Did you ever wonder what happens to the artifacts of history? We know about the big ones; the Declaration of Independence, the Crown Jewels, the Wright Brothers plane, the Mona Lisa, and such, but what about the smaller, human-interest stuff? What ever became of Harry Truman’s hat, or Elvis’s sunglasses, or Hitler’s footstool, or Evil Knievel’s jacket, or Eisenhower’s golf clubs, or Eva Braun’s lingerie? How about JFK’s boxer shorts, Charlie Chaplin’s pajamas, General Patton’s razor, a piece of John Wilkes Booth’s splint, complete with bloodstains, Jack Ruby’s notebook, Marilyn Monroe’s bra, or the .44 magnum Elvis used to shoot his TV? So where is all this stuff? Not the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian wishes it had some of this stuff.
Would you believe this is all in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania?
The Gettyburg Museum of History occupies a non-descript brick house in the center of town and is crammed with the most amazing collection of relics of wars, presidents, and celebrities you could imagine. Possibly the most amazing thing about this collection is that it was accumulated by one man, the curator, Erik Dorr. Almost as amazing is the fact that Mr. Dorr operates the museum at no charge to the public and gets no funding from any foundation or similar source. That makes the American History Museum the best bargain in Gettysburg, as well as one of the most interesting. The Museum has been featured on several TV shows, including American Pickers. Erik Knorr has feelers out all over the world for new acquisitions, so you never know what you’ll find.
One nice feature of the museum is how crowded with objects it is. There is no room for the kind of slick audiovisual special effects, or life-sized dioramas so beloved by bigger “institutional” museums, just lots of fascinating objects cheek by jowl, waiting to be discovered. A trip to The Gettysburg Museum of History is like rummaging around in history’s attic. So where did he get all this stuff? Well, apparently, a lot of it was from buying up private collections of various sorts. It seems there is a network of collectors who know, watch each each other constantly, and bid against each other when items become available. The Internet makes it easy to locate and purchase items that a collector would have to search for previously.
Another case in point: I recently met Edward Petruskevich, a collector from the Delmarva section of Virginia. He has an impressive collection relating to a great maritime disaster; a luxury cruise liner that sank on a cold night and took most of its passengers with it. He has programs, menus, scrapbooks, a life vest, and even a blanket one passenger wrapped around himself as protection from the cold. Oh, did I mention the name of the doomed ship?
No, it wasn’t the Titanic.
The ship was the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German passenger ship sunk by a Russian submarine in World War II. The Gustloff was carrying over 10,000 German refugees and wounded soldiers in the Baltic one night in January of 1945, trying to escape the advancing Red Army. The ship was torpedoed by a Russian submarine and sank with the loss of 9,343 people. It was the worst maritime disaster of a single ship in history. To put this staggering loss in perspective, the death toll from the Titanic was 1,500. The death toll on the Gustloff was SIX TIMES as high!
Petruskevich has performed a great service in keeping the memory of this amazing incident alive. Although he easily has enough to have his own museum, Petruskevich has instead created a virtual museum via a website. On it, you will find pictures and information about the history of the Gustloff and its sister ship, the Robert Ley. There are also numerous photos of the artifacts. A visitor can spend hours here, entering and marveling at a world he never knew existed.
According to the website, it appears that Petruskevich amassed this impressive collection in much the same way Erik Knorr assembled the exhibits in the Gettysburg Museum of History; by searching across the Internet for private collections or objects. Of course, there is a lot more to collecting than just web surfing and bidding. There are auctions, searching paper archives, etc., but the Internet has given collectors access to a wider selection of objects for their collections than ever before.
So as a history fan, I salute two men who are doing much to preserve and protect the memories of the past. Do yourself a favor and visit both museums, the real and the virtual. Here are the links: