third of the whole collection—in storage or on display around the Academy campus.
As to why the Coast Guard needs curators…now when asked I just recite the following: “five agencies, eleven statutory missions, over 225 years old, Joshua James, Frank Newcomb, Michael Healy, Beverly Kelly, Objee, Jacob Lawrence, Olivia Hooker, Sinbad, Thomas Crotty, Douglas Munro, Nate Bruckenthal, Ida Lewis, William Flores, Sweeney, reindeer, atomic lighthouses (seriously, in the Chesapeake), walking across Alaska in the middle of winter, relay swimming in a nor’easter with a shipwreck survivor tied to one’s back, rowing into a burning ocean in a wooden boat (into FIRE in a WOODEN boat) to attempt a rescue.” The list goes on and on.
This Service is important; its history is the history of our United States. You almost can’t separate one from the other. Here I am eight years later in a job I love, preserving and studying the complex history of the organization and the fascinating people who shaped the Coast Guard.
Next up: What makes an artifact an artifact? Historical context and the weirdest thing(s) in our collection.
Jennifer Gaudio is a bit shocked to realize that she has been a curator for 20 years. For most of her career, Gaudio worked for small and midsize museums to make museum collections relevant to the public through exhibits and programs, and establishing or renovating museums. During that time she had really only wanted to be a curator for the Coast Guard. Growing up in New Jersey, spending time on the Jersey shore learning Coast Guard history and realizing how many people didn’t know anything about the Service, Gaudio felt that promoting Coast Guard History was a good way to say “thank you” to an agency that doesn’t get a lot of credit. She was hired in 2008 as curator of the U.S. Coast Guard Museum located at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. Gaudio still finds it to be the most rewarding job of those 20 years.