Inside the Archives — the Alamo Collection Photography Project

Bowie Knife (Sheffield, 1870) — in two views, profile and detail. Alamo Collection #33414.

As stewards of the Alamo, the most important historical site in Texas, the General Land Office is committed to cultivating the best possible experience for those visiting the cradle of Texas liberty. This commitment currently includes the renovation and conservation of several facilities on the Alamo grounds, resulting in the temporary housing of the Alamo Collection — an amazing, diverse set of artifacts that help interpret the entire history of the Alamo and those who gave their lives in its defense — at the GLO headquarters in Austin. In an effort to provide the public better long-term access to the collection, the GLO took advantage of the temporary relocation of the collection to Austin to perform a year long project to photograph the Alamo Collection.

Double Barrel Percussion Shotgun, “London Fine Twin” Model manufactured by Perkins of London, England. Originally owned by Gov. John Ireland (1827–1896), who was governor of Texas for two terms, 1882 and 1884. On May 12, 1883, during his second term, Gov. Ireland signed the appropriation bill to purchase the Alamo church for $20,000 from the Catholic Church. A former owner of the gun was Judge Hood, who was killed in the 1840 Council House Fight. Alamo Collection #32904.
Bowie knife . Alamo Collection #33348.

The process began by constructing a makeshift, inexpensive photography studio in the basement of the GLO with the help of a local camera shop. Once the equipment was purchased and set up, Archives staff did some research to determine the best way to light and shoot the artifacts. The goal was to light the objects in a way that would avoid glare and find a tonal range (contrast) that would be aesthetically pleasing, all while capturing the highest possible level of detail in each artifact.

Button, Republic of Texas Navy Officer’s Uniform — raised design. Flanking anchor, “Texas” on left and “Navy” on right. Small star top center; olive branch border. On back, “Scoville and Co., Waterbury.” Gold Color. Period: 1838. Alamo Collection #32739.

The project then proceeded to identify objects of “high-interest” to photograph, a subjective term no doubt, but one has to begin somewhere. The Alamo is an historic battlefield, so the weapons collection was a natural starting point. In an ambitious endeavor, the long guns were removed from their archival housings, staged, and photographed. Next came the handguns, followed by bladed weapons such as swords, knives, and bayonets.

Governor Hardin Richard (Dick) Runnel’s single shot percussion pistol. Runnels was a member of the Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Texas Legislature from Bowie County; Speaker of the House, 1853–1855; Lt. Governor of Texas, 1855–1857; and Governor of Texas, 1857–1859. Alamo Collection #33347.

When viewing photographs of artifacts shot against a plain background, context is very important to gain a thorough understanding of the artifact. To that end, all objects were photographed in full at least once with either a ruler or measuring tape to provide scale to the viewer. A macro lens was also used for photographing small objects such as buttons, arrowheads, and coins. This special lens was also useful for capturing minute details that would facilitate the dating, manufacture, condition and appraisal of the artifact.

ELG is a proof mark for Belgian manufacturers. The mark was “Introduced for handguns, 1846 to 1924 [and] applied to barrels exported in rough state.” Alamo Collection #33347. http://damascus-barrels.com/Belgian_All_Proofmarks.html

High resolution imagery of the Alamo Collection will serve many purposes, especially relating to the balance of access to the items and their long-term preservation. Through photography, and eventual display on the internet, the general public will be able to experience these priceless historical artifacts from anywhere around the world. Alamo curators will also gain increased access to the items in the collection virtually, which will allow more detailed research and exhibits, which will improve the overall visitor experience at the Alamo. Perhaps most importantly, handling of the items will be greatly reduced, leading to their better preservation and the saving of Texas history for future generations of Texans to experience and study.

Double barrel percussion pistol with gold decoration on rib. Accession information states “Formerly owned by Col. Thomas King, brother of Wm. P. King, one of the Alamo Heroes.” Maker’s signature and mark: “Jacques Freconnet” with the gallic rooster of France above the inscription. Alamo Collection #32861. http://franceintheus.org/spip.php?article604
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