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Story 11: Learning to Lead

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The Collections Project (1966-1981)

Written by Mike Spock

The Children's Museum was a real museum with real collections. Our guess was that the artifact collection numbered about 30,000 objects. The natural history specimens were inherited from the old Museum of Natural History when we moved from Copley Square to Jamaica Plain in 1913 becoming The Children's Museum instead of the Science Teacher's Service. But most of the collections were cultural artifacts—usually souvenirs from vacations to "exotic places"—salvaged from people's attics and, because they had little value, donated to the museum. Ethnographers scornfully classified most of those odd assorted materials as "tourist trade." Some old objects, also from basements and summer cottages and not exotics, we classified as "Americana." All these objects, from a stuffed grouse, to a wire rug beater, to a Japanese Friendship Doll, were catalogued and inventoried with library cards and entered into permanent accession record journals.

These rich collections got lots of play over the years in classroom loan exhibits, in conventional glass-cased exhibits, as fun things to be discovered in Paper and Pencil Games on the museum floor, as "handling materials" passed from child to child among visiting school groups, and as study materials for afterschool clubs and the summer day camp, July Jaunters.

Still, for all their richness, the collections didn't have much focus, and there were no formal criteria about what would be accepted into them. Ruth Green simply decided if each donation had merit—or not. She had a good eye and memory and a practical idea of what might be useful in the museum's exhibits and programs. In addition to creating and maintaining classroom and museum exhibits, Ruth also was a real teacher of children and over the years developed games and kits, and led classes, clubs, and summer programs.

Among this sprawling accumulation of items, interesting objects were often misidentified. Parts of sets might have different accession numbers. Some things were in bad shape and probably should have been actively conserved or just withdrawn. Some objects had real value, or were irreplaceable, and should not continue to be handled or circulated in the loan boxes. Some things had special value to members of a particular culture and should not be displayed to the public or even be considered for repatriation in the community of origin.

The collection needed work.

We also realized that we were up against the boundaries of the definition of a children's museum. What was a teaching collection? Should objects be allowed to be used up? What was the definition of "real value?" Could a cultural artifact be identified simply as a generic "Indian Bow," or did it deserve a more specific and accurate cultural designation such as a "Ceremonial Apache Bow?" Should the collection be subject to periodic inventory?

Example of things that brought these questions into relief were the following:

  • A set of woven Netsilik Eskimo bags purchased in Pely Bay for the Eskimo Seal Hunting MATCh Kits to hold activity game pieces. The bags later had to be reclassified from the Teaching Collection to the Reserve Collection when the last women who made them died and no one was left to pass on the weaving technique. We reluctantly withdrew the game bag, even though it was originally conceived as packaging—but terrific packaging—for the circulating kits.
  • A significant collection of Maria Martinez pots from San Ildefonso Pueblo, including a series of pieces commissioned by the museum to illustrate how her black-on-black pottery was made. This part of the museum's Martinez collection is now valued at substantially more than six figures.

During this collections reorganization period, a charming young redheaded man showed up in Joan Lester's office and politely asked if he could see the Japanese collection. Soon after, our Japanese swords disappeared. Years later, this same man, Myles Connor, was identified on CNN's Court TV "...as a notorious art thief...and art connoisseur..." Convicted and serving time, Conner told the FBI that he knew the hiding place of the famous and still unsolved 1990 theft of $500 million worth of paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Obviously, Joan inadvertently took part in Myles' cultural caper.

During the 1968 renovation of the auditorium in the Visitor Center I discovered two empty Krueger beer cans nestled among the studs, left behind by workmen during their lunch break during the original 1935 construction. The cans were in mint condition and sported an art moderne logo of a striding bellhop in the form of a san serif letter "K" carrying a tray of drinks. As a kid, this clever brand had made a big impression on me. Bringing the cans to Ruth Green, I breathlessly told the story of my find, of my vivid childhood memory, and suggested that we add the can to the collection of Children's Museum memorabilia. Several years later I happened to read a magazine piece about the growing craze of beer-can collecting. The article identified the 1935 Kruegers Finest Beer as the first beer that had been packaged in innovative "flattop cans" Our vintage can might be extraordinarily valuable. I let out a whoop and ran to Ruth's office to share the news of our good fortune. Ruth was crestfallen and extraordinarily contrite. She had tossed out the cans!

The value of at least some of the collection may have been only in the eyes of the collector.

As we began taking our role as a "real" museum more seriously, Joan Lester and Phyl became deeply involved in thinking about the future of the collection and its supporting data. Joan, Phyl, Ruth, and I had several meetings about collection goals and what our approach should be to make it more useful.

Possible space to assess and work on the collection had been claimed for offices in a recent staff expansion. So one early decision was to find temporary working space nearby during what became known as the Collections Project. We rented one floor of an old Jamaica Plain shoe factory. Concentrating on one part of the collection at a time, Joan and an intern, Ed Grusheski, would spread out a subset of objects, such as Woodland Indians artifacts, on acres of plywood atop sawhorses, and match each one with its corresponding accession record and collection catalog card. Joan hired a series of experts (in this case, Fred Dockstader of the Museum of the American Indian) to identify each object, its origins and era, and correct any mistakes in the records. Borrowing nomenclature from a system originally designed for searching articles in anthropology journals, we added letter prefixes to each catalog number that identified the culture of that object. We also designated everyday contemporary and historic western material (tools, toys, dolls, costumes) as coming from an "Americana culture."

In anticipation of the arrival of computers for managing museum collections, we decided to think through possible digital-friendly systems, even if in the mid-'60s they seemed impossibly expensive and very far into the distant future. If we couldn't exactly see into the future, it seemed prudent to not spend a lot of time and cash investing in specific hardware and cataloging systems that might turn out to be dead ends. IBM punch cards turned out to be one technological dead end. The short stack of punch cards necessary to store each object's numbers, name, category, notes, home-base location for inventory tracking, and a half-frame mug shot (the cards had small windows that would hold film positives) were another interim solution, although when computer memory later became really cheap, it was fairly easy to transfer the information and images on the IBM cards to more modern electronic databases. As always, we were skating the edge of current technology, and more than once got beyond the practical limits of what we could actually achieve using it—always much less than what we could conceive. In the 2010 strategic plan "Creating a Digital Smithsonian," the Smithsonian Institution referred to this timing issue that we were trying to address almost fifty years earlier:

"...Past efforts to digitize were often driven by sporadic opportunities or immediate program needs, resulting in 'random acts of digitization,' with items captured in various formats using different technologies.

...To avoid a digital Tower of Babel, we [the Smithsonian] will create a unified program, driven by a comprehensive strategy that offers guidelines for what we do and do not digitize; clear policies and processes; and uniform standards" (Chapter 11, page 8).

It took four years for Joan, Ed, and others to finish sorting, organizing, correcting, and documenting all the stuff and data before we moved everything back to the museum.

In the meantime, we commissioned Duncan Smith to design an affordable structure for housing the collection. The system we settled on, and that is in use at the museum to this day, was a homemade arrangement using Texture 111 plywood (originally manufactured as a vertically grooved exterior siding,) supported by a simple two-by-three wooden frame, that creates the modular slides for hanging the vacuum-formed ABS trays (that first reached the market as indestructible, gorilla-proof luggage.) Not only did it become our affordable collection storage system but it was also the armature for the visible Study Storage component that became a feature of the exhibits We're Still Here and the Japanese House, both of which turned out to be our only comprehensive program areas.

Next: Kids, Families, and Dogs (1960s-1970s)