Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Reflections on the Home Stretch of The Henry Ford’s IMLS Communications Grant

September 2, 2015

This mid-20th century phonograph by Zany Toys, Inc., was one of the artifacts treated by Conservation for cadmium corrosion.

Many reading this post will remember that in 2013, The Henry Ford was awarded a two-year, $150,000 Museums for America: Collections Stewardship grant by the United States Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  In this grant, The Henry Ford set out to identify, clean, treat, rehouse, and create digital catalog records for more than 1,000 communications-related artifacts related to photography, data processing, printing, telecommunications, sound communication, and visual communication.  We’re pleased to announce that with about a month left to go in the grant period, we have put more than 1,000 objects through almost every step of the process, and expect to finish up a number of additional objects before we run out of time.

Given how close we are to the end of this project, I asked a few of the staff who’ve spent time working with these objects to weigh in with their thoughts on what was interesting, what was challenging, or what they’ve learned through this process.

Clara Deck, Senior Conservator, summed up the hazards faced by the Conservation team, and what lessons they have taken away that will make our future conservation efforts more efficient—and more safe.

Conservation staff knew we had our work cut out for us due to the sheer number of artifacts we were committed to clean (1,000). We have exceeded that expectation.

Maintaining the physical integrity of the collections is the job of conservation – but maintaining our own health must always be our highest priority. We thought the preexisting mold outbreak in the collections storage area addressed in this grant would be our biggest challenge. Perhaps staff have seen us dressed in cute Tyvek suits and masks as we do the preliminary cleaning at the entrance to storage. It is important that only pre-cleaned items are brought into the Museum so we do not spread mold to other collections.

But the extent of the cadmium problem was one of the enduring lessons of this project. The ways we developed to deal with this hazard will help us in future planning for similar storage-move projects. Cadmium was electroplated onto other metals for corrosion resistance. The trouble is that cadmium corrodes and the resulting material (a bright powdery yellow-green) is both a neurotoxin and a carcinogen. We developed innovative ways to remove cadmium corrosion from metal parts that were safe for the artifacts and most importantly safe for the workers.

Patrice Fisher, Collections Specialist responsible for cataloging the objects, chose to take an analytical approach to the grant, outlining some head-turning numbers.

As with any grant, there is always a fair amount of numbers-crunching and statistical data collected—How many? How long? How much? But there is always a lot of little-known, but equally significant, information created by these projects. For instance, just a few numbers generated by this IMLS grant:

  • Over 500 custom fit boxes were created by Collection Specialist Jake Hildebrandt to better re-house these artifacts once they moved back into storage.
  • Approximately 300 new accession records will have been created to be stored in the Registrars’ file room for the benefit of future researchers.
  • Every object left the project better than when it arrived. Conservation Specialist Cayla Osgood required over five packages of cotton-tipped swabs—that’s 100 per pack—to clean one typewriter!
  • And for anyone who has an old computer stored in their basement or garage—multiply that by 63 for the number of computers and peripherals that were uncovered in the collections storage area covered by the grant. That translates into 421 individual components that had to be described and accounted for in the catalog record, treated by conservation, and photographed.
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    Kristen Gallerneaux, Curator of Communications and Information Technology, reflected on how a very humble (and puzzling) object turned out to have a fabulous story.

    As the IMLS project has progressed, there have been a few “what is it” moments. When you’re dealing with a warehouse full of technological treasures, completely divorced of context, of course there are going to be a few mysteries to solve. One of the most memorable moments for me was when an especially cryptic object surfaced: a small piece of wood wrapped in cloth, sealed in wax—with two wires poking out. Completely stumped, research soon revealed this object to be a homemade fixed condenser (also known as a capacitor)—a device that briefly stores small electrical currents, and can also act as a radio frequency filter.

    Homemade fixed condenser from the laboratory of Amos Dolbear.

    This isn’t the only condenser in The Henry Ford’s collection—but this particular artifact revealed an interesting story: it was used in the laboratory of Amos Dolbear, a physicist and telecommunications pioneer. In the 1870s–80s, Dolbear went head to head with Marconi and American Bell in a series of patent lawsuits to argue for his claims to telephone and telegraph rights. Though unsuccessful in this regard, in 1897, he published a scientific paper called “The Cricket as Thermometer,” which details the correlation between air temperature and the rate at which crickets chirp. This principle is still cited today. With Dolbear’s laboratory equipment as just one example, the IMLS grant has allowed me to spend time with these collections, to dive deep, recover content, and reunite it through a number of essays—with more to come.

    In my role as manager of our digital collections, I don’t usually work with the objects directly—at least not physically. However, I do track all of the items we’ve completed as part of our larger institutional focus on bringing our collections online. There are two things that have impressed me most about this project.

    The first is how many fascinating objects we’ve uncovered. As is often the case, our collections go deeper and broader than even we sometimes suspect. A few of my personal favorites are the “maser,” a Bell Labs prototype so early that it predated the now-accepted term, “laser”; the Reado radio, an experiment in early home/remote printing; and though they may be of less historical significance, I hold a soft spot in my heart for some of our classic mid-20th century stereo equipment. I mean, who doesn’t want to own a red velour turntable?

    velour-turntable

    My second takeaway is how well our staff comes together on projects like these—everyone is enthusiastic and engaged, and everyone brings their deep knowledge and specialized expertise to the table to help us care for these objects, uncover their significance, tell their stories, and preserve them in trust for generations to come.  We all hope you’ll spend some time on our collections website browsing through these items and finding your favorites. We’re so grateful that thanks to IMLS, we could make this possible.

    Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

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