Musings by Ann Grandy – Collection Manager
I am feeling somewhat philosophical these days.
I recently had a visitor ask me if I was in charge of the museum. My first answer was that Merlin is the executive director, but I am in charge of the collection. I then refined my answer to say that I am the current caretaker of the collection.
I am aware that my time here at the Pope County Museum is temporary. There were several caretakers who came before me, and hopefully there will be many after me. I know that my day to day decisions will impact the future of our institution – for better or for worse. I do the best that I can, with the knowledge I have, yet I wonder if future collection managers will praise or curse my legacy. Probably a little of both.
The Pope County Historical Society started collecting artifacts in the 1930s. Items related to the early pioneers were put on display in the Pope County Courthouse. The Works Progress Administration funded newspaper cataloging and the collection of pioneer biographies. These early archives are still the heart of our library. They are absolute treasures.
The early artifacts are interesting too, but present a bit of a challenge. The earliest items were not cataloged to today’s standards. There is often just a pink index card with a donor name and the briefest description such as “spinning wheel” or “musket”. The cards are numbered, but there are no corresponding numbers on the artifacts. Had the person typing the card added any detail about the item, such as if it was painted blue or had any markings carved on the side, it would make matching the card to the item so much easier for me.
Some of the cards note that the artifact is with us on loan. That is another issue altogether. Dealing with old loans made by people no longer living is a legally complicated matter. As a result, I no longer accept loans for anything other than a very temporary exhibit, and I leave the existing loans as they are… hanging out here in our collection.
In 1966, the Historical Society built the current museum and instituted a modern artifact numbering system. The best practices that were in use in 1966 are the same as they are today. I have been blessed to inherit a collection that is (for the most part) well-ordered in comparison to many other small historical museums.
Most of the objects are physically numbered. The number corresponds to their donation paperwork and a subject card with a description of the item. Unfortunately, of the approximately 12,000 three-dimensional objects in the collection, I have found at least 1,400 that are not numbered. I have no record of who donated these items or why they are important to Pope County history. I know that SOMEONE brought in these mystery items for a reason and that they somehow just didn’t get numbered. I am doing my best to work through the paperwork that is missing artifacts and the artifacts missing paperwork to see if I can make any connections. I am sometimes successful. I’ll be honest – I do a little happy dance when I can positively connect an artifact to its story. I hope that my detective work will be a blessing to future collection managers.
In addition to the un-numbered artifacts, my other challenge is the sheer volume of the collection. We now have a robust collection policy that focuses on items that will illustrate Pope County history and discourages us from accepting duplicate or poor quality items. In the past, my predecessors simply accepted anything offered. As a result, we have more objects than we can reasonably store or care for.
The indiscriminate acceptance policy has saddled us with a collection well beyond what we can care for. There are many duplicate items. For example, we have 23 trunks, 35 pair of eyeglasses, even 3 full sets of optometrist lens kits. Until last week, we had 5 wicker baby buggies. In the case of buggies and trunks, the items take up a huge amount of space and even the smaller items such as eyeglasses are more than we need to tell Pope County stories.
The large log building on our campus has become a catch-all for duplicate or large items. As an un-heated building, it is a terrible place to store artifacts. The constant change in temperature and humidity, the mice and the dust shorten the lifespan of any artifact left in that building. Items such as tractors can tolerate those conditions better than all wood pieces. Some of the items could move inside, but only if I pare down the duplicate/poor quality items inside the main building. Unless we plan to build a new, climate controlled storage building, paring down the collection is the only answer. The current board of directors is planning to rebuild our log building into a better exhibit/outdoor storage space. This is exciting news, but also daunting. The building needs to be empty before demolition/construction. It does not make sense to move duplicate/poor quality items into rented storage space for the duration of the construction project, especially if they are items we won’t be using in the new exhibits. The pressure is on to go through the collection sooner than later and determine what to keep and what to remove.
Our collection policy helps guide me (and the collection committee and board of directors) through the process of removing an item from the collection. But it still isn’t an easy process.
It starts with me. (No pressure, right?!?) I select an item that I feel does not belong in our collection. It may be a duplicate, or poor quality (broken items have been accepted into the collection), or not have a relevant Pope County connection, or simply be too large to properly store and care for. Using the above examples of 5 baby buggies and 23 trunks: Paring down the baby buggies was relatively easy, since only 2 have Pope County stories connected to them the remaining 3 were sold at an on-site auction. But… what about the 23 trunks? We certainly do not need 23 trunks to tell the story of immigration to Pope County, and they take up a huge amount of space. 10 of them have no story that I have been able to connect, so we can reduce the number by almost half. But it is still emotionally difficult to pare down objects that represent a person’s life-changing experience of leaving their home forever to move to the other side of the world.
I bring each item before our Collection Committee and explain why I feel it should be removed from the collection. If they agree with my recommendation, the item goes before the board of directors. If the board votes to remove the item from the collection, it is officially “Deaccessioned” and the real work begins.
For each deaccessioned item, I need to try to locate the original donor to see if he or she would like to take the item back. If I am unsuccessful, I contact other museums to see if the item is a good fit for their collections. We assume that the original donor would like to item to be available for display or research and do our best to find proper museum homes for the items.
If that does not work, we offer items for public auction. This is a tricky step. We want the public to know and to understand what it is we are doing with the treasures entrusted into our care and why we are doing it. At the same time, we need to make certain that people don’t think that we are just auctioning off antiques to make money. We want everyone to know that we really DO care for our treasures. The decision to remove an item is not made on its potential monetary value. Any money that we do make on the
auction goes directly back into the care of the collection – not for raises for the staff or for new construction projects. When I show people 5 cradle scythes or 20 typewriters, they understand why we need to refine the collection and remove duplicates, but rumors of mismanagement could do irreparable harm to our reputation.
In addition to the physically removing and object, I also must keep records of the entire process for each and every object. Why it was removed, what steps I took to find it a new home, and where it went. This information, along with a photograph, is retained in paper and electronic form. If anyone comes to the museum to see an item that has been deaccessioned, the museum will have a record explaining the entire processes.
I hope that I am making the right decisions to refine our collection so that we can properly store, care for and exhibit the fine artifacts we have; that the artifacts we keep will be the right ones to help us illustrate Pope County history. I am doing the best that I can with the knowledge I have, yet I am sure that I will make some mistakes along they way that will be cursed by future museum staff and/or researchers. I just hope that the legacy I leave from my time as temporary caretaker of the collection will be a net benefit to future staff and researchers.