Not all historical artifacts make it into an exhibit
ALPENA — The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center is home to more than 3,000 artifacts of historic and cultural value — but not all of them are in public view.
The decision of what makes it onto the Maritime Heritage Center’s floor or into an exhibit is at the discretion of the collection’s curator, Wayne Lusardi.
Lusardi is the maritime archeologist for the state and manages what he describes as “the single greatest repository of Michigan shipwreck materials.”
The fate of each artifact begins in the Heritage Center’s conservation laboratory, where each item goes through an intake process.
Lusardi says he takes a photograph of the artifact and documents it, noting where or who it came from, its measurements, and how much it weighs. Then he does a quick evaluation of the artifact’s stability or conservation needs.
“If it’s something that was found on somebody’s beach and it’s kind of rotted, I need to address that to make sure it doesn’t fall apart,” Lusardi said. “Very often, if it’s been in a private collection for awhile, it tends to be in pretty good shape, and it’s really just a matter of receiving it.”
Once an artifact is documented, Lusardi determines where it will go.
“Sometimes, it’s just that simple, as a matter of size,” he said. “But, very often — and probably the primary reason — is to help tell a story. If we’re talking about the tragedy of the Pewabic, we want to show the items that came from that vessel.”
The Heritage Center has many artifacts from the S.S. Pewabic, a package freighter that sank near Thunder Bay Island after colliding with its sister ship, the Meteor, in 1865. The Heritage Center also has many artifacts from the Nordmeer, a German freighter which ran aground seven miles east of Thunder Bay Island after miscalculating a turn in 1966.
When there are too many of one kind of artifact, such as copper ingots from the Pewabic or glass bottles from the Nordmeer, they likely end up in storage. If an item is broken or shattered, it, too, may remain in the laboratory or tucked away in storage.
There is also an assortment of artifacts currently being cataloged in the conservation laboratory, including three ship wheels that someone illegally took from shipwrecks in the Mackinac Straits and that ended up at the Heritage Center for conservation. Lusardi also oversees a safe from a wreck near Whitefish Point and fish bones that remain from one shipwreck’s salted barrel of fish.
Other artifacts, such as the remnants of a World War II-era plane that crashed in Lake Huron and was found near Port Huron, are destined for other places. The plane was flown by Lt. Frank Moody, who was training with the Tuskegee Airmen and died in the crash on April 11, 1944.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black fighter pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Some of the airmen trained over the Great Lakes. Six of those airmen, and their planes, perished in the lakes.
“We began the process of recovering an airplane from World War II last summer and those materials are being conserved here, but then they’re going to be ultimately exhibited down in Detroit at the National Museum of the Tuskegee Airman,” he said.
Lusardi, along with a student volunteer from Alpena High School, has been going through debris found in one of the aircraft doors and have identified shattered glass from the aircraft’s window, rusted airplane parts, sand, and shells.
The Heritage Center’s collection of artifacts, formerly housed in Lansing, was relocated to Alpena around 2005, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the Heritage Center, moved from to its current location at 500 W. Fletcher St.
However, Lusardi said the vast majority of artifacts were either retrieved by individuals who secured a state-approved permit or were donated by divers who took them from shipwrecks “back in the day.”
While Lusardi said it’s never been OK to take artifacts off of a shipwreck, there was confusion as to what people were and were not allowed to do before the 1980s. He said the state has granted amnesty to divers who took things before the 1980s and artifacts taken before then can be given to the Heritage Center without fear of prosecution.
Now, any artifacts taken from shipwrecks on state bottomlands can be seized, like the three ship’s wheels that were seized by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and subsequently turned over to the collection at the Heritage Center.
The Heritage Center continues to welcome donations from the public. Lusardi says donors are credited in perpetuity.
“If somebody has an artifact that they think we may be interested in or that they feel belongs to the state collection, they can come in or they can contact me, and there is a process of donating that,” he said.
But Lusardi cautions the public to leave potential wreckage where it remains. Rising lake levels on the Great Lakes are causing pieces of wreckage to wash up on the beaches. He says it’s best to take a picture, along with some measurements of the object, and leave the debris in place.
“If I can, I’ll come out as quickly as possible to record those materials, and then decide whether they should be moved or just left in the lake,” he said. “Very often, the lake will take them back and rebury them.”
Crystal Nelson can be reached at 989-358-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Found a shipwreck?
If a piece of a shipwreck washes up on shore or you find other historical debris along the Lake Huron shoreline, leave the debris as-is and contact Wayne Lusardi at 989-844-6207, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.