When Mary and I registered for the American Association of Museums (AAM) Annual Meeting that was held in the Twin Cities this past spring, it was exciting to be able to choose from the abundance of excellent sessions that were offered. The sessions, which covered a wide range of topics critical to museums and the museum field, discussed what we as a museum community are about and why we matter. Though many of the sessions I attended did not fall under the suggested Collections Stewardship track, all dealt with issues relevant to collections and collections care. The underlying theme of each was that, while museums and museum collections face a wide range of challenges that extend beyond the seemingly ubiquitous fiscal fears, they can and do play a significant role in today’s vibrant, fast-paced world.
The Morrison County Historical Society (MCHS) is a non-profit organization devoted to preserving and sharing the history of Morrison County, Minnesota. The Society’s diverse and complex collection has been housed since 1975 in The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum, a climate-controlled museum and research facility designed by Minneapolis architect, Foster Dunwiddie, to reflect the architectural history of Morrison County. The collection got its start on July 28, 1936, less than two years after MCHS was founded. The first addition to the collection was an assortment of photographs and maps donated by John Wetzel, a local businessman. While gaps exist, such as a threadbare school history, a dearth of everyday clothing and a lack of documentation recognizing Morrison County’s diversity, the collection continues to grow and evolve as MCHS works to capture an ever-changing and dynamic history. The importance of actively working to fill the diversity gap in museum collections was covered in the AAM session, “Decoding Diversity and Inclusion Strategy: A Sustainability Necessity.” The session successfully argued that this is becoming increasingly important in the competition for funding and is critical to establishing and maintaining relevance in the community. One way that MCHS is working to fill its diversity gap is through the project, “What’s It Like […] in Morrison County?” in which participants are encouraged to submit essays on topics of their choice covering some aspect of life in Morrison County (http://morrisoncountyhistory.org/whatsitlike/). Essays submitted so far have covered issues of race, poverty and sexual orientation.
Caring for a museum collection requires time, money and dedication. Caring for a collection as diverse as that typically found in history museums such as MCHS can be quite a challenge. Items in these collections come in an enormous variety of shapes, sizes and materials. One of my favorite AAM sessions, “Keeping Safe: Discovering and Handling Hidden Collection Hazards,” gave practical advice on how to identify and handle hazards such as laudanum, asbestos, celluloid, arsenic and carbon tet (carbon tetracholoride). The focus was on keeping staff and visitors safe while at the same time continuing a museum’s mission to collect, preserve and share. MCHS has photographs in its collection of a glass fire bomb that was brought to the museum a few years ago. The fire bomb contained carbon tetrachloride, an organic compound (CCl4) known to cause severe health effects. Carbon tetrachloride was frequently used in fire extinguishers, dry cleaning solvents, refrigerants and lava lamps until it was banned in consumer products in the United States in 1970 because of its harmful effects. What we did not realize was that we could have asked the donor, a local fireman, to have the contents of the fire bomb destroyed and return the then safe empty glass housing to MCHS to add to the collections.
Part of the responsibility of having a museum collection is to share it. The Morrison County Historical Society shares its collection through a variety of means, including exhibits, research, newsletters, publications, tours, workshops, lectures, social media and our award-winning website, www.morrisoncountyhistory.org. The AAM Session, “Getting It Into the Bones: Museums, Dance and Social Action,” pointed out one aspect of sharing in which MCHS could improve, that of using the museum environment, including both its collections and its physical space, in a collaborative effort with other organizations to connect with the greater community. The session encouraged using the collaborations to ask difficult questions, galvanize social action and inspire community dialogue. What better place than the “safe” space of a museum to talk about issues of deep concern and critical importance to the past, present and future.
History is far from placid. Each of us has our own unique perspective and our view of history evolves as we change and time passes. Nothing, not even the past, is static. So why does it matter? Perhaps it is as simple as a love for a good story. Perhaps it is that deep-seated need to be connected to something or someone. Perhaps it is part of the never-ending search for the meaning of life. Whatever the answer, one thing is for sure. Museums exist. Museums are relevant. And museums are not going away. Thanks AAM!
-By Ann Marie Johnson
This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 25, Number 2, 2012.