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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged #behind the scenes @ the henry ford

In 2017, I had the opportunity to work with our curator of domestic life, Jeanine Head Miller, on a new Expert Set featuring alphabet blocks and spelling toys from our collections. We chose one example based on a nearly 20-year-old photograph from our collections database. It was dated between 1860 and 1880 and appeared to be a set of wooden alphabet blocks with images printed on the reverse that could be assembled to complete two puzzles. Notes in the database and an image on the box lid alluded to more, so we decided to re-photograph the blocks before adding them to our Digital Collections.

box, standing vertically with blocks with image on them in it; box lid lying in front with image on it
Image taken in 2000; touched up in 2017 by Jim Orr, image services specialist / THF133429

While conducting research for the Expert Set, I visited our photographic studio to see the blocks in person. They were in good condition, and I was able to carefully – with gloves and on a clean surface – assemble each of eight possible solutions, revealing not only the alphabet and two 12-block puzzles visible in our existing photograph (“The Farm” and “Anna’s Delight”), but two other pastoral scenes of the same size (“Grandfather’s Visit” and “My Country Residence”), two full-size, 24-block historical images (“William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians” and “Mount Vernon – Washington’s Residence”), and a map of the United States. The borders and place names on the map gave us hope that we might be able to narrow the date range for these blocks, but some text on the Mount Vernon puzzle gave us an even better clue – the lithographer’s name!

Corner of blocks with image and text at lower right corner
Reference image showing lithographer information [REG2017_1103]

A quick Internet search (an invaluable tool for modern museum research) revealed that Thomas S. Wagner worked as the sole proprietor of his Philadelphia lithography firm for a short time, between a dissolved partnership with fellow lithographer James McGuigan in 1858 and Wagner’s death in 1863. (Interestingly, according to the Library Company of Philadelphia, Wagner was “one of the few publishers of wooden lithographic puzzles” at that time.) Not only were we able to considerably narrow our date range from 1860–1880 to 1858–1863, we could now add creator information to our records!

We decided to have our photographer, Rudy Ruzicska, and digital imaging specialist, Jillian Ferraiuolo, create just a few official images of the picture puzzle – enough to document the box and individual blocks and to give online viewers a sense of the possible solutions. But I also captured reference photographs of each of the 8 completed puzzles for our collections database. These wouldn’t typically be available to the public, but to celebrate our recent digital collections milestone – 100,000 artifacts! – I’ve shared a few of them below.

Thanks for reading!

Set of blocks arranged together to display the alphabet in elaborate letters
Blocks arranged together to show several buildings and a yard with farm animals, along with text "My Country Residence"
Blocks arranged to show a line drawing of the United States, with states shaded in various colors

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toys, photography, by Saige Jedele, digitization, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K

My name is Jillian Ferraiuolo and I’m a Digital Imaging Specialist at The Henry Ford. In that role, I work with our institutional photographer in our Photo Studio, taking photographs of artifacts and preparing those for use in our Digital Collections.

Graphic with text
This graphic shows where photography fits into The Henry Ford's overall digitization process.

Every once in a while, our job requires us to step out of the studio, equipment and all, and photograph artifacts on location. Whether it’s taking photos of cars in one of our storage buildings or taking photos in (or of!) one of the buildings in Greenfield Village, if it can’t fit inside the studio, then we pack up and go to it. For example, the geodesic truss pictured below is in storage, but we needed to photograph it. You can see from the photo below how large it is, so instead of trying to find some way to get it to the Photo Studio in the museum, we went to it.

Camera on tripod in foreground pointing toward white paper with metal truss in front of it alongside a large red brick building
Photography staff and volunteers shooting the geodesic truss on location at a storage building.

