Mysteries of Sullivan Museum unveiled

sullivan_tiger_skull1Crossing the entrance into Norwich University’s Sullivan Museum and History Center (SMHC), visitors can view many artifacts but a few really stand out.

“We definitely have some really bizarre things in the collection,” said Sarah Henrich, Director of the Sullivan Museum and History Center. “Take a special look at the grass skirt. Because that’s the married ladies grass skirt. That’s the six-inch one.”

“Unmarried Pacific Islander women wore a shorter four-inch skirt,” Heinrich said.

The differences in skirt length offer a glimpse into the history of a culture and the story it tells, as well as a story about how the skirt got to the states, and the connection with Norwich. Henrich said it is “a bridge in the distance between our Norwich alumni and their story.”

The skirt at the SMHC originated from a married Pacific Islander in the 1800s when Norwich graduate George Colvocoresses brought it to the states after serving on the Wilkes Expedition from 1838-1843, Henrich said.

Although this unusual item will eventually head back to the Colvocoresses family, there is no shortage of odd and distinctive items behind closed doors of the museum collection.

“I find it bizarre that we have a chunk of rock,” Henrich said, referring to a piece of Hitler’s desk on display in the World War II exhibit.

The SMHS has done a lot of research on the granite rock and found that the granite desk it originated from was in fact built for Adolph Hitler. The granite used was mined from an Austrian quarry, Henrich said.

“That rock represents the map table where all of the bombing raids were planned,” Henrich said. “Seeing it broken up and crushed like that is sort of significant in that we did this. We destroyed it. We destroyed the capacity to do this by bombing. It’s a symbol of the war.”

In the same display case as the granite piece sits the telephone of Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini, Hitler’s ally in World War II. It is one of the strangest items among the SMHC collection, said Gary Lord, professor of history at Norwich University.

Having Mussolini’s phone is very representative of how people communicated and a telephone is reflective because it is so personal and people are able to connect with that, Henrich said.

Before the instant communications today at everyone’s fingertips with smart phones and the Internet, using a phone was a very personal experience, Henrich said.

“Mussolini was ordering deaths and all kinds of things,” Henrich said in reference to the phone on display.

Mourning art or hair art was pointed out by Steve Sodergren, Norwich University associate professor of history, as another strange and unusual artifact in the SMHS Civil War collection.

“Civil war widows used the hair from their fallen spouses and family members. They manufactured jewelry out of the hair out of their deceased loved ones,” Sodergren said.

Mourning art was an interesting and popular hobby among 19th century war widows and is very telling of how people mourned during the civil war, Sodergren said.

“It was just a way for people to deal with the horrors and death of the Civil War. It’s interesting and weird at the same time to a modern audience,” Sodergren said.

Rich with objects telling the Norwich history and that of its alumni, the SMHC houses another uncommon item in the Civil War collection: a bottle of “cure all.” A Norwich alumni conceived the idea and ran with it, according to Elizabeth Fraser ’07 and’10, factual area specialist for Norwich’s College of Graduate and Continuing Studies (CGCS).

“It was kind of cool that a Norwich alumni came up with a cure all,” Fraser said. “Some weird concoction of stuff that this guy put together and it supposedly could cure any disease or illness that people might have.”

Perhaps one of the strangest artifacts located within the walls of SMHS is a ceremonial tiger skull smoking stand, said John Hart, museum registrar.

“It’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen,” said Henrich.

The tiger skull smoking stand was made in Thailand and is decorated in ornately detailed hand punched silver. The skull was presented to General Briad Johnson, a NU alumnus, as a token of thank you and presentation gift, Hart said.

“It’s a blending of cultures too, where you have this object that signifies something for that culture and how would it be used in your culture,” Henrich said.

A strange item such as this, “has some type of specific and sacred ceremonial meaning,” Henrich said. “Even if it’s in a sort of bizarre fashion like an ash tray.”

Artifacts like the tiger skull represents the cultures they came from and tell a story unique to itself, Henrich said.

“An object like that is very representative of the culture it came from,” Henrich said. “This signified a great deal of respect to the person it was given to.”

The tiger skull smoking stand is so uncommon that, “everybody gets a kick out of it,” Hart said, “it’s one of those objects that’s just one of a kind and you can’t find anyplace else.”

More mysterious and distinctive artifacts of Norwich history can be encountered at SMHC, located at the south end of Norwich University next to Krietzburg Library.

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