Saturday, November 26, 2011

Do You Need Every Single Thing?

Often when conversations about new museum initiatives come up,  the reason for inaction is that there’s too much to do and not enough funding.  I won’t argue with the fact that right now is a really stressful financial time for every organization, but I do want to propose that perhaps, local history museums own too many meaningless objects--and that paying attention to meaningful objects will give us more time, more money, and more connections to our community.  After all,  consider the BBC/British Museum collaborative project, A History of the World in 100 Objects, a connection my colleague Christopher Clarke made at the WNYAHA meeting last month at the same time I was working my way through the BBC audio.

A couple months ago, I was working on a planning report for a museum looking to be more targeted about their contemporary collecting efforts.  A tweet looking for other models sent me to the McLean County (Illinois) County Historical Society and Susan Hartzhold, their curator, was good enough to chat with me about their efforts.

This historical society is an old one, founded in 1892, and a relatively large one,  with 9 full-time staffers.  When collecting started, in 1892,  all the objects were collected with provenance—a way of enhancing and reinforcing a sort of ancestor worship, I suspect. Susan’s been on staff for 20 years and she describes the issue as “stuff vs. meaningful stuff.”  As an organization, they were facing decades of collecting from curators who, for whatever reason, didn’t ask the questions that would provide the context for the object.

Some historical societies and museums might just shrug their collective shoulders at that issue—but McLean County chose another direction.  For the last ten years, the staff has gone back and looked at every single object,  trying to find, through research,  what meanings there are for each object—who owned, who used it,  how it compares to others.   They have looked at 18000 objects and deaccessioned 6000 of them.

There was not a collecting policy until the 1970s and now, Susan says, they have become, as a staff, hard-nosed about the collections they hold.  They have gotten rid of things that qualify as a “cabinet of curiousities,”  had no provenance or were in poor condition.  They have established benchmarks (i.e. limitations on the number of something—like wedding dresses from the same period) and objects with provenance always trump objects with no provenance.

It’s taken ten years and is part of a larger strategic plan—but what’s equally important, the size of the collection still stands at 18,000 because the society has continued to collect, but have been much more focused and strategic in their collecting.
What is that new collecting like?

Much of it has happened through partnerships with community organizations.  A local Black History Project grew from a teachers’ project and the museum became a repository for materials that were collected documenting the African American community in the county. 

There is an active South Asian community and the museum worked for five years to more fully engage with them—a task that was helped substantially by bringing in a traveling exhibit on Asian Games and inviting groups to support the exhibit.  But the engagement didn’t end with the traveling exhibit, the museum continues to work with the South Asian community.

There is a growing Hispanic community in the county and the museum has begun efforts to engage with it.  Susan admits that it’s a challenging effort as the museum is located in a courthouse, which makes many new immigrants fearful. They are currently working towards a partnership with a community’s Hispanic group to develop programming  for an upcoming exhibit about traditional Mexican arts.

Susan makes the point that these community efforts take a long time, take patience.   She says, “We have to go to them, we have to say, what can we do for you?’   

And that’s a great take-away from this story.  Collecting and caring for collections is a time-consuming process—but a wasted one unless we really approach the process in a thoughtful way—both in terms of what we have and in terms of how we engage with our communities today.

Images and captions courtesy of the McLean County Historical Society, and many thanks to Susan for taking time to share her work.

The nightgown was donated by a local woman, Jean, who was born in 1916.  When asked about the nightgown, Jean had a wonderful story -- She said that she was surprised by the gift, that it really wasn't her style.  She felt that her husband had purchased it for one of two reasons:

             1) He didn't know what to get her, so he let a sales clerk in the lingerie department at the local department store  "convince him that it was exactly what she wanted."  During that time period lingerie departments always had female sales clerks who helped both male and female customers. It wasn't unusual for clerks to help male customers pick out gifts for their wives or girlfriends.

             2) "He'd seen way too many Jean Harlow movies"
Jean said she only wore the nightgown once, but the story and the nightgown tells us so much about  the culture of the time period.
The pottery was brought to America by  the Alvarez's family; purchased in Zacatecas, Mexico. The donor’s father came to Bloomington in 1972, her mother and 2 brothers followed in 1974.  She joined them in 1975.  Her parents returned to Mexico in 1995, but the rest of the family stayed.


Leslie Kesler said...

Kudos to Susan and her colleagues for the work they've done and the approach they've taken. As a curator at a similar size local history museum, with similar issues, I am heartened to read success stories like this.
I would also love to hear more about their deaccessioning process. Did they complete an entire collection survey before deaccessioning? survey & then deaccession by subdivisions of the collection? What disposition method(s) did they pursue for objects with poor condition or lack of provenance?
We talk about deaccessioning all the time in the field, but sometimes I think we focus a disproportionate amount of our attention analyzing trickier cases, when really what many of us need most is a workable model for how to responsibly and *efficiently* part ways with substantial quantities of less-than-stellar objects acquired in the past.

Bob Beatty said...

Great stuff Linda! Thanks for sharing. Not sure I was aware of this model before today. I will look more into it.

And along those same lines, here's a conversation you also contributed to on Rainey Tisdale's "Do History Museums Still Need Objects?" article from the History News online community


archivesinfo said...

