Why Isn’t My Thing on Exhibit?

Every once in a while, an artifact/archival donor will visit the museum and ask staff why his or her stuff isn’t on exhibit. While a valid question, I have to admit that it almost always makes me want to cringe. At the Morrison County Historical Society, a museum and resource facility dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of Morrison County, exhibits play an important role. Exhibits encourage visitors to explore the ways individuals and societies perceive themselves and the world in which they live. Exhibits, however, aren’t the only function of the collection at the Morrison County Historical Society. The collection is a unique resource that is also available for research and for public programming other than exhibits. With all this comes the essential need for preservation. At the Morrison County Historical Society, we try find a balance between the equally important responsibilities of preserving the collection and making it accessible to the public.

Because a museum’s collection serves as its foundation, preservation is key. Without preservation, the collection would one day cease to exist and a large part of history would be irretrievably lost. Items selected for exhibit should be those that can best stand the stress of display. Things on display risk exposure to the deadly terrors of light, temperature, humidity, dirt, bugs, pollution and people, all of which can greatly impact their lifespan. Changes in technology are helping to alleviate this problem. A fragile silk dress, for example, might receive too much damage from exposure to light and other contaminants to warrant use in a long-term public exhibit. The same dress, however, could be photographed digitally and displayed on a web site. While not quite the same as looking at the real thing, it would allow the dress to be exhibited and at the same time keep it from harm.

Sometimes the needs of preservation dictate that an item will best serve the public as a resource for study. While researchers at the museum continue to range from amateur historians and genealogists to professional academicians and writers, interest in the museum’s artifact collection has been growing. Watercolor artists and basket-makers, for example, have browsed through the collection for ideas and inspiration. Perhaps even more interesting is the continuing popularity of our newsletter articles on items from the collection that are currently posted on the museum’s web site (www.morrisoncountyhistory.org). As the trend toward object-oriented research continues to grow, we can expect an increase in this sort of use of the museum’s collection.

At the Morrison County Historical Society we are forced to make choices about what to exhibit based on space, time and resource limitations. We also focus on choosing only those pieces that best fit the particular story we are trying to tell. When faced with these difficult decisions, I find it helps to remember that before the Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum was built in 1975, the Society was housed in a small room in the basement of the county courthouse. While the collection was much smaller than it is today, it is hard to imagine how museum staff, board and volunteers managed to set up exhibits, provide space for research and perform the daily operations that are vital to the management of a historical society.

Each item in the collection at the Morrison County Historical Society, whether on exhibit or not, plays a vital role in the Society’s ability to fulfill its mission, that of the preservation and dissemination of the history of Morrison County. Valuable clues are added to this rich and complex story as the collection continues to grow. As steward of this story, the Morrison County Historical Society serves a critical role, ensuring through preservation and programming that many of our cultural treasures will exist not only today, but well into the future.

By Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 2006, Morrison County Historical Society

The Morrison County Historical Society welcomes items that are in good condition and deal primarily with county history. Due to our limited budget and out of respect for our past donors, we do not pay for collections items. If you are interested in donating an item to the collections, feel free to give us a call 320/632-4007.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *