Perhaps the one area in which you are least likely to feel “like a museum” or a curator is that, at least in the beginning, you may not have defined your collection.
Museums have a plan which includes the definition of their collection, generally before their first purchase is made. In part they do this for funding as they have to answer to a board of directors, benefactor, or other funding source — often they do before they get or expand a location.
You might not think so, but in many ways you and your private museum have many luxuries that ‘real museums’ don’t have. Some of the larger museums may ‘win’ in the bigger budget department, but you don’t have the same accountability — unless it’s to get the spouse to agree to that floor-to-ceiling shelving unit for those Smurfs. You may attend an auction with the intentions of acquiring a specific piece and it the price goes too high, you are still allowed to spend your allotted amount at the auction on something else. This may not be so for a museum which has been given (granted) funds for one specific item. You may have to ask or include your spouse in decisions regarding purchases, but this is relatively little compared to grant proposals and accounting for every penny in your budget.
However, you can learn from museum curators.
One of the first things curators do is to define the purpose of the collection.
What is it they are trying to preserve?
Why is this important? To whom?
What is scope of the collection?
Is there a specific time period, artist, movement etc which has a natural contained set of parameters, or must they create a somewhat artificial yet natural cut-off point?
They not only ask themselves these questions, but they answer them. This becomes their Mission Statement, outlining the philosophy of the collection as well as identifying specific pieces which are ‘must haves’, and the objectives of the museum. (The Smithsonian website had an excellent section on this; you can view it here.)
Thinking in terms of what your collection means, its scope etc. is challenging. It often requires that we put into words what we do not consciously think about. For most of us, our collections weren’t planned. It started with just one impulsive Smurf purchase, and before you knew it you found yourself buying new shelving just to house them all. But answer the questions; this is where the really interesting stuff lies.
Why do you collect these things? What does it represent? Is there a central piece? What does each piece mean, and what does it mean as a collection, a whole?
At first, some of these questions may seem silly. How can you seriously discuss preserving the integrity of Smurfs, circa 1980? Or write down “why Smurfs are important to me” in 100 words or less?
But once you start to answer these questions, you are on your way to a definition. With definition comes purpose. Now you can begin to articulate what you are looking for to form, organize and complete your collection.
This article was previously published at CollectorsQuest (October, 23, 2006); it is being shown here as an example of my work, per contract with CQ.
Perhaps you resist the notion that as a collector you have your own museum. Maybe you (still) imagine that a museum must be significantly historical or be meaningful to society at large. But let me tell you, if other folks believed that their collection had no value, then we would be without the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia, the Museum of Bad Art, the Cockroach Hall of Fame Museum, and the Lunchbox Museum. (The latter is recognized by the Smithsonian, yet!) Yet these and many other ‘strange little museums’ have hundreds of visitors (or more) each year. Even if the number of visitors who would make a pilgrimage &/or pay to see your collection is a very small one, your collection does have merit and meaning.
Do you still think your collection is undesirable and uninteresting? Then ask yourself this: Do you have people bidding against you at auctions?
Yeah, I thought so. *wink*
See, your collection is interesting. You have a collection, you have a museum; that’s pretty clear-cut to me.
As with any museum, there is a curator: You. You are responsible for shaping and preserving the collection.
You may not have thought of yourself as a curator before, so let’s look at what one is.
The U.S. Department of Labor says, “Curators direct the acquisition, storage, and exhibition of collections, including negotiating and authorizing the purchase, sale, exchange, or loan of collections. They are also responsible for authenticating, evaluating, and categorizing the specimens in a collection. Curators oversee and help conduct the institution’s research projects and related educational programs. Today, an increasing part of a curator’s duties involves fundraising and promotion, which may include the writing and reviewing of grant proposals, journal articles, and publicity materials, as well as attendance at meetings, conventions, and civic events.”
This boils down to three rather natural steps for most collectors.
Step One: Acquisition
This is rather simple; it’s the collecting part. In the process of adding pieces to your collection you automatically authenticate and evaluate items to see what pieces are worth your investment. Like any museum, you have a budget which prevents you from having it all. Sometimes you get lucky; you can afford it, so you buy it. Sometimes though, you want it, want it bad, but it’s too expensive. So then you have to save funds as you watch and wait for another like it — or you may may get more creative. You might arrange a trade for other items in your collection, take out a loan (even if it is just from your spouse), or make payments over time. ‘Real museums’ do this too, only they call it negotiating an exchange, finding a benefactor, or fundraising.
