Sorting a Large Museum Collection

Most museums have them. The large, unsorted, unaccessioned collections that are piled in random boxes just waiting for museum staff to deal with them.

Because these collections, which usually comprise more than 25 items and can contain hundreds of items, are so large, staff don’t have time to stop their normal daily tasks to take care of them. They can sit untouched for years.

One such collection at MCHS is the Stella LeBlanc collection, which was received in 1997. Stella was a volunteer of the Morrison County Historical Society, helping to compile county history and write articles for the newsletter. She did extensive  research on the French-Canadian families of Morrison County in order to track down a genetic kidney disease. The research she did on both avenues resulted in her writing the book “The First Cross: Belle Prairie Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota.”

Recently, museum staff enlisted the aid of MCHS board member Camille Warzecha in sorting the collection so we can make it more accessible.

Stella LeBlanc collection at the Morrison County Historical Society, February 2012
Stella LeBlanc collection at the Morrison County Historical Society, February 2012

We pulled the various boxes from their locations in the archive (most of them being on the rolling shelf shown in the picture) and moved them into the Research Room so that Camille would have space to work.

Sorting such a large collection can be daunting. Where does one start? How does one sort the collection so it can be used in a museum setting?

Because sorting and cataloging artifacts, photos, and documents is something museum staff continually deal with, we drew up a guide for Camille to follow.

Morrison County Historical Society Guide to Sorting a Large Collection

MCHS collections are typically stored according to the type of item, whether three-dimensional artifact, book, photograph, cassette tape, document, newspaper, or ephemera. This is where we start, sorting by type. (Other museums may sort using a different system.)

We are also concerned with whether each item in the collection has a  connection to Morrison County history. Because we have limited space, we have to decide whether a particular item will be useful to telling the story of the county. This is not always easy. We could make the argument that because all these items belonged to Stella, they have a connection to the county, so we should keep them all. But are we going to be able to make use of her copy of “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy”?

We had Camille sort all the big stuff (artifacts, photos, etc.) by type first. Then we had her pull out the ephemera, the booklets, brochures, cards, calendars, newspaper clippings, and miscellaneous stuff that couldn’t easily be classified as something else. With ephemera, Camille was then asked to sort the items into those with a Morrison County connection and those from outside the county. (Camille discovered that Jan Warner, MCHS Executive Director and the person who picked up the LeBlanc collection, had already done a pretty good job sorting by type, but there was more to do.)

With a family collection such as Stella’s, there is bound to be a lot of personal stuff … letters, financial documents, military records, diaries, and etc. Once we get to the document level, the sorting becomes more intense. Thankfully, Stella was very organized with her research so most of the documents are in a logical order.

Which brings up another interesting thing about sorting. Before tearing into a collection, it’s useful to look at how the donor sorted things. There could be a method to the sorting that says something larger about the collection or donor and we don’t want to upset that order until we understand it.

Case in point. There was a framed picture of Stella’s husband Wilfred on top of two conservation magazines in the collection. In the photo, Wilfred is shown next to a deer he shot. In one conservation magazine, there was a picture of Wilfred and Stella with another deer. In the other magazine was a photo by J. M. Totten, the Little Falls photographer responsible for that framed photo. If we had separated the photo from the magazines too quickly, it would have taken us a lot longer to make that connection.

Temporary labels on LeBlanc collection boxes, February 2012
Temporary labels on LeBlanc collection boxes, February 2012

Now that Camille has finished her sorting, affixing temporary labels to boxes in the collection so that staff knows what’s inside, it’s time to repack items into acid-free boxes and folders, which is what I’m working on now.

Groups of letters packed into acid-free envelopes, LeBlanc collection, February 2012
Groups of letters packed into acid-free envelopes, LeBlanc collection, February 2012

The box shown above contains personal correspondence and miscellaneous financial documents from the LeBlanc collection. I have sorted the letters by date into acid-free envelopes and written a description in pencil on each envelope. We use pencil so that if we have to change something, we can do so without replacing the envelope. (They’re expensive!) Ideally, these letters would be in their own envelopes or have acid-free interleaving between them, but that’s for a later, when we can find the time to do it.

Box from LeBlanc collection awaiting new folders, February 2012
Box from LeBlanc collection awaiting new folders, February 2012

Stella has several boxes that look like the one above, crammed with file folders filled with research notes, documents, and newspaper clippings. The boxes these are in will be replaced with acid-free boxes and all the folders will be replaced, as well, with museum staff transferring Stella’s labels to the new folders and adding museum collection data.

Once that level of work is done, Ann Marie, our curator, will be able to formally accession the collection, which will enable researchers and staff to use it.

A big thank you to Camille for sorting the LeBlanc collection for us. 🙂

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