The Pegasus Mystery

A painting of a Pegasus in the clouds over Mt. Rainier. A Boeing B&W flies by. Title: "Wings of Evolution 1916."

A painting of a Pegasus in the clouds over Mt. Rainier. A Boeing B&W flies by. Title: "Wings of Evolution 1916."

Posted Mon, January 31, 2022
By Sean Mobley

Some museum artifacts are a bit of a mystery. Take this painting of a Pegasus with the Boeing B&W flying over Mount Rainier. It’s an example of a “Found in Collections” object, meaning the Museum has not been able to locate a record of receiving this painting, which also means we don’t have any context for it. Why do we have it? Who gave it to us? Why did they have it?

Found in Collections objects are quite rare, but also common to just about every museum. Even the smallest museums often have thousands of objects. The Museum of Flight’s small objects collection alone is in the tens of thousands, and that doesn’t include archival material, the library, or the airplanes. It’s simply bound to happen. Even the Library of Congress hosts a contest among its interns each year to see who can find the coolest uncatalogued object in their collection.

A common source for Found in Collection items are objects that people drop off unsolicited, which is why museums like The Museum of Flight train staff and volunteers never to accept object donations. All new objects must go through a specific process. Please don’t show up at your local museum unannounced with a box of stuff.

Another reason something might be FiC is that it was on display for many years. We recently de-installed a large section of the Red Barn exhibit which had been in place for decades. Many of those objects got temporarily designated FiC, because so many artifacts came off display all at once and it simply takes time for the Collections team to reconcile all of these objects with the records after so many years.

FiC can happen by mistake. Museums take their obligations to maintaining complete records seriously, and The Museum of Flight and other American Alliance of Museums Accredited institutions must meet strict standards. But people are people, and sometimes things just happen. Record keeping across the museum industry was not as rigorous in the days when the Museum was founded as they are today.

It’s a big deal when we discover something for which we can find no record, like this painting. When that happens, we do everything we can to match the object with anything in our database, with the ultimate goal of creating the formal record if none exists.

First, the person who found it takes note of the context of the discovery. Where was it found? What other objects were near it? If it was found with a number of other objects from the same donor, that might be a clue. Then again, it can be a red herring.

We search our database using keywords. We search emails sent to our Curator and Registrar from artifact donors going back years for any sign of a “Pegasus painting.” We search print records and meeting minutes. Every object that is accepted into the Museum’s collection is approved by the Museum’s Collections Committee. Those records go back 60 years. This takes many hours and is like searching for a needle in a haystack.

We also search people’s memories. Do any staff or volunteers remember seeing the object? When? If we can establish the earliest date the object was seen, it helps narrow down our records search. Then again, memories are fickle.

Since the process often takes years, all this time the Collections team is carefully documents every step they take, and every place they look. This does double duty by both saving future staff from duplicating work, and demonstrates the Museum is doing due diligence if a legal challenge ever occurs.

You might wonder why we do all this? Can’t we just appreciate this painting for what it is?

Museum objects have their worth for the stories they tell. The material culture in a museum’s collection has value because it is more than just a thing. What makes a Pegasus painting in a museum special isn’t that it’s a painting, but that it was something that belonged to someone, that someone used. They were given it or had it commissioned. Why? How? The story behind the object is just as important as the object itself so that researchers can tell a more complete version of the aerospace story. Learn more on our podcast.

Pragmatically, there are also legal implications. Abandoned Property Laws vary by state, and since FiC objects might fall into the category of abandoned property, the Museum ensures we understand these laws and what they mean for us. Indeed, the driving forces behind creating Abandoned Property Laws in many states were museums. But that’s a topic for a future post.

Do you know anything about this painting? Click this link to help us complete the record.