HENDERSON, Minn. — Museum Lady Claudia Nicholson’s mantra: Inventory is the thing of value.
Twin Cities-based Nicholson and her two assistants are helping Sibley County Historical Society organize donations stored on three floors of its museum in Henderson, thanks to a recent grant from the Minnesota Historical Society.
Often there’s a scramble when visitors drop by to see a particular item. The scenario is familiar at small museums throughout the state: A curious person — untrained in history research — requests help finding an object his/her family may or may not have donated years ago.
“Someone may ask, ‘Do you have anything that belonged to my great-grandparents? I think they lived in this county,'” Arlene Busse said to The Free Press.
“We want to be able to tell them it’s right here,” SCHS Executive Director Amy Newsom said.
Enter Nicholson, who’s been contracted to photograph and write down information about all of SCHS’ three-dimensional objects.
She and her employees, Luke Qur’an and Todd Sasse, started the first phase of their project in January.
Qur’an is a graduate of North Dakota State University’s specialized public history program. Sasse, who majored in history at Metropolitan State, worked on a similar documentation project for Carver County Museum.
On a recent day they were photographing and working on a spreadsheet for objects in the museum’s kitchen area.
“We are really moving along. We are now up to a total of 2,000 objects inventoried,” Sasse said.
The Museum Lady crew also will create lists for three-dimensional objects SCHS stores in the historic Didra Cabin and at Henderson’s community centre.
For now, Busse and other volunteers spend lots of time paging through surname files and hunting through a system that’s in place but not easily accessible.
Recently, Busse found herself deploying an all-out search through one storage box after another looking for an item she knew would be ideal for a new display she was assembling. Information on file about the elusive object was spotty.
“It’s been a slow process and we have such a backlog,” she said.
“We will be handling everything in this building,” Nicholson said while standing on the main floor of the museum housed in the historic August F. Poehler house. “That’s what an inventory is.”
Newsom applied for and was granted $94,953 from The Minnesota Historical Society, via the state’s Legacy Amendment funds.
Qur’an and Sasse have been putting in 40-hour weeks photographing a multitude of items from musical instruments to cattle horns, and entering images and details into a data base.
“We are creating a master list of everything they have and where it is,” Nicholson said.
Her project at Henderson is the first for Nicholson’s new business, The Museum Lady. She became known by that moniker during her four decades of museum work that includes jobs with the National Archives, two state historical societies and the North Star Museum of Boy Scouting and Girl Scouting.
Busse said she and other SCHS volunteers have fought an uphill battle to organize donations. Keeping track of them is just one of several museum duties handled by volunteers, so they readily share duties and space with the cataloging trio.
“In the long run, it’s a wonderful blessing,” Busse said. “When the project is completed, we will be able to assist people more efficiently.”
Qur’an’s clocked a lot of hours at the museum during February’s snowstorms. The oddest object he’s come across is a scrap of building material with a label purporting the moulding is from the home of the country’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson. No mention is made of a donor or why the object was given to SCHS.
Thanks to the Museum Lady project, Busse will have time to do research on the undocumented bit of building material.
“We hope to find out if it belongs here or if it should go to someone else,” she said.
Logjams in documenting objects are not uncommon, county historians agreed.
Museums throughout the region have used both small and large grants from the state to organize their collections. Most county historical societies received funding to obtain collections management software.
“The software called Pastperfect is used by lots of museums, to put information from index cards into a computer program,” Watonwan County Historical Society staff member Barb Nelson said.
“We are the caretakers and we have to account for everything (in the collections). If were are looking for an item known to be in the museum, say Uncle Bob’s socks, we can find them.”
Watonwan County Historical Society does a new inventory throughout its museum every 10 years. “We just want to make sure everything is there,” she said.
The last inventory was started by Nelson in 2012. Three years later, it was completed. “It takes forever, but it is a fascinating process.”
Waseca County Historical Society has three collections processors, Vanessa Zimprich, Amanda Larkin and Pauline Fenelon. When people walk in off the street and ask to view an object, these curators are often able to fulfil requests within minutes.
An efficient process of finding objects has been in place throughout the entire 16 years she’s worked at the museum, Fenelon said.
“When something comes in, it’s part of the process to take its picture and to assign the object a number. We just update as the technology changes.”
She recently dismantled a Valentine-theme display at the museum in Waseca. She needed to track down objects to place in a fresh exhibit. Thanks to the data system, travel time to retrieve an object from storage is longer than the time to find its photo and information in the system.
“It’s very satisfying to know where everything is exactly,” she said.
Blue Earth County Historical Society has utilized both small and large grants for projects at its museum in Mankato, said Shelley Harrison, the museum’s curator and archivist. She said computers are important tools that help make research go smoothly.
“Our 3-D collection is spot on, thanks to our volunteers,” she said.
Harrison and her volunteers are now in the middle of another huge project.
“Our photographs and articles aren’t in the best of shape, so right now, we are working on them,” Harrison said.
Brown County Historical Society’s director, Kathleen Backer, also praised the benefits of computer software as well as the small grants for improvements at her museum in New Ulm where all donations are tracked.
“It’s a science,” Backer said.
Her staff carefully documents descriptions of gifts, such as an object’s size and colour and its provenance (ownership list).
Visitors to Nicollet County Historical Society’s headquarters at the Treaty Site History Center in St. Peter may view, say, an old clock or a teapot with connections to the county’s story after requesting a staff or volunteer find the objects’ catalogue numbers.
Like most other museums, NCHS stores information in a computer system, Executive Director Jessica Becker said.
The historical society, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary and 25 years since its history centre was established, is not against using an old-fashioned but tried-and-true system to document its collections.
“We also back up everything with paperwork,” Becker said.
Information from: The Free Press, http://www.mankatofreepress.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Free Press.
Edie Schmierbach, The Associated Press