I love this! This is along the lines of what I've presented in my book "Cultural Heritage Collaborators." Focus, focus, focus and collaborate to tell the whole story! This difficult economy makes such an approach more vital to many institution's survival. Creating a community documentation strategy is, in my opinion, THE best way to revitalize your institution and to get your potential audience excited about your cultural heritage work.

Marie Via said...

As a museum curator, I can sympathize with the urge to purge. But as a child who grew up in Bloomington, home of the historical society discussed in the article, I can also say that my visits to the "old"
museum in the 1950s and '60s were absolutely magical to me, precisely BECAUSE of all the weird and extraneous stuff on view. Today, the museum tells a cogent story about the history of McLean County, and does that very well. But I'll confess (guiltily) that I miss the sensory overload and the thrill of discovery I enjoyed before it adopted contemporary professional standards.

Katie, Museums Askew said...

I can't tell you how often the bones of this post have been running through my head and the heads of my coworkers, lately.

We recently moved into a beautiful new museums and, as part of the move process, we made a commitment to go over every object and reconcile as many numbering, catalogue and provenance problems as possible. While our eyes aren't on deaccession at the moment, it's amazing how many things (oh, goodness, SO MANY) objects we have that currently have no strong evidence that justifies their presence in the collection.

When I worked for the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center, I was part of the team building the museum's paleontology collection. What a difference in that collection, with specimens selected mindfully for their role in the fossil story we wanted to curate and exhibit, than in the older collections with less focus. When story is a driving force in collecting, such as the fabulous nightgown example, I believe you end up with collections that are relevant, meaningful, and engaging.

Linda said...

Thanks everyone, for comments. Unknown, I'll follow up with Susan for more details. Bob, thanks as usual for reading and passing along; Melissa, thanks for the reminder--and link--about the importance of strategy; Marie--I know, there's something I love about these overstuffed places, but have come to feel that they are a luxury in a way, we can't afford if our commitment is to our entire community (not just those of us who love stuff); and Katie--great example of the why of building a collection, using a class of objects I never would have thought of. Thanks everyone!

Sarah Griswold said...

I woke up this morning in the middle of a think about this blog subject. I don't know what I must have been dreaming about to have so engaged before the sun was even up with the issue of what museums collect - but it got me up and going.
Let me start by saying I really am an advocate of thinning out collections, doing inventories, and trying to get a handle on what really matters to an organization and its community and making intelligent collecting decisions based on what matters.I've had to endure the consequences of a collecting "policy" that takes virtually everything offered, often with next to no documentation, and I know that it takes vital resources away from the preservation of things that really do matter for an organization and its community.

However, I'm also really torn about the whole idea of asking small organizations to choose what to collect - so I feel for the people who feel that there should not be any filters about what comes through their doors. I also feel respect for the cultural vantage point that inspired certain collecting decisions - a sense of what the local community needed that led to the presence of a Babylonian cuneiform tablet in a small town in Connecticut, a piece of Thoreau's Walden Pond doorsill, all those endless spinning wheels that reflected an early 20th century nostalgia for a supposedly more noble past...If an organization has been around for a long time, it begins to acquire layers in its own history that can be very interesting in their own right.

Those are the odd, quirky, serendipitous objects that really have no place in the organization as it is now, but were once seen to be important in the organization as it was then, and they can be just delightful little bits of whimsy that leave little traces behind - not of the things that they once were, but of the meanings they once held for their collectors.
I hate to think of collections that are so rational, so full of current mission-driven items, that their humanity has been lost, that there is nothing much left to discover, and no peculiar connections to be made.

We have a compelling desire to answer all questions, remove all mystery, settle all issues, and yet the collections of these little places that have been around for a while - often with quirky, intelligent people running them - are full of wonder and delight and of the unexpected.
The unexpected has the potential to trigger some new thought, connection, approach to a subject.I hate to see that potential driven out by too much 'professionalism'.
- Sarah Griswold

Linda said...

Sarah--nothing like thinking about work when you wake up! I agree, it's a very tricky balance because that serendipity of discovering objects and meaning is still such a strong part of museum visits. I'd argue though, against multiples, and do really think that it also now, a question of resources--space, time, finances. A balance for sure, and I appreciate any museum who's thoughtful about the process (and by saying we take everything because we don't want to say no doesn't quality as thoughtful to me :)

Sarah Griswold said...

Linda, I agree - I just get concerned when a great idea is imperfectly or unimaginatively understood, and things are lost because of it. My metaphor for that is the exquisiteness of pure Bau Haus architecture which in the hands of lesser practitioners, not understanding the principles behind it, is guilty of so much blight on our landscape.

Speaking to your point on multiples, (and implicitly interpretation and narrative) I recently came across the following in my family's papers. As a young banker in training, my father took an extended tour of industrial sites all across the eastern third of the USA in 1937. One of their stops was Dearborn, Michigan, and they visited Greenfield Village. Later in life my father became a passionate advocate for historic preservation and worked tirelessly to ensure that our heritage & treasures are preserved. He had this, however, to say about museums: "For myself, I think it admirable that these things have been preserved but museums as a whole go against my grain and I would rather visit the natural surroundings...It does not take long for me to discover that I am surfeited with a repetition of some instrument of agriculture which is shown in dozens of forms. The spirit behind Greenfield, admirable as it may be, does not appeal to my imagination in any degree like that experienced at Williamsburg."