Museums and Collecting

I’ve been thinking about museums a lot lately.  First, There was a post at HollyGab about the term “museum quality.”  Now that’s food for thought!

Then I ran across a brochure put out by the Friends of Mountain History called the Western North Carolina Museum Guide.  This little guide lists 105 museum in WNC!  Who knew there were so many?  Now I’ve made it my mission to visit as many as possible this summer (Though I’m pretty sure I’ll pass on the three mineral museums and the teapot museum).  Several I’ve already visited recently, and last week I added another to my list.

I’m not going to give the name of the museum because I’m going to talk about a discussion I had with the director, and some of the things he had to say about museum collections – especially small museums of limited means – might be taken the wrong way by people who have donated to this museum.

First, small museums are really hurting these days.  Budgets have been slashed, cash donations are down.  One of the simpliest things one can do to help is to visit your local museums, pay the admission fee if there is one, and buy something if they have a shop.

And even though revenue is down, item donations are not.  People want their family treasures to be preserved, and one way of doing this is through your local museum.  The problem is, how is it decided what items ought to be acquired?  Unfortunately for most local museums, in the early days of the museum, things are brought in with no thought of building a collection.  Things are merely accumulated.

As a result, this small museum that has a very limited storage space has ended up with 5 or 6 large spinning wheels, a dozen treadle sewing machines and 19 vintage typewriters!  That’s a lot of duplication, but who is to tell a family who wants to give grandma’s sewing machine to the museum that they don’t have a need for it?  And after you already have 12 machines, how do you decide what to display?  How do you handle deaccessions without hurting feelings (This is a small town, remember!)?

I’ve discussed the deaccession process before, and it can be a very touchy subject, even with large, well established museums.  People want their donated item to be preserved in a place of honor, not sold to make the thing that most museums really need – cash.   The temptation is to put the excess in a big truck, haul it half-way across the country where no one would know, and have a huge sale.  Okay, that is what I’d be tempted to do, not this museum director!

But this puts collecting into perspective.  I’ve been collecting clothing in a serious manner for only about 5 years.   In that time I’ve learned a great deal about proper storage, about record keeping, about building a collection with meaning instead of just accumulating lots of neat stuff.  I’m in the middle of a through inventory, and I kick myself everyday for not keeping better records from the start.

But the good thing is that I have control; I don’t have to answer to a board of directors nor do I have to satisfy the requirements of being a non-profit organization.  If I find a redundancy in my collection, I can freely sell it to make money to buy what I need.  Unfortunately, the small public museum has none of these freedoms.


Posted by Lin:

Really interesting post, Lizzie. Same thing is happening to small museums all over. And the role of the local museum as repository of family memories that can no longer be preserved by descendants is an under-recognized one. Might I ask how you are inventorying your collection and what information you’re able to collate? This preys on my mind a lot, having a magpie collecting habit myself that I would disapprove of if it were applied to anything over 200 years old…

Saturday, May 8th 2010 @ 3:26 AM

Posted by Lizzie:

Lin,I’ve started by assigning each item a number (Based on age of item, type of item…). Then I photograph each thing and make a card with photo and info: when and where acquired, cost of item, condition, and any additional info I have about the item. It is taking forever!

For a collection like yours, I’d probably start by organizing your blog posts, which really are a type of inventory. Then add to it more mundane information such as I have listed.

I’m doing this with an eye to the future. All this will someday belong to someone else, and I don’t want any of the information that is only in my head to someday be lost!

Sunday, May 9th 2010 @ 7:53 AM

Posted by Lin:

Okay, you’ve definitely flipped the switch for the lightbulb in my brain on record-keeping. I’ve been patchily filing disorganized print-outs and only piecing things together online, but this will prompt me to do some proper archival organization/expansion (and, yes, duplicate it on paper). I think I’ll start as you suggest with the blog posts and whatever receipts I have. There will be much indecision on numbering systems, I can predict…I’ll invest in some card folders and start ‘object files’ for each dress (or possibly inter-related groups of dresses), since my research method consists of throwing in additional bits of notes and random comparanda pictures as and when I find them. And having dealt with such museum files occasionally, one can compile them in such a way that they tell a story to the later reader.

But, you know, even though your collection may belong to someone else, it will still be *your* collection. That’s where the research you compile is the imaginative glue that makes sense of the accumulated garments. I wish I could formulate some kind of pithy motto for myself which says ‘Archives are Great’. Good stuff – very valuable discussion for me.

Monday, May 10th 2010 @ 3:21 PM

Posted by Lizzie:

Lin, this sounds like a great plan. Yes, considering the type of things you collect, a folder on each item is a great idea.Sometimes I think I take all this *way* too seriously, so it’s nice having my information gathering validated by a like-thinking soul.

Thursday, May 13th 2010 @ 6:11 PM

Posted by Sarah:

I think many people have only the vaguest idea of the logistics of operating a museum, and don’t realise that most have very limited funds and finite (or even inadequate!) storage facilities.Perhaps it would help if musuems were more candid about their work, and discussed these issues openly – in local news media and so on. So much of their work is literally ‘behind closed doors’ that it would surely be beneficial to raise people’s awareness and understanding of that work.

At the museum I volunteer at, the curator is very polite but firm about turning down donations that duplicate holdings already in the collection.

And the other problem is donors who expect their great grandma’s lace shawl to go on display straight away, when chances are it has been carefully accessioned and then stored in a box, for ever!

I can’t even address the ‘personal collection inventory’ since I’m a hopeless case! If I find out information about a piece, I do take notes and keep them in my ‘collections’ folder on my hard drive, but its all very piecemeal.

But I’m sure that an inventory would also be very useful for insurance purposes.

Monday, June 14th 2010 @ 1:46 AM

Posted by Lizzie:

Sarah, it’s great getting the perspective of one who actually works in a museum. I agree that the issues need to be aired, if for no other eeason to raise awareness of the problems museums face.I think all the roadshow type programs have led to people thinking their old stuff is more valuable than it really is. The few things I have from my grandparents are not unique, nor are they particularily valuable to anyone except family members!

Sunday, June 20th 2010 @ 8:57 AM

1 Comment

Filed under Collecting, Museums, Viewpoint

One response to “Museums and Collecting

  1. Pingback: Mount Airy Regional History Museum | The Vintage Traveler

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