The Importance of Mummified Mice

A few weeks ago I came into the office enthusiastically exclaiming to my colleagues how I came across a couple of mummified mice at work.   A large part of my excitement was the gross factor.  A kind of “let me tell you about MY day” story.  And unless you’re in pest control, mummified mice should not be part of your day.  Just one more glamorous part of graduate studies.

What was I doing?   As part of the public history program here at Western I’m spending the semester as a research assistant at Fanshawe Pioneer Village (FPV) in the northeast of London.  Ten years ago FPV adopted a new strategic plan that emphasized their commitment to collections management and responsible stewardship.  That’s a lot of words to say that FPV has spent the last ten years painstakingly relocating all of their collections from attics and basements to a purpose built facility that makes museum oriented individuals such as myself a tinge green with envy.  It’s like all-I-want-for-Christmas: Museum Edition.  Custom shelving, temperature and humidity control, and heaps of acid free storage materials.  What do you mean that isn’t on your Christmas list too?

This large scale relocation wasn’t easy.  Every object had to be packed up safely for the move, unpacked in the new location, cleaned, identified, researched, cataloged into a database, and photographed.  Finally they had to be safely stored and their location documented for easy access.  Want to know how many chairs Fanshawe has in their collections?  They can tell you; with frightening accuracy.  Along with information such as when that chair was made, where it came from, and what it looks like, all without having to leave the office desk.

The Day of the Mice was an important step in this relocation process.  Not because of the mice themselves, but because it was the day that we finally moved the very last of the collections to a new, safe home.  Ten years after the project was started, and there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel!

There’s a reason that these particular pieces had been left for last.  They were a large pile of paper wrapped packages of lead type.  For anyone who hasn’t dealt with lead type it’s HEAVY, so it’s no surprise that it hadn’t been moved since it had been brought there.  Or that it had been saved for last.  Or that in fifteen years a family of mice had moved in.

It wasn’t pretty.  The lead type itself was fine, but silverfish were present in the paper, the dampness of the basement had caused mold, and of course there was the mouse nest.  I wish I could say that the mummified mice were the most disagreeable part.  But no, the smell was worse.  There’s something special about the smell of a decade of undisturbed mustiness.

But this isn’t a story about grad students dealing with disgusting things.  Well it is, but that’s not the point.  I tell this story because these particular mummified mice give us something to get excited about.  After a decade of hard work, the collections at FPV have all been moved to a safe location, I get an interesting story to tell my friends, and the wee timorous beasties finally get a proper burial.  Meanwhile, that lead type has gone from being a temporary home for for mice and silverfish to something that can be viewed and enjoyed by the public, and having now sorted through hundreds of pounds of the stuff, I can tell you it’s worth the effort.  Lead type is a lot more interesting than it sounds, especially for bibliophiles such as myself.   But if lead type doesn’t float your boat, don’t worry, because thanks to the efforts of FPV staff, there are plenty of other interesting bits of the past that are safely stored for your future enjoyment.  And your children’s enjoyment.  And their children’s enjoyment.

So spare a thought for those mummified mice.  They’re unfortunate casualties in a long battle to preserve pieces of the past for the future.  May they go to the happy wheat field in the sky.

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