Trapezoidal structure made of metal bars
The finished product: Geodesic Dome Test Module, Designed by R. Buckminster Fuller, 1953. / THF166740

One of the biggest challenges for us when we shoot outside the studio is making the most of our time. Given how large our campus is, we try to be as efficient as possible while still creating the same shooting environment on location as we would in the studio, especially when it comes to lighting and image quality. Another challenge of location shoots is that they allow less freedom than being in the studio—some objects are in a specific spot and can’t be moved or adjusted. When we’re in the studio we can change angles, move lights, and make adjustments easily, but if we’re out photographing a train car, and need to capture a different view, we have to move around it—there’s no way it’s moving!

Two people behind a camera on a tripod in a brick-walled room
Another example of getting creative to photograph a lathe used by Henry Ford out at the Bagley Avenue Workshop in Greenfield Village.

While shooting out on location can be a challenge, it is also a nice change of pace and a nice change of scenery. It forces us to think outside the box and get creative with taking photos—especially when the shoot involves something outside the norm. Take, for example, quilts—since they’re so large, we have to get up much higher than they are so we can get an accurate photo of the entire quilt. (You can read more about our quilt photography process here.)

Person with camera on landing at top of staircase, looking down over railing toward a large tilted board with a textile on it
Getting ready to photograph quilts from the Highland Park Engine catwalk in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

But whether we’re in the studio or not, we’re passionate about what we do, and we are ready to take on any challenge!

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by Jillian Ferraiuolo, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, digitization, photography

Dark background containing white line drawings, notations and text

By the early 1950s, Ford Motor Company’s engineers had made over one million technical drawings of the parts used to make Ford cars and trucks. In 1949 alone, they used 13 million square feet of blueprint paper!

Large room full of tables, some of which have men standing near, leaning on, or lying on them with pencils or pens in hand
Ford Motor Company engineers at work, circa 1952. / THF125069

The drawings were being stashed away wherever room could be found. Since many of the drawings were for parts that were still in production, there was concern that the company’s operations would come to a halt if drawings were lost to a fire, a flood, or worse. Plans were made to microfilm the drawings so they could be stored more securely.

Sheet with text that notes among other things “top security for its records in the event of a bombing attack”
Paragraph from a 1951 brochure detailing the microfilming project. Cold War tensions were running high. / detail from THF135511

Three women in room with small filing cabinets along the walls and desks in the center
Eleven fireproof storage safes, holding one million microfilmed drawings, 1951. / THF123713

To save space, most of the original paper blueprints were destroyed after the drawings were copied onto microfilm. But a few can still be found in our Miscellaneous Ford Motor Company Blueprint and Drawings Collection.

Blueprint with blue background containing line drawings with notations and text
Blueprint showing part TT-7851-R for a Ford Model TT Truck. / THF138486

Dark background containing white line drawings, notations and text
70 mm microfilm copy of the same drawing. / THF406917

The Ford Motor Company Part Drawing Collection consists of over one million Ford engineering drawings from 1903–1957, on 70 mm microfilm. Each piece of film measures approximately 2.625 x 3.5 inches, and is in a manila envelope that shows the part number and the drawing’s latest revision date.

Manila envelope with handwritten numbers and red check mark
Envelope for drawing TT-7851-R, dated August 25, 1926. / THF406916

As of this writing, about 3,000 Ford part drawings can be seen on our Digital Collections website. Only 997,000 to go!

So, why don’t we “just” digitize them all?

The first challenge is the size of the film. Most high-speed scanners on the market now are not equipped to hold 70 mm film. And because each frame of film was cut from its roll and placed in a separate envelope, the film cannot simply be run through a machine.

We image the film using an Epson Perfection V850 Scanner with built-in Transparency Unit (a light inside the lid that allows it to scan film). Each piece of film measures just under 3 x 4 inches, so a scanning resolution of 1200 dpi (3600 x 4800 pixels) will usually suffice … but we go higher if a drawing looks like it will be difficult to read.

Three sheets with intricate drawings, notations and text
Larger blueprints, like this one for a V-8 Cylinder Block, were microfilmed in segments. / THF401366

After the film has been scanned, the images are straightened and cropped, and adjustments may be made to the brightness and contrast. If the film is a negative, we also create an additional, positive version of the digital image.