Step Two: Storage and Display
Like any other museum curator you worry about how to best show off your collection. Not only should the items be shown to their best advantage, but done so in a way which does not harm them. Depending upon your particular collection this may be as simple as keeping them out of reach of small children or as challenging as shielding the items from the environment at large. Protecting items may mean higher shelves; protective cases, sleeves, or framing; or even storing them out of sight so that they live to see another decade. Sometimes even the best curators at the largest museums will have to pass on a piece simply because they do not have the room or the ability to properly store the item.
Step Three: Exhibition and Education
The more committed you are to your collection, the more knowledge you gain. The more passionate you are about your collection, the more you want to share both your knowledge and your collection. Through this you become an expert. You don’t have to be collecting something for 25 years in order to be an expert. Maybe your collection is a very unique set of items. (It need not be due to the rarity of the items themselves, but in their context to one another.) Or maybe your collection is so specific & limited that it requires you to be an expert in some small niche area. But one way or another, collecting eventually leads to the collector, the curator, becoming an expert.
As an expert you may be asked to share your collection in a more public venue. It may be a casual exhibit at a Scout meeting or local library, or a more prestigious event at an art gallery or state historical society. Now you are “loaning your acquisitions.” It might be that you are asked to write a paper for your collecting newsletter, share photos of your collection in an author’s book, speak at a local collectibles show, or help evaluate items in an estate. Now you are a curator “promoting” the collection.
Of course, being out in the public means you are also more visible to others, making acquisitions even easier. And the circle continues…
See? You’ve been acting as a curator of your own museum for quite some time now.
This article was previously published at CollectorsQuest (October, 16, 2006); it is being shown here as an example of my work, per contract with CQ.
This past July, a fire broke-out in the historic St. John’s Lutheran Church on the grounds of Bonanzaville in West Fargo, North Dakota. Bonanzaville, a pioneer village with 12 acres, 43 historic buildings, 400,000 artifacts, “and millions of memories” is operated by the Cass County Historical Society. The church was not only a preserved historical building, but it still served as a place for many weddings. After the fire, pieces were salvaged from the church and they, along with hundreds of other items deaccessioned from the collections, were auctioned off to raise funds for the organization — including bringing in a new-but-old church to Bonanzaville.
Hubby and I attended the auction yesterday and stood among all the others in the cold morning air. (It was so cold, objects had frost on them!) We did purchase a number of things (Stay tuned here — and here — for more details!), but we didn’t purchase anything from the church. We did, however, take lots of photos. You can view them below. (Photos of other items from this auction can be seen here, here, here, here, and here.)
The ONLY hair museum in the world with hundreds of wreaths and thousands of jewelry pieces made from human hair. The Hair jewelry was worn both by men and women of the Victorian period (1800 – 1900) and earlier.
Combining my usual theme of collectors being curators, just like museum curators, with digital or online curation comes this story of New York collector Peter J. Cohen. Cohen snapped up vintage and antique snapshots of women — among other things. Over the course of decades, Cohen amassed some 20,000 photographs taken by amateurs. This particular collection contains 500 portraits of women.
The photographs, taken in the US between 1900 and 1970, each contain three females. Once the collection lived in a box labeled “Women in Groups of Three” in Cohen’s living room; but now the collection is called The Three Graces and it’s part of The Art Institute of Chicago’s collection.
The lines of collector, curator, and artist are blurred in this case. Individually, these photographs are worth very little, probably a few dollars on ebay I would guess. But amassed, sorted, and curated in large specific groups, seemingly worthless stuff on ebay becomes art and the collector becomes artist, selecting each piece to belong to a greater whole that our best museums’ curators deemed worthy of their walls.
This can nearly be said of any collection. Collections are works of art, like collages or mixed media projects — or bonsai trees. Often continuously in process, collections are nearly alive with the story narrated by each individual collector’s act of collecting. Each curates — feeds and prunes — for meaning and growth as well as with an artistic eye, to tell stories with objects.
Museum desired collection or not, this is why I love collecting. Not just personally, but professionally too. I love connecting people with the items, objects, and stories they need to complete their collection — or at least assist them in their artistic process.
I was driving through Downtown Fargo on August 2nd, on my way to drop something off for a client, and something shiny caught my eye. When I realized what it was, I hurriedly found place to park so I could go take a picture. This car was parked next to the Fargo Police Department’s offices, on 3rd avenue north:
This is a 1962 Chevrolet Biscayne, in police cruiser mode, decked out in full Fargo Police Department regalia. My first thought was that the car was some sort of promotional fun vehicle, made by the police department for public relations purposes, like Moorhead’s DARE Corvette, or to honor some anniversary. I checked the news to see if there was anything special going on that would require the presence of a vintage police car, but came up empty. So, I went to the source: I called the cops.
