Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

A Peek “Behind the Scenes” at The Henry Ford

April 10, 2014

The Henry Ford, like other older, long-established museums, can only display a very small percentage of its artifacts at any given time. The remainder is kept in storage for future generations. In recent years, The Henry Ford has begun to digitize its collections, and put them online. This effort has helped expand what we can say about what is on exhibit, and importantly, has made it so that people don’t have to wait decades to be able to find out about artifacts that are in storage.

Thanks to a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) “Museums for America” program, The Henry Ford has an opportunity to digitize over 1,000 artifacts that tell the story of changing communications technologies from the late 1800s to the late 1990s. The project is focused on communications collections that are stored in a large, tightly-packed warehouse on The Henry Ford campus. Many of these artifacts have been in this building for many decades, with limited cataloging. This project will inventory, catalog, preserve, re-house and digitize for online access these computers, radios, telephones and televisions, cameras, printing presses, teletype and telegraph machines and other artifacts, making them available to The Henry Ford staff and the public to a degree never before possible.

Our computer collections have been the focus of the early work. This work has reminded us of how rapidly technological change has occurred with computers. Check out the (not so mini) DEC PDP-11/20 Minicomputer, 1970 mini-computer.

The challenges presented by this densely-packed storage area has meant that the project staff has really needed to live up to our mission of innovation. Before any work can be done on the artifacts, decades of accumulated dust, dirt and mold needs to be removed. Collections Specialist (and in-house McGyver) Jake Hildebrandt fashioned a downdraft table, complete with HEPA and charcoal filter, out of a portable ventilator, steel shelves and leftover grid for overhead lights. A downdraft table quickly pulls away dust and dirt as the artifact is cleaned, making the cleaning process faster and more effective.

Conservation specialist Cayla Osgood utilizing the downdraft table.

We look forward to highlighting some of our exciting “re-discoveries” as we work on this project; collections digitization projects in museums around the world have led to new “re-discoveries.” We expect to add the tremendous collections of The Henry Ford to this ever-expanding resource of artifacts online.

Mary Fahey is Chief Conservator at The Henry Ford.

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