Line drawings, notations and text on light background
This version of the digital image can be printed without using as much toner. / THF406918

However, the bigger challenge is the data entry. Even the best digital image is useless if nobody can find it. To that end, it is necessary to transcribe the part number, the date of the drawing, and the title of the drawing from each piece of film. And many of the drawings include more than one part number!

Handwritten text reading in part “A-18254-B” followed by “A-18255-B”
If parts are symmetrical opposites, there is only one drawing for the pair. / detail from THF400831

Handwritten text in tabular format with numbers, dates, and initials
The revision history appears in the upper right corner of each drawing. This drawing is dated December 3, 1930 … but earlier versions may also exist. / detail from THF400831

If you are interested in researching the Ford Motor Company Part Drawings Collection, our Popular Research Topics page includes an FAQ and information about how to get started. Inquiries can be sent to research.center@thehenryford.org.

The Henry Ford is facing unprecedented financial challenges due to the impact of our 16-week closure and reduced operations. We need your help in securing our future. Love the Henry Ford? Please support all that we treasure—including our digitization program. Longtime supporters of The Henry Ford will match your donation dollar for dollar, so your contribution will have double the impact.
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archives, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, digitization, drawings, by Jim Orr, cars, Ford Motor Company

Factory topped with several smokestacks and a water tower, with cars driving by in front

Exterior View, Ford Highland Park Plant, 30 March 1932; Object P.833.56894.1 / THF237509

When Ford Motor Company engineers developed the assembly line at the Highland Park Plant back in 1913, they were seeking to increase production volume in order to provide more automobiles to the general public at a reasonable cost, and in a reasonable time.

Move ahead more than 100 years to 2020, where the staff of The Henry Ford and the Benson Ford Research Center (BFRC) are operating a modern assembly line to digitize images and documents from our collections and make them available online.

By some estimates, The Henry Ford holds roughly 26 million 2D and 3D objects, with the majority of that total – some 25 million items – contained within the archival collections at the BFRC. Clearly, there’s a lot to move down our “assembly line”!

As is the case with auto assembly, there are a number of stations along our line, beginning with material selection, then material retrieval, cataloging, imaging, storage, import, export, and finally ending with online display. Improvements made to the speed and efficiency at each of these stations can lead to gains in the production rate of the entire line.

Graphic with text
This graphic shows where Rapid Capture imaging fits into The Henry Ford's overall digitization process.

To bring that speed and efficiency to archival imaging, the BFRC uses a process we refer to as Rapid Capture digitization. Developed by several institutions as an approach to increasing the scale of digitization, Rapid Capture is part technology, part process, and part philosophy.

Technically, Rapid Capture is rather simple. The equipment consists of a copy stand, lighting, a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, and a computer equipped with photo editing software.

Photograph lying on black fabric with lights on either side and a camera pointed downward at it
Rapid Capture station.

The important feature of the camera is its full-frame sensor, which can create a 400-pixel-per-inch image of an item as large as 9 × 14 inches, allowing us to provide users with high-quality images for the majority of our archival materials, which can be easily viewed, downloaded, and used for presentations or reports.

At the click of the shutter button, the camera can record an entire image – perhaps an 8 × 10 photographic print – without the cycle time of a more traditional flatbed scanner. If you’ve used a digital camera or a camera phone to take personal photographs, then you know how quickly you can take tens or even hundreds of snapshots. The same holds true for Rapid Capture, with the limit on imaging rate being the safe and proper handling of the archival material, not the time spent waiting for the scanner to make a pass.

On certain projects, we are able to capture both sides of a photographic print in less than 60 seconds, translating to nearly 500 prints imaged in a single day. Our flatbed scanner can produce 10-12 images per hour, or both sides of just 48 prints per day. Starting with a single Rapid Capture workstation in February 2011 and now utilizing two workstations, we have produced nearly 100,000 production images since the launching the process.

