A question:

Which of the following items does not belong in a museum?

a) A photo of a log jam dated 1905
b) A wedding dress worn in 1932
c) A copper spear point estimated to be over 2,000 years old
d) A fifth generation iPod from 2006
e) A Bronze Star Medal earned by a soldier in 1945
f) A 1974 G.I. Joe action figure with “Kung Fu Grip”

If you’re like most people, you probably guessed “d,” although answer “f” may have given you pause.  Both of these items, the iPod and the G.I. Joe action figure, seem too modern for museum collections.

A recent online discussion through a Yahoo! Group for small museums, sponsored by the American Association for State and Local History, brought the question of How new is too new? for museum collections to the fore.  Wes Anderson of the Barnes County Historical Society in Valley City, North Dakota, started the discussion by mentioning a book he was reading: Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By by Anna Jane Grossman (2009). This led him to think about the general span of time represented within his museum’s collections, which are primarily limited to pre-World War II items. After trying to introduce more recent history (1970s and 1980s)  through a couple of community events, he was told by attendees that these time periods were “Too New” to be considered history. Wes then asked Yahoo! Group members to comment on efforts to collect current history, asking, “Anyone have a Sony Walkman on display yet? How about a Betamax machine?”

Museum professionals who responded to Wes were unanimous in believing that it is important for museums to be collecting the items of today so that we have them for tomorrow. We at the Morrison County Historical Society (MCHS) have long held that view and continually work to fill in time period gaps and add modern items to our collections. Group respondents suggested collecting Tupperware, 8-track tape players, rotary dial phones, weed eaters, lawn mowers,  plastic milk jugs, and Apple 2 computers. Can you believe there are children who don’t know how to use a rotary phone?

While we can’t claim to have an Apple 2 computer in our collections, we do have an mp3 player. We also have plastic dishware along the lines of Tupperware and an 8-track tape player with tapes.

We do not differentiate between “old” stuff and “new” stuff when it comes to artifacts because that new stuff will eventually slip into the category of historic. And it won’t necessarily take very long to do so. Take hand-held electronic devices, for example. They have a useful life of about three-to-five years before they become obsolete. The Apple iPod has gone through five generations, with numerous permutations, since it was introduced on October 23, 2001.

By now it should be apparent that the opening question was a trick one. All of the listed items potentially belong in a museum, with the age of an item being a minor part of whether each makes its way into a particular museum’s collection. The greater considerations are provenance (the story behind an item) and a museum’s mission. The mission of MCHS is based on geography. We collect items that have a connection to Morrison County, which we determine through the provenance we are given before an item is donated. We won’t take just any G.I. Joe with Kung Fu Grip, but we will take one that a boy from Buckman played with while growing up. (Due to a shortage of space, we won’t take twenty G.I. Joes with Kung Fu Grip, but we might accept two or three. They better have some good stories, though!)

When considering an artifact donation to your local museum, don’t stop at items dated before World War II. History can be as recent as yesterday.

By Mary Warner

Copyright 2010, Morrison County Historical Society
This article first appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society’s newsletter in 2010, Vol. 23, No. 2.


Sources: [Apple, Inc.] Identifying iPod models: http://support.apple.com/kb/ht1353, site accessed June 8, 2010.

[Apple, Inc.] Apple Presents iPod: http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2001/oct/23ipod.html, site accessed June 8, 2010.

[Hasbro] G.I. Joe Timeline: http://www.hasbro.com/gijoe/en_US/discover/timeline.cfm, site accessed June 8, 2010.

[Wikipedia] G.I. Joe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G.I._Joe, site accessed June 8, 2010.

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