insider's guide to cleveland museums: curators show off their favorite artifacts

For every well-regarded artifact on display in Cleveland’s world-class museums there are countless more that fly well below their deserved radar. Nobody knows this truth as well as those tasked with piecing together exhibits for public consumption: the curators.
Fresh Water tagged along with curators from area museums as they showed off their favorite hidden gems, sharing often untold stories and behind-the-scenes peeks at choice treasures. 
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum
Meredith Rutledge-Borger, Associate Curator
John Lennon’s Report Card
Quarry Bank Grammar School teachers had a few choice words to describe the young John Lennon as evidenced by his report card on display. “He was a really brilliant guy -- his IQ was off the map -- but he was a horrible student. My sense is he was bored out of his head; he wasn’t challenged by what was going on. He had this vicious, dark sense of humor and would mock teachers and other students. The report card is a real window into his developing genius. There are so many big, flashy things in the Beatles exhibit that a lot of people miss it.”
Jimi Hendrix Sketches
Long before Jimi Hendrix was lighting guitars on fire, he was electrifying the pages of his sketchbook. “My favorite is a pencil drawing called ‘Daddy Sleeping.’ It broke my heart the first time I took a good look at it. Jimi’s father was a single dad and he had many jobs just to support his family. The drawing is a really poignant portrait of a guy stretched out on a couch sleeping. I thought, ‘That’s probably how Jimi saw his dad most of the time.’ He was either working or at home trying to get sleep between jobs. Maybe people only know of Jimi as a flashy dresser, hippie… But he was a kid, he was a human. And I really think these kinds of pieces humanize musicians; it makes them less up on a pedestal and more of someone you can see being your friend.”
Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard’s First Guitar
When Rutledge-Borger approached the Grammy-nominated blues-rock band Alabama Shakes about being included in the museum’s contemporary exhibit she was disappointed to be met with a polite decline. “Then they came to visit and they were blown away; it was hard to keep up with them running from exhibit to exhibit.” After that, they changed their tune. “We ended up getting Brittany’s first guitar. The thing that I love the most is that she told a story about it, saying, ‘Well, it has some damage on the side there. I was trying this new move, slinging it behind me, and I smashed it into the side of the house.’”
Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Dr. Andy Jones, Curator of Ornithology and Director of Science

