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James Spurgeon

How should I ask to see the "back room" collection in the Bern Historical Museum?

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Hey all!

I am heading to Switzerland for the next week and one of the stops we have planned is to the Historical Museum in Bern, which I hear has the largest collection of Wootz Damascus swords. I doubt they have the entire collection on display, so I would love to see the back room archive. 

I have seen posts from several members here that were able to achieve that access, some sounded like they just got lucky, but I'm thinking that many had to plan ahead to make that happen. Any suggestions on how I should approach that, or who I should ask to speak with (specific name or usual title)?

Thanks in advance! 

James

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Yes, usually this requires some serious advance planning and appointments.  You would ideally have a letter of introduction from someone known to the museum to prove you're not just some schmuck who wants in the collections.  Getting all this done on short notice is not usually possible, so you will need a lot of luck!  Dress well, act professional, have a portfolio of your work, have your own gloves (either white cotton or blue nitrile, although some museums will provide them), make sure any measuring tools you have are plastic.

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Be very polite and ask if you can take measurements and specialized pictures and let them know you are possibly looking to recreate a historical piece.  Maybe.  Not too sure how you would go about that.

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I would not recommend showing work or mentioning you are a maker as some museums react badly to sword makers or knife makers or people reproducing their exhibits. Research is the word I would use.

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Owen has an excellent point.  He's actually done this, so listen!

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I had an interest in a two handed sword pictured on another forum, through some general questions I actually got the info second hand on the piece I was interested in.  (By finding other information on similar two handed swords I've been able to say that the info I got is legit.)  And yes like Owen said, people who have that info really are kind of hesitant to give info to a maker,  auction houses included.  Owners usually don't want to have a copy of their piece made or if you inquire about it - there will be strict instructions not to reproduce an "aged" copy.   Or The item must be dated - must be made of modern material - you may be asked to pay for the 'rights' to reproduce item - etc. 

The fear is that someone may think the sword/item is original - and try to pass it off as one.

I have a buddy up in Cleveland that was said that we should try to get to see some of the swords available for study as they have a few two handers very close to the few I've been able to track documentation on.  You can call or email ahead of time and they may set up an appointment for you as I understand.   

The one time I did email the Cleveland museum of art, they were kind enough to give me some info regarding the construction of the swords I was interested in, but much more than that I was asked to buy their book.   They don't have the distal taper proportions that I've looking for in there!

 

Edited by Daniel W

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On 12/13/2018 at 7:34 PM, owen bush said:

I would not recommend showing work or mentioning you are a maker as some museums react badly to sword makers or knife makers or people reproducing their exhibits. Research is the word I would use.

Very good advice! Thanks.

If I do mention anything I would exclusively present my work restoring antiques. Such as: 

Given the level of research required to accurately restore such pieces, would that be appropriate/beneficial? 

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I wouldn't.  They would most likely think you did a bad thing, not being a university- or museum- trained conservator.  Museums generally look down on restoration, preferring only the least amount of conservation to prevent further deterioration.  They tend to be snooty about such things, in other words.  Just say you have a deep interest in ancient wootz patterning variations and you're trying to correlate pattern with geography, social status, or something highfalootin' like that.

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I got to hold a civil war saber from a museum in South Carolina by saying I was a blacksmith trying to make replicas and wanted to feel the balance, to get it right, but that's alot different from touching an ancient artifact. I got a plethora of information on even the steel making process who owned it, and everything civil war I didn't need to know like DNA testing of urine and feces on the blade. The curators are usually fanatics about the collection as if it was their own, so you will need to appeal to that fanaticism and realize that you are endangering in the same way. I would be honest and strait forward about your interests and intent even if it means not touching it, I wouldnt use the words inspect or examine but stick to "get a look at" and see how comfortable they are with your level of respect because that's the real issue. It's a fricken Charizard card on steroids.

I would do some homework on what they have and might not have but secretly have, things other then Tulwar which im guessing they have since everyone and their mother has those from different time periods, you can buy them from the 1800s for about 300$ but the authenticity is questionable.

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I've got it!  You are developing a relational database of chronogeographic trends in pattern development with an emphasis on the stylistic trends in Ottoman versus Mughul wootz blades.  This just means you want to look at the things and take notes on the where and when.  And don't say Mongol by mistake!

Of course, you'll need to know the jargon for the patterns, and I don't.

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8 minutes ago, Alan Longmire said:

I've got it!  You are developing a relational database of chronogeographic trends in pattern development with an emphasis on the stylistic trends in Ottoman versus Mughul wootz blades.  This just means you want to look at the things and take notes on the where and when.  And don't say Mongol by mistake!

Of course, you'll need to know the jargon for the patterns, and I don't.

I love it!

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James...I was there a year or two ago and I panicked ...the regular displays of wootz ( damascus ) blades are way above your line of sight and the room is dark. I got so desperate I robbed some toys they had for sale and improvised a light ..but could not find a ladder. Please post your impression when you come back it may have changed. There are a couple of very nice Japanese blades there and other than the disrespect for wootz it is a great museum.....The Turkish Room in Dresden is also recommended ...but here though some very nice blades are at eye level ( behind glass ). The Turkish Room has some amazing metal work aside from steel. I was constantly harassed by the security guys for getting the glass dirty.  Bring your own light source to all these places and a large single magnifier as well ...they often can magnify details at 2 ft way or so.

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Jan has an excellent point.  Jeroen takes a little flashlight to museums because the good stuff is often poorly lit and they frown on flash photography.  The light allows you to eliminate glare as well.  Oh, and change "chonogeographic" to chronospatial.  Much more contemporary jargon-wise.;)

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Other good jargon word for comparing historic things : synchronic, or at the same time, and diachronic, over a stretch of time.  And be sure to stress you know the difference between crucible steel and wootz, fulad, and bulat (the last three are basically the same thing, but different areas and languages).  

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you know supposedly the Russians kept the method to making bulat but they do not share. Much grumbles about that.

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the best hack I have heard of for museums (cant remember who told me though) is to attatch two lazer pointers to trammel arms on a ruler (lazers set parallel) to get accurate length and width measurements through glass!

I would love to see the reaction from museum staff.....you would need mission impossable music ...

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