Deputy Chief Pat Claus is the man behind the wheel, but the special event this morning was nothing more than the installation of new tires. Claus explained that this patrol car is one of two that belong to the Law Enforcement Museum at Bonanzaville, and he was getting it ready for an appearance at Cruisin’ Broadway that night. He and his wife, Kim, also a police officer, take the car out for special events like Cruisin’ Broadway, West Fargo’s Night to Unite, the Battle of the Badges, and last Christmas they even delivered gifts — they are the “Claus” family, after all — as part of Random Acts of Christmas Cheer.
Both of the classic FPD cruisers are Chevrolet Biscaynes, the 1962 seen above and an also-restored 1967. The Biscayne was the low end of the Chevrolet line, with not quite as many bells-and-whistles as the similar Bel Air or Impala. They were reliable and oriented towards the fleet market, which resulted in the Biscayne fulfilling the role of police car throughout the U.S. during the 1960s.
Claus’ cars did not belong to the Fargo police department, exactly: they were part of the Fargo Police Reserve, also known as the Fargo Auxiliary Police, a volunteer force trained in law enforcement who supplied their own equipment. The Reserve purchased the patrol cars for their duties, sometimes with a police officer riding along, patrolling the downtown Fargo area. Prior to urban renewal‘s messy reimagining of downtown in the 1970s, teens cruised Broadway in defiance of curfews and fights broke out in the bars along NP Avenue, giving the Reserve plenty to do. The Reserve was created in 1958, with their heydays during the 1960s, but by the 1970s there was some conflict between their duties and the regular police force, and by 1980 the choice was to revamp or eliminate the Reserve. Police Chief Anderson and Mayor Lindgren elected to disband.
The Fargo Police Auxiliary Association later packed up their garage, formerly located near the 7th avenue water tower, and moved it to Bonanzaville. It became the Law Enforcement Museum at Bonanzaville, a ‘museum in a museum’, according to Claus, operating somewhat independently, with its own board of directors and with support from the Auxiliary Association and the Fraternal Order of Police. This is where the 1962 police cruiser sleeps most nights, in a part of the building that isn’t currently open to the public. The 1967 cruiser lives in underground parking downtown, and is the usual car Claus takes to public events because it’s easier to get to.
Although both cars are still largely in their original form — Claus said that, up until the police department went digital, even the two-way radios were still functional for police business — their age has required a little bit of restoration to stay in top shape. The cost of repairs has been covered through cooperation from the city, the museum, the Claus’ own contributions, and through the support of local businesses. Claus said that, when the 1967 car needed tires, Fargo Tire replaced them for free — and when he brought the 1962 car in today, he didn’t even have to ask; Fargo Tire replaced the tires pro bono. Claus refers to the cars as “ambassadors”, a friendly presence for connecting with the Fargo Police Department and the Law Enforcement Museum. He said that everyone loves seeing the old police car, and people who were around during the 1960s always have a story to tell about them. Claus joked, “but none of them have a story about themselves sitting in the back, of course.”
When I first heard about the National Geographic Channel’s new show, America’s Lost Treasures, I was excited. The premise is that folks parade in, Antiques Roadshow style, to have their objects evaluated — not simply for monetary value, but for their historical value — to answer the question, “Could you have a museum-worthy artifact hidden in your house?” The artifacts discovered or uncovered each week then “win” the opportunity to be included in a special exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., stated to be sometime in 2013 (though the exhibit does not yet appear on the museum’s calender— which, at the time I write this is scheduled through the end of April, 2013).
While the series has a game show element of competition, the focus appeared to be on the history and museum-worthy value of objects. Sure, there’s a $10,000 prize to with such an honor; but I fell for the idea of the recognition. What collector doesn’t want some validation? And, let’s be honest, a $10,000 cash prize for loaning an object to a museum seems a low price for objects deemed of such great historical value.
But then I watched the show.
Problems erupted everywhere.
Show hosts Curt Doussett and Kinga Philipps are literally talking heads with little, if any, experience in history, antiques, or collectibles. Sure, their enthusiasm is high; but their knowledge is obviously low.
When Phillips meets a couple with antique shaving mugs, she literally gushes and coos her ignorance. Who hasn’t heard of shaving mugs?! I think Old Spice still puts them out at holiday time. OK, maybe not everyone has heard of shaving mugs; but then not everyone hosts an antiques & collectibles history show either. And that’s my point.