Process, or efficiency in process, is also an important part of Rapid Capture. For example, since material handling is one of the keys to the speed of Rapid Capture, we work to select and schedule material in groups having similar sizes or formats and that are located together physically, such as the box of 8 × 10 photographic prints shown below.

box standing vertically; folder open in front of it with photo lying on top
8 x 10 photographs from our collection foldered within an archival box.

Another example occurs in the post-processing of images, which can also be done in a batch manner, including exposure correction, cropping, and derivative image creation. By using automated scripts, much of this work can be done unattended, and in the case of large batches, performed in the overnight hours.

Finally, Rapid Capture is in some ways a philosophy. Rapid Capture puts a premium on user access to large numbers of images, and in doing so forces trade-offs in areas such as perceived image quality and image resolution. An example of this trade-off can be seen in some of our Rapid Capture images, which appear slightly tilted, such as this image from the Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

Photo of train with steam coming from it at tentpole-like station with a number of people standing around
Railway Station at Haines Corners, Catskill Mountains, New York, circa 1902; Object P.DPC.014510 / THF204908

Rather than spend additional time on each image to create a perfect alignment, we’ve chosen to spend that additional time producing more images, with the assumption that you, our users, would want to see more “stuff,” and can accept some imperfection.

A second compromise involves image resolution. While the camera can produce images sufficient for online viewing and use in presentations, the images may not be adequate for advertising or commercial publication. We’ve accepted that a certain number of items may need to be reimaged at some point for publication use, but that the potential rescanning effort is outweighed by the ability to both produce and store more lower-resolution images.

Our implementation of Rapid Capture has proven to be very successful. In nearly 10 years of operation, we’ve created a large number of images that meet our goals for quality, usefulness, production time, and cost. And, as we celebrate our #digitization100K milestone of 100,000 digitized objects on our Digital Collections, we can also point to the more than 38,500 objects that are illustrated using Rapid Capture images as another measure of that success.

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digital collections, by Brian Wilson, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, digitization, archives, photography, technology

Graphic with text
This graphic shows where photography fits into The Henry Ford's overall digitization process.

My name is Jillian Ferraiuolo and I’m a Digital Imaging Specialist at The Henry Ford. In that role, I work with our institutional photographer in our Photo Studio, taking photographs of artifacts and preparing those for use in our Digital Collections. As you might imagine, I get to work with many fascinating artifacts, and I’m going to share a couple of my favorites with you here.

Woman in foreground looks through camera as a second woman holds up part of a dress skirt
Conservator Fran Faile holds up a detail on the Cognitive Dress as I photograph it.

I think the most interesting artifact I’ve photographed is the “Cognitive Dress,” Designed by IBM and Marchesa, 2016. Besides being a beautiful gown, it is strung with lights throughout the skirt that change color based off technology developed by IBM using their Watson AI. Because of the innovative nature of this dress, and our partnership with IBM, it was important that we thoroughly document it.

Three people around a computer on a cart, with photography equipment and a woman adjusting a dress on a dress form in the background
The dress in the studio getting ready for its close-up with curator Kristen Gallerneaux and conservators Fran Faile and Cuong Nguyen assisting.

Normally we capture five standard angles when we photograph clothing, but this one was a special case because we had to account for the lights on the dress, and the changing colors. In total, we took 27 images of the dress, showing different angles, the shifting colored lights on the dress, and details of the skirt and lighting technology.

Dress on dress form with glowing blue lights integrated into bodice and skirt
THF167960

Back view of dress on dress form with glowing blue lights integrated into bodice and skirt
THF167966

Dress bodice on dress form with integrated glowing white-blue lights
THF167976

I enjoyed photographing this dress not only because it was a beautiful gown, but also because it was a challenge. To get the right exposure with the lights while keeping the dress lit up was tough, but that’s also where the handiness of Photoshop comes in. I was able to adjust after the fact and create a very nice finished product!

GIF running through various views and details of a dress on a dress form
Here’s a quick look at some of the shots we got!