Dunkleosteus Terrelli Fossil
This shark-like Dunkleosteus terrelli creature that was found right here in Cleveland more than 363 million years ago was the alpha-predator of the shallow sea. “Cleveland would have been very different then; it was part of a tropical ocean because we were closer to the equator,” Of piecing together the species, which typically measures 16 feet and weighs upwards of two tons, Jones says, “The fossil comes out smashed up and flat and we have to pull every individual piece out and reconstruct it in a three-dimensional way.”
Passenger Pigeon Mounts
Now extinct for 100 years -- Sept. 1 marked the inauspicious anniversary -- the passenger pigeon once was the most common bird in the world. “It’s terrifying to think we can go from this hyper-abundant bird to an extinct bird and that was all due to human activity. “Between the mounts, displays in the Sears Hall, and within the ornithology laboratories, the museum has about 20 total specimens. “There were flocks of these birds flying over Cleveland 100 years ago. It’s just a missing piece of our ecosystems now.”
Mastodon Skeleton
What was slated as routine construction for one farmer garnered the museum’s attention when the bones of an 11,000-year-old mastodon were discovered during excavation. “The specimen was in boggy conditions and really wet, so if you just brought it out the bones would crack as they dried. They actually had to control how slowly they released moisture so it wasn’t ruined.” It showcases the synergy of the ornithology and botany departments: By working together to analyze the surrounding seedlings of the discovery site, the curator reveals, they devised that the creature was likely killed by area Paleo Indians.
Western Reserve Historical Society
Dr. John Grabowski, Senior Vice President of Research and Publications
Cadillac Lounge Mural
In time for Gay Games 9, the museum displayed two pieces of the mural from Cleveland’s LGBT mecca, The Cadillac Lounge, which operated from 1943 to 1970. “The Lounge was pretty straight-laced, but one of the only places that patrons could be themselves in the city.” Rescued by a museum staffer after the bar’s closing, the mural sparks memories and conversations whenever events centered on the gay community are hosted. “They go back to a time when a lifestyle was hidden because of the restrictions and prejudices of the community.”
Marque Files of Automobile Archives
The Marque Files are a treasure trove of scholarly resources on nearly every automobile make or model before the 1980s. “What I really like is the history of advertising. So my favorite files are really from the 1950s and 1960s; the Mad Men era. As a historian, I’m always interested in how we trifurcate things by race, gender and class -- how are women depicted in these advertisements, how are advertisements for Cadillacs different from Fords, how many African-Americans can I see in advertisements from the ‘50s compared to the late ‘60s?”
Dr. Edward Pershey, Director of Special Projects and Exhibits
Letters to Jim Brown’s High School Coaches
In the early 1960s, the prominent Cleveland sports writer Hal Lebowitz penned a series of letters to high school coaches of Jim Brown, the future star fullback for the Cleveland Browns. “It’s an interesting set of letters in that it corresponds with various coaches in various sports -- because he excelled at many -- leading up to Brown finally selecting football for his professional career. When you think of sports history you usually think of uniforms and footballs and baseball gloves, but we also have rich archival holdings that speak to the history of sports in Cleveland.”
Great Lakes Science Center
Dante Centuori, Director of Creative Productions
Moon Rock
During the Apollo 15 mission, astronauts kept detailed records of nearly everything collected on the moon. But somehow the Great Lake Science Center’s moon rock, about the size of a football, slipped by undocumented. “The best pictures I could find were part of these big panoramas they took from the Lunar Module, but there were transcripts of geologists and you could hear how excited they were about it. You can’t peg it as a certain age because it has tiny minerals in it that are billions of years old, but the rock itself was formed by the pressure of an impact a little more recent, maybe half a billion years ago.” It remains one of only 70 lunar samples on display in the world.
Breadboard Circuit Bench
“The breadboard circuit bench has all these electrical components and a mess of wires. You can make any kind of circuit you want. You watch kids playing and then go to a workshop and work with LEDs and button batteries and basically follow the same principles you may have done as a kid with a flashlight battery and an incandescent light bulb. It really connects what’s going on right now with a lot of people involved in the maker movement; getting hands-on and creating. And if you’re going to explore it from the electrical angle, what better way to get an intuitive sense of circuits than something like this?”
WindWorks Wind Turbine Public Art
Part of a collaborative effort with LAND Studios, WindWorks is an installation of concrete courtyard pathways that align with the shadow of the Center’s wind turbine. However, this only happens two days a year: at solar noon of the spring and fall equinoxes. “Very few people know about this and it’s right under their nose. In modern times, it’s often not necessary to stay in touch with natural cycles because there’s technology to do that. This has a sort of contrast -- the timelessness of the movements of the sun and moon and the modern technology of the wind turbine. You have this state-of-the-art power generator and then you have something very primal with the shadows lining up on the Equinox.”
Dittrick Museum of Medical History
James Edmonson, Chief Curator
Heart Defibrillator
“In movies, when they say ‘Clear!’ and put the paddles on someone’s chest, this is the granddaddy of those devices.” Developed by Case Western Reserve University’s Claude Beck in 1949, this defibrillator prototype allowed for increase and decrease in electricity to stimulate the heart after fibrillation causes the loss of rhythm. Beck went on to become one of the first developers of CPR. “A medical museum has many items that would be immediately recognizable, but we also have items like this that were either the first of their kind or that had a profound impact on people’s well-being.”
Compression Chamber
In the early 1900s, Cleveland laborers were working in airtight submerged chambers to construct tubing intakes that would bring fresh water into the city. “If they came out of that high pressure environment too quickly, they would get something that today we might call ‘the bends.’” Case Western Reserve University professor John James Rickard Macleod took an interest in the effects and pioneered examining ways to make work conditions safer with the creation of a pressure chamber that is now on display at Dittrick. “To study the phenomena, Macleod developed this pressure chamber for use in laboratory experiments.”
Carbolic Acid Sprayer
“[The carbolic acid sprayer] is one of those iconic objects that represent a turning point in surgery. It was bought in London in 1882 by Dudley Peter Allen, who was born in Oberlin. He came back to Cleveland the same year and brought this newfangled device that he used to keep germs at bay during antiseptic procedures and make surgery a safer process for people.”

Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted

Read more articles by Nikki Delamotte.

Nikki Delamotte is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Diffuser.FM, The Grammys, Cleveland Magazine, Cleveland Scene and others.
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