And Doussette, who studied music composition and theory at Brigham Young University with the stated intention of becoming a master conductor, may have become overwhelmed with emotion at having the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream to conduct at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (it was a cool, moving moment), but he continually over-estimates the importance, value, and condition of musical instruments. It’s all rather mind-boggling, really.
And it might be OK, these talking heads who are nearly empty-headed on the subject they are hosting, because there will be experts, right? Well…
Enter curator emeritus Chris Baruth from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, who is the expert visited to authenticate and evaluate a walking stick from the 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago which contains a map of the fairgrounds. Despite the cautionary comments of the woman who owns the antique walking stick, Baruth rips the fragile old map! And do make matters worse, you can hear Baruth (or perhaps it’s Doussett?) say, “Now what do we do?” While I tried not to cry (or was it faint), Baruth offers to tape it. Really?! Oh. My. Gawd. Thank heavens Doussett promises complete restoration to the owner. You can watch the catastrophe here:
How’s that for damaging your credibility as an expert?
But wait; like a set of Ginsu knives, America’s Lost Treasures has more!
The piece of metal from the WWII Japanese Zero plane was identified behind its frame and glass via webcam connection — something ludicrous, given the images we are shown of the webcam connection. There is no investigation of the owner’s story; his father’s story is taken virtually at face value. Meanwhile, the descendants of Roger Sherman don’t have it so easy; they don’t have the properly documented provenance of the item passing down the generations in wills and so are removed from the running. I guess one father’s story isn’t as good as another’s.
And at the end, perhaps the greatest injustice of all.
When the piece of WWII Japanese place goes up against the Venetian glass mosaics, the museum curator chooses —
The piece of plane.
I’ve nothing against recording WWII history, but this piece was poorly authenticated to begin with; plus there are museums dedicated to WWII (including the one in Hawaii which said they wanted the piece). And they opt for that instead of those incredible, humbling an huge, antique mosaics made of glass from Venetian glass that came from Murano, Italy; some no larger than a seed, some sandwiched with actual gold. Mosaics which not only have been presumed lost, but which would illuminate parts of history and art which many people know next to nothing about. And isn’t that a large part of what museums are supposed to do? Preserve as well as tell the stories of our past so that they are not forgotten?
In many ways, it’s the Milwaukee episode which most encapsulates the train-wreck quality of America’s Lost Treasures. (In fact, the examples given here all come from that single episode!) If you can get through that one, and still find something fascinating to watch, then you’ll like this NatGeo series.
I myself can’t say I like it. I’ve watched three episodes so far, and I may watch more. But I’m pretty sure it’s for all the wrong reasons. …Well, maybe not “all” the reasons are wrong. I do like to see old objects, and learn what I can. But the more I watch this show, the more I feel like an expert. And I know that as a generalist in this business and hobby, that would be a rather silly thing to say. But apparently Shakespeare was right: “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
Which means you can understand what a miracle it seemed to me to find not one, not two, but three pairs of vintage Schiaparelli stockings at a local garage sale this weekend! And for just 25 cents each! *Faint*
Actually, one pair isn’t stocking; they’re pantyhose… But still!
For those of you who don’t know, Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) was an incredible Italian fashion designer. Her rival was Coco Chanel; she sold to Mae West and the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson; she created the big-shouldered suit of Marlene Dietrich; she designed costumes for over 30 films (partial list); she collaborated with Man Ray and Salvador Dalí. Whew!
Supp-hose, sheerest, seamless, nylon & Lycra (Spandex) in Calypso, 905, made in USA. One unworn pair of stockings, with Schiaparelli signature script in shocking pink, in the box, with black paper (glossy on one side), pink tissue paper, and original care/instructions insert.
Sheer Agilon pantyhose in Coffee Bean, style 199. Package is still sealed.
And last, but not least, Girdle Stockings by Schiaparelli. “To wear with self-holding leg band girdles without hooks, snaps or fasteners.” (Also in Coffee Bean, #889; 100% nylon, made in USA.) Still sealed in the original wrapped package — I just love the die-cut window.
I date them all to the early 1960s. (My camera apparently suffered some issues reading the shocking pink, but all packages are Schiaparelli hot pink; sorry about that.)