Another fun project we had was imaging the Jens Jensen landscape drawings that show the plans for the grounds of Henry and Clara Ford’s estate, Fair Lane. These drawings were so interesting to look through—they lay out the gardens and surrounding areas of the estate in such detail, they’re works of art. Who would’ve thought that an estate would have so many blueprints? There are 29 in total, varying from gardens to orchards and even to plans for a bird pool.

Blueprint showing somewhat abstracted indications of trees, lawn, house
Landscape Architecture Drawing for Fair Lane, "A Planting Plan for section around service buildings," June 1920 / THF155896

Blueprint showing aerial view
Jens Jensen Landscape Architecture Drawing, "A General Plan of the Estate of Mr. Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan," 1915 / THF155910

One of the reasons why we had to photograph these prints in the Studio is because they are large, folded up into individual leather portfolios. Usually anything two-dimensional goes through our scanning or flat photography process in our Archives, but the nature of these prints did not allow for that. To get a good image of them they had to be unfolded, then carefully flattened with a large piece of glass while being imaged. The trickiest part is to make sure the print lays as flat as possible while ensuring there isn’t any glare off the glass from the lights in the studio.

At a glance, I’m sure you’d never guess that that’s how they were photographed!

GIF cycling through a number of blueprints
Here is a look at all the prints and the box they’re stored in.

What interesting artifact will we be photographing next? Peek through the Photo Studio’s glass doors at the back of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation on your next visit and find out!

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drawings, fashion, by Jillian Ferraiuolo, photography, digitization, #digitization100K, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Wooden box with lid flipped back, text and images inside lid, packets inside box and some outside box

Hiram Sibley & Co. Seed Box, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF181542

Several million guests have seen a reproduction Sibley seed box, based on an original box in our collections, in the J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village since 1994, when the box became part of the reinterpreted interior. Commercial seed sales of pre-packaged vegetable and flower seeds began in earnest during the 1860s, and by the mid-1880s, Hiram Sibley & Company advertised itself as the world’s largest seed company. That might be true. Sibley, who made his fortune as executive of the Western Union Telegraph Company, invested in farms and packing houses in several states and engaged in seed trade in several foreign countries. His entrepreneurial bent warranted more exploration, as did the details of the seed packets, all stowed carefully in the box in the General Store.

The reference photograph in our collections database for the original seed box showed a box with seed packets. The accession number, 29.1987.18.1, indicated that this was an early addition to The Henry Ford’s collections—the first number, 29, means that it was acquired in 1929. The second number indicates that it was in the 1,987th lot acquired that year, and the third number indicates that the box was the 18th item in the 29.1987 grouping. In fact, as research ultimately disclosed, our collections included the box, plus 108 original seed packets and a Sibley & Co. Seed catalog.

My need to know more started a chain reaction. First, this object had been in the collection for 90 years. It has known provenance: Accession records indicate that it was purchased with other items from a store in the tiny, rural, upstate New York community of Rock Stream. The Barnes family—Charles W. and then his son, Alonzo S.—operated the store. Alonzo died in 1929, which may have precipitated the sale. Our registrars researched and catalogued all parts of the set. We also acquired archival documents—a map of the town from the time the Barnes family operated the store and two postcards of the town—for our collections to add context around the seed box.

Black-and-white image of houses and trees along dirt road; printed and handwritten text
Main Street, Rock Stream, New York, 1908-1910 / THF146163

Filling in details about seed packets required further reconnaissance. This required removing the seed box from exhibit at the end of the 2019 Greenfield Village season. Our Exhibits team moved the reproduction box and the authentic seed packets it contained to our conservation labs. Conservation staff removed the packets, checked for damage, then cleaned and prepared the packets for digitization. In the meantime, Collections Management staff located the original box in collections storage and moved it to the conservation labs for cleaning.

