Historical artifacts travel a curious road as they move from the closets of the living to the glass cases of museums.
“These objects are links between past and present,” said retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. James Schear, who spoke at a recent ceremony at the Moffett Historical Society Museum.
The Moffett event featured the dedication of a new display honoring Rear Adm. William A. Moffett, after whom Moffett Naval Air Station was named, and includes his military sword and a duplicate of his Medal of Honor, awarded to him for valor in 1914.
A duplicate Medal of Honor is rare, but because the original rests in the vaults of the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., and is not on display, the duplicate, created by the Pentagon, will enable visitors to connect with the admiral as a hero decorated by President Woodrow Wilson, not just as an able military administrator.
The sword also has a backstory. U.S. Marine Col. Bill Moffett, grandson of the admiral, found it in his father’s belongings but was not sure it was genuine, because the etching on the blade misspells his grandfather’s middle name. Harold “Herb” Parsons, Moffett Museum president, knew about the spelling error, confirmed the sword was authentic and was pleased to add it to the museum’s collection.
Admiral Moffett, the first chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, died with 72 others when the dirigible USS Akron went down in 1933. Sunnyvale Naval Air Station – then just two years old – was renamed in his honor.
The Los Altos History Museum is also using military artifacts to enhance its current exhibition, “Over Here: Americans at Home in World War I.” Featuring photographs from the National Archives, the display marks the 100th anniversary of the war’s end.
Los Altos History Museum Executive Director Elisabeth Ward is an expert on artifacts, having taught the subject as a college course.
“Objects last longer than we do, so they bear witness,” she said. “It is a magical thing to encounter an object a century old – something really special happens between object and viewer.”
Ward points to one item in the Los Altos exhibition: a carefully crafted miniature of a U.S. officer’s uniform cap, molded in brass from a discarded shell casing. The work, probably created in the trenches, transformed the remains of a deadly explosive into a benign souvenir.
“It has a rich emotional resonance,” she said, adding even that has changed as the object has moved from shell to memento to 21st-century reminder of a lost generation.
“Over Here” runs through May 27 – followed by “Right Here,” with even more local artifacts added, through June 17 – at the Los Altos History Museum, 51 S. San Antonio Road.
The new Admiral Moffett exhibition is on display at the Moffett Museum, 126 Severyns Ave., Mountain View.
Both museums seek volunteer docents who can help their artifacts “speak” to visitors.
Robin Chapman is a journalist and the author of “California Apricots: The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley” (History Press, 2013).