There are things that the campaign gives out that are sort of “officially sanctioned,” that they are using to get their message out, like a button. And then there are things that people make and wear themselves. Typically, I like to try to get something from a person who’s wearing something—it could be a lapel pin, a sign they made or a sign they’re carrying. It’s very difficult to talk that item off of a person and in fact, it’s almost not even fair because if they could just give it to you, would you want it? What you want is what they can’t give you. It means so much to them personally. That’s what you want to collect. You want to collect the material of activism and engagement.
How do you know it’s “museum worthy?”
“Museum worthy” implies that there’s some kind of aesthetic judgment going on, which there may be, but that’s hardly the first thing that you think of. The material that we get is so inherently ephemeral; it doesn’t really have any great inherent value. The items can be quite modest and even flawed—they can have rough edges and corners and be duct-taped to a paint paddle or something. I mean for a couple of bucks you can pick up a couple of buttons, but when you get it all together at the end of the year, it really is quite valuable as a record because it doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Along with the reassurance that even professional collecting is subjective (which I admit I still need like to hear), I’m thrilled to hear that curators — at this level, even — are seeking to cultivate a contextual collection based on the rather intimate items of individuals.
Is that any different than what we do?
I don’t think so.
They even want the stuff more when it’s hard to get, when people are less likely to give/sell!
We can argue, or, more accurately, belittle the importance of our collections. We can say we “just” have silly little pieces. We can say we don’t have anything of any real significance. But at the end of the day, we are doing the same thing the museum is doing: collecting a segment, preserving a set of objects (maybe even using home security systems like www.safemart.com), which when put together are a record or a snapshot of what was.
In related news, Scientists hope to unlock secrets of museum smells, hoping to see if the smell or, more accurately, the air surrounding the objects contains anything that could be used to understand their composition or condition; museums and collectors could then use such technology to assess collections without touching the objects.
One of the things we try to do here is move past simply describing the objects of our (or any collector’s) affections and try to show the passions behind (or instilled within) the objects themselves. You may have thought that our blogging was all about the justification for our quirky pursuits, but that’s not so. Well, not always…
One of the number one reasons for collecting is a passion for history — be it our own personal history, a sense of nostalgia for people and places just at our memory’s edge, significant world history, or some other stop along that continuum. When we collect, we do not merely posses objects and clutch them to our chests, we cultivate collections to capture moments in time, to understand people, places, moments… To understand our collective and personal selves.
Recently, in New York Magazine, Amanda Fortini wrote a piece on a series of photographs of celebrities in their homes. In it she reassures us that our adoration and curiosity of celebrities isn’t just some silly voyeuristic exercise. She wrote:
If these images reveal much about the time in which they were taken — the white shag rug of the sixties, the pro-choice poster of the seventies — they reveal more about the celebrities captured therein.
Even gawking at these celebrities is worth something, for they were the icons of their day representing something larger than just themselves; they represent a culture, a time. Many are still considered icons and so they continue to tell us something of who we are even now.
In that same article, she summed things up well with this:
“Only because history is fetishized in physical objects can one understand it,” Susan Sontag wrote. In one sense, these images are themselves fetishized objects; they are fascinating curiosities. But the physical objects they capture are also historical artifacts, a way of making history concrete.
Ultimately the objects we preserve tell us of human events and motivations, even if what we collect and conserve is not fully appreciated by others.
Viewed this way, our collections are really private museums.
Which leads me to this announcement by the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute.
In May, 2007, the institute is hosting a major international conference called “Collecting across Cultures in the Early Modern World” which will examine aspects of collecting as “a global and transcultural phenomenon.” In preparation they have posted a call for papers on the following subjects:
– The formation and organization of collections: trajectories, networks, circulation, exchange
– The motivations and uses of collections: science, art, religion, curiosity, commerce, empire
– The interpretation, contextualization, and reinvention of early modern collections
– The transference of techniques, artistic styles, ideas, and beliefs through the circulation of objects
– The role of geography in the production, circulation, and interpretation of collections
– The usefulness of theories of center and periphery, diffussionism, transculturation, metissage, etc. in the understanding of collections
– Relationships between objects, texts, and images
While these all seem rather lofty and ambitious (not to mention specifically focused on a period of antiquity ca. 1450 to ca. 1850), these questions are relevant to nearly every collector.
Don’t let the big words fool you, these are applicable to your collection. I plan on proving this here, and I encourage all you collectors to do the same. Post your stories here, write about it at your own blog, or maybe even submit a paper to USC for the conference. You are the curator of your own museum; you know why it exists, what affects how you build it, and what it means.
Stop right now, and look at your collection; besides ‘dust me,’ what is it telling you?
And what would it tell all of us if we could see it?