A rare set of documents in the collection of the Salem Museum has received statewide recognition as one of Virginia’s “Most Endangered Artifacts.” Supporters and friends of the museum will soon be able to vote to recognize the Georgianna Saunders Midwife Records for the special “Top 10″ designation.
“For much of the first half of the 20th century, the Salem community was served by a local African American midwife named Georgianna Sanders,” said Salem Museum Director John Long.
Seemingly self-taught and with no official medical training, Saunders “delivered hundreds of children, black and white, in Salem and surrounding areas,” added Long, and she kept meticulous records of each birth she attended. These birth records provide an untapped demographic look into Salem’s population from the 1910s through the late 1930s, recording such details as stillbirths, incidences of illegitimacy, and the profession of the parents. Because they could not typically afford a doctor or a hospital birth, Saunders typically delivered babies from the lower socioeconomic levels, Long noted.
The Saunders Midwife Records were once slated to be used as kindling for a woodstove, said Long. Instead, a concerned donor found them and, recognizing their importance, donated them to the Salem Museum. While the museum has stabilized the fragile booklets — about 25 in number — in acid-free envelopes and archival housing, the records are generally too fragile to handle, rendering the valuable information they contain inaccessible. The booklets are printed on acidic paper and are extremely brittle. Many are missing covers, and some of the ink is fading into obscurity.
Read on for more about the Georgianna Sanders Midwive Records and how you can vote for its statewide recognition as an endangered artifact.
“In a sense, the physical objects that make up this collection are less important than the information they contain,” noted Long. The museum’s long-term goal would be to have these records conserved, but “the more important focus for us in the short term would be to get them digitized so that we can increase accessibility to the information without further damaging the original documents.”
The Endangered Artifact campaign from the Virginia Association of Museums is designed to create awareness of the importance of preserving artifacts in care at museums, libraries and archives throughout the commonwealth and in the District of Columbia. Collecting institutions from across Virginia and Washington, D.C. have nominated items that they believe tell a significant story and deserve to be recognized on this prestigious Top 10 List.
The campaign showcases the importance of Virginia’s diverse history, heritage and culture and the role that artifacts play in telling these stories.
Supporters of the Salem Museum can see the nominated items and vote on their favorite by visiting vatop10artifacts.org from Aug. 1-29. A YouTube video showing the Saunders Midwife records can be found by searching for “Georgianna Saunders.”
Nominations will be reviewed by an independent panel of collections and conservation experts, and Top 10 designees, as well as “People’s Choice” designees, will be announced in September. The public voting will be considered by the panel as they make their final selections.
Virginia’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts is a program of the Virginia Collections initiative, which is a project of the Virginia Association of Museums, made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services.
The Salem Museum is located at 801 E. Main St. in Salem and is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 to 4, and Saturday from noon to five. No admission is charged for the museum galleries.