Once the packets were cleaned, they were moved to our archives, where the packets were imaged. After the box was cleaned, Collections Management staff moved it to the photography studio. The individual seed packets, once imaged, also were moved to the photo studio. There, the packets rejoined the box, fitting into compartments spaced to accommodate “papers” as well as multiple-ounce “packets” of seeds. The final photograph above shows the rejoined box and original seeds – cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, eggplant, onion, pea, rutabaga, tomato, turnip, and other vegetables.

GIF rotating through a number of seed packets with images and text
Some of the individual seed packets that were digitized. See them all in our Digital Collections.

After the photo session, the seeds returned to the reproduction box, the box was sealed with its Plexiglas top to protect them, and Exhibits staff returned the box with its contents to the General Store in Greenfield Village.

It is important to note that the investigation, relocation, cleaning, digitizing, photography, and cataloging all occurred between January and March 2020, before COVID-19 closed the museum and delayed the opening of Greenfield Village. During that closure, between March 15 and July 9, the digitized records became part of numerous blogs written to meet the needs of patrons seeking information about food sources, vegetable gardening, food security—and about tomatoes!

It may seem difficult to justify the amount of time required from so many people to digitize one box and its many seed packets during the process. Each staff member involved in the process had to juggle numerous competing projects to make time to attend to the box and its packets. However, their work created invaluable digital resources that have already enhanced several of our blog posts. We may never know how many people were inspired to plant their own vegetable garden during a year of uncertainty partially, or wholly, because of “How Does Your Vegetable Garden Grow?,” or who just had to have a BLT after reading “Multiple Takes on Tomatoes.”

This is what digitization can do, and this is the effort that it takes. We all do it in the spirit of life-long learning.

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COVID 19 impact, photography, collections care, research, Greenfield Village buildings, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, by Debra A. Reid, digital collections, digitization

When the initiative to digitize the collections of The Henry Ford was proposed, the sheer scope and magnitude of the project was yet to be completely imagined. As the Loan Manager for The Henry Ford, I’ve noticed one happy and unforeseen outcome – due to our digitization efforts, our loan process has become measurably more efficient.

The Henry Ford's Loan Program at a Glance

Given that only roughly 10% of The Henry Ford’s holdings are on exhibit, the loan program is one way to allow a wider audience access to our collections. At any given time, we have artifacts on loan to many other museums, libraries, and archives around the world, who display them to their visitors—sometimes for years.

Here’s a look at our loan program by the numbers: The Henry Ford is represented in 16 states, 5 countries, and 3 continents by 45 active outgoing loans showcasing 256 artifacts. Both 3D objects and archival material are represented by everything from transportation artifacts to designer clothing to automotive design drawings. Some of these artifacts currently on loan follow—click through the links in the captions to their Digital Collections records to find out where they are!

Drawing of sleek blue car on blue background
Rendering of Mustang Design Proposal by William Shenk, 1967-1968 / THF174987

Long gray skirt and gray jacket with black belt, buttons, and collar
Suit, Worn by Elizabeth Parke Firestone, 1949-1950 / THF28855

Toy truck with red cabin, white bed, and red winch in bed, with AAA logo on side
Toy Tow Truck, 1937-1946 / THF300268

In the “Old Days”

In the past, loan requests were accomplished curator-to-curator by phone call or (gasp!) written letter. It was a laborious process for a curator to search thru many and various artifact information resources in order to assist a potential borrower in developing an exhibition.

In the late 1990s, searchable collections management databases began appearing, and an electronically generated object report could at least be created and shared with a potential borrower. While this was a tremendous aid in all respects, it was still a challenging proposition to meet a borrower’s requirements and expectations with regards to potential loans.

Serendipity

The Henry Ford’s digitization initiative began in 2009, and while transforming the loan process was not a targeted goal of digitization, it has since become a very useful tool for borrowers from other institutions seeking artifacts that will complement their vision for an exhibition. For the remaining requests that don’t originate with our Digital Collections website, all artifacts are digitized before a loan is delivered, so while they are not on-site, they have a “digital presence” