A Longer Life for your Family Treasures

With proper care, family treasures can be enjoyed for generations.
With proper care, family treasures can be enjoyed for generations.

”Don’t Touch!” is a familiar museum mantra. Art and antiques are roped off or sealed into glass cases and visitors are expected to maintain a respectful distance. This is certainly important for delicate art, fragile textiles and rare treasures, but are we really getting a sense of the object and the people who used it?

An antique automobile can be as beautiful as any sculpture but only the sight, sound and smell of a car in motion can convey its full story. The whistle of a toy train or the cuddly feel of a teddy bear can put us in the shoes of the child who loved it. Collectors enjoy operating vintage bicycles and machinery and have become experts on the sustainable use of their own favorite “toys.”

Many museums advocate responsible handling of selected objects in their collections to bring to their audiences not just the sight, but also the sound and feel of the past. Each night the St. Augustine Lighthouse reminds us that our story is one of an ancient maritime port. Its light shines a welcome to travelers as it did when it was first lit 140 years ago on October 15, 1874. The striped tower invites all to climb in the footsteps of past keepers.   A photo could never convey the beauty of the beam at night or the feeling of ascending the great spiral staircase to be greeted by an unequalled view of the city and the ocean. Imagine the ancient city’s night sky without its iconic light or a visit to the Lightner Museum without a concert played on its spectacular music machine collection.

What about your family treasures? Which should be protected as delicate objects and which can be put to careful use? Responsible handling and maintenance of tools, vintage clothing and household objects can give them a long life and give you a deeper sense of connection with the people who used them. Coffee prepared in your grandmother’s grinder somehow tastes better and old records played on a Victrola can give you a better sense of your great-grandfather’s life and surroundings than any digital reproduction, but these treasures must be used and handled with care.

Phonographs, watches and other mechanical objects need to be properly cleaned and lubricated to prevent wear and fine china and silver must never go into a dishwasher or microwave. Rinse salt from cars and bicycles after each ride. Proper cleaning after use and careful storage are key, but each object has its own needs. Fortunately, there are many resources available to help you decide which of your treasures can or should be put to use, and how to use them safely.

For information on caring for your personal collections:

Click on the links below for tips from museum  professionals:

The Henry Ford Museum shares a comprehensive guide to caring for your personal collections, arranged by type and material:


The Library of Congress also has excellent advice on caring for family treasures and personal collections:


Kathleen McCormick has almost two decades of experience in museum conservation. She is currently the Director of Museum Conservation at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum.

This article was originally published in the St. Augustine Record.


Pedro Menéndez: Coming of Age and First Sea Action

Click here to read the first installation of this series on Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.

menende1_smWhen writing about an historical character, it is important to discuss the sources one uses. When writing about Juan Ponce de León’s 1513 voyage of discovery to Florida, the Spanish historian Antonio de Herrera was of critical importance since his writings about the 1513 voyage were the only ones known to have been written using primary source documentation kept by Ponce de León and his pilots during that voyage. In the case of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who founded St. Augustine in 1565, there are extensive documents and letters kept in Spanish archives that deal directly with his Enterprise of Florida but his early life is a little more obscure.

We are fortunate the accomplishments of Pedro Menéndez were of such note that a number of writers documented his life and deeds in the 16th century when his accomplishments were recent. His childhood is discussed by two writers, Bartolomé Barrientos, a professor of Latin at the University of Salamanca, who wrote a biography of Menéndez in 1568; and a “Memorial” of Menéndez written by Solís de Merás, his brother-in-law and companion in the Enterprise of Florida, which ends abruptly in 1567.

These two accounts both closely describe some of the defining events in Pedro Menéndez’ childhood. Pedro Menéndez was born into a large family of 20 brothers and sisters. We are told by Barrientos that as a young boy Menéndez was usually one of the chosen leaders in neighborhood games and quarrels. His father died when he was young and the family estate was divided equally amongst all 20 so that none were left wealthy. His mother remarried and when the 8-year-old Pedro Menéndez was sent to be raised by foster parents, he ran away to the city of Valladolid in northern Spain. He was there for six months until fetched home and engaged to Ana María de Solís who was 10 years old at the time. It was hoped the engagement would keep him from wandering off again.

Solís de Merás tells us Menéndez applied himself to being a soldier on land and sea with his brothers and once on that path never deviated from it. He learned the way of the sea with his brothers including his elder brother Álvaro Sánchez de Avilés on whom he would continue to depend for support in sea ventures up to the time of the Enterprise of Florida. After learning the “ropes” from his brothers (the term originates with deckhands learning how to handle the ropes of a ship), Barrientos wrote, the still-young Menéndez became the captain of a privateering venture in a small vessel, with about 20 men under his command. While at sea they ran into a larger and more heavily armed French corsair. This was during a time of war between France and Spain though French corsairs were never really deterred during times of peace. This French and Spanish conflict provided the political backdrop to Pedro Menéndez’ entire life and career.


 Map of northern Spain showing the province of Galicia on the north west corner of Spain and Menéndez’ natal province of Asturias on the north coast on the Bay of Biscay.

Outgunned by the larger French corsair, Menéndez’ men were prepared to surrender but were rallied by their captain. Even though they were taking heavy cannon fire they never struck their flag and it was said when the French saw the leadership exhibited by Menéndez they chose not to attempt to board and capture his vessel. Menéndez got the ship safely back to port in Galicia.

We do not know how many men Menéndez lost or if he was himself injured though this is likely given the nature of artillery and the quantities of wooden splinters sent flying about ship during a cannonade at sea. It’s also likely his privateering venture lost money unless it made captures previous to its engagement with the French corsair, which were not mentioned by our Spanish writers. The valor exhibited by Pedro Menéndez in this first documented action was a foreshadowing of the competence, bravery and determination that would make the first successful, permanent Spanish settlement of Florida possible.

The Birth of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and Franco-Spanish Relations

menende1_smAs we approach 2015, the 450th anniversary of the founding of our city, many members of the public are becoming interested in knowing more about the people and events that culminated in the founding of St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest port. Below is the first in a series of posts that will share some of our fascinating history for all to enjoy.


In the year 1519 Juan Ponce de León’s eldest daughter Juana was married to Garcia Troche on the island of Puerto Rico. Ponce was taking care of all of his political and familial obligations so that he could finally return to Florida and establish a permanent settlement that would effectively bring the new territory into the Spanish realm.  It was not to be. Ponce de León’s failed attempt would cost him his life and the task of successfully founding a settlement in Florida would fall to another born that same year. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in the northern port city of Avilés a child was born into a family of minor nobility. The child, a boy, was christened with the name Pedro Menéndez. Like the name of Juan Ponce de León, that of Pedro Menéndez would forever be associated with Florida.

Map of the north coast of Spain showing the location of the city of Avilés, the birthplace of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.
Map of the north coast of Spain showing the location of the city of Avilés, the birthplace of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.

In 1521, the year Ponce de León made his attempt to settle Florida, France and Spain went to war. This war set the tone of Franco-Spanish relations for decades to come and served as the backdrop to Pedro Menéndez’s child hood and coming of age. The war began in the north and clashes occurred on the Bay of Biscay and in the Pyrenees Mountains which separate Spain and France. One of the consequences of this war was the onslaught of French privateers, known as corsarios, which for the first time began a serious assault on the wealthy Spanish shipping from the Indies. This began in 1523 with the capture of three Spanish ships carrying Mexican Aztec treasure from Hernán Cortéz to the court of Charles V.

These very rich prizes gave the French a taste for Spanish gold and corsairs appeared in great numbers off the coasts of the Azores, the Canaries, and San Lúcar de la Barrameda, the entrance to the Guadalquivir River and the port of Seville. In response to this, in 1526 the Spanish prohibited the sailing of individual vessels to and from the Indies and organized them into an annual convoy system that would remain a Spanish practice for centuries. This resulted in a decrease of Spanish losses and also led to the capture of numerous French corsairs by the Spanish defenders of the fleet known as “la guarda de flotas”. With this change in tactics, French corsairs expanded their horizons to the Indies themselves where they assaulted vessels engaged in the inter-island trade and sacked Spanish coastal settlements.

When Pedro Menéndez was ten years old in 1529, the Spanish Emperor Charles V gave permission to a number of northern ports to engage in trade with the Indies. Among these was Avilés in Asturias. These northerners, or norteños, had a long established reputation for maritime excellence in both the shipbuilding trade and in warfare. The iron and timber resources of northern Spain and its coast line on the Bay of Biscay made shipbuilding a natural industry. Warfare between Spain and its neighbors and the consequent maritime losses contributed to the shipbuilding industry by providing a continuing need for new shipping.

In times of war the Spanish crown gave letters-of-marque to captains who would outfit and arm ships at their own cost, often in share holding companies, to make war on the enemies of Spain and which operated independently of la guarda de flotas.  Spanish privateers who went after French corsarios were called contra corsarios, and when it came to warfare the norteños had a fearsome reputation as privateers on the Bay of Biscay and elsewhere.  Norteños are very well represented among mariners who undertook to protect Spain’s trade. These included such men as Juanot de Villaviciosa, Domingo de Villaviciosa, Bartolomé Carreño, and Álvaro Sánchez de Avilés, the elder brother of Pedro Menéndez from whom Menéndez would learn much about seamanship and fighting. This was the world in which Pedro Menéndez de Avilés grew and came of age and which shaped his historical trajectory.

Lighthouse Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS

Yesterday we staged a group Ice Bucket Challenge at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum to help raise funds and awareness for the fight against ALS, our Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Two of us have lost close family members to this cruel disease, including myself, so this was a special and meaningful moment for me and we dedicated it to my mom, Frances Meide Bell. I’m sure she would have appreciated watching me get doused with ice water!

Search for the French Fleet in the News!

The cover of FYI, a supplement to Jacksonville’s newspaper, the Florida Times-Union, announcing the search for the lost French Fleet!

We’ve recently had some more news stories out on our ongoing search for the lost French fleet of Jean Ribault. Shortly after our first week of survey we were interviewed by Jessica Clark of First Coast News. You can see the video here, its a really great newstory!

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