Director of Vermilion’s maritime museum wears a detective’s hat
VERMILION — With every new discovery and donation given to the Great Lakes Historical Society for placement in the collection of the Inland Seas Maritime Museum, Executive Director Chris Gillcrist said he dons the hat of an investigator on a hunt for the truth.
That’s because before an item can take its rightful place among the thousands of other artifacts, its authenticity has to be verified.
Nothing can join the collection before several attempts have been made to ensure it is what it’s purported to be.
“All the time people will bring in things claiming it came off this boat or that boat,” Gillcrist said. “There is always a level of trust because we figure, ‘Who would lie to us?’, but we can’t just take their word for it.”
Gillcrist likens authenticating artifacts to investigating a crime.
“It’s like trying to build as strong a case as possible,” he said. “It’s a blend of science, history and a little bit of common sense.”
Before he starts, he said, he wants to hear the story of how the artifact came to be and how it made its way to the museum. A life-preserving ring from the shipwrecked S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald is prominently displayed in the museum gallery, but it’s the history that makes it a treasured find, Gillcrist said.
Donated to the museum by Thomas Murphy, the lead attorney for the ship’s owners, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, the life ring is one of several items recovered from the waters of Lake Superior when the freighter sank during a storm November 10, 1975.
On the flip side, Gillcrist said learning the background story helped the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Detroit unravel the mystery of a similar life ring purportedly found early last month along a remote patch of Lake Superior by a vacationing family. The ring read “Edmund Fitzgerald” in faded but mostly legible white letters, and it matched in many ways the ring now on display at the Inland Seas Maritime Museum.
But it wasn’t until weeks after the find was reported did the true history of the artifact surface. In actuality, it was the lost novelty item kept at a cabin along Lake Superior and the Eagle River.
“We try hard to prevent those types of things from happening,” Gillcrist said. “Our collection is only as good as the authenticity that is attached to each artifact. People come here because they know we took painstaking care to ensure we have what we say we have. It’s part of what makes our job at a museum interesting. It’s sort of like playing ‘CSI’ with an artifact.”
Forget e-Bay or the Internet, if you want to see the real thing, Gillcrist suggests checking out the museum. There is a plethora of maritime memorabilia on display, including a cap stone that for years has been sought by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
The red, white and blue mechanical device that was once used to raise anchor before the advent of steam power is believed to have come from the U.S.S. Michigan, the first iron-hulled navel warship in history launched on the Great Lakes in 1843.
Gillcrist said he has never been able to authenticate the history 100 percent, but he is confident the find is legitimate.
“The Smithsonian wants it, so it must be true,” he said. “That’s our biggest mystery right now, and if that turns out to be true, it could be a dramatic discovery. Then, it will be much harder for the Smithsonian to get it out of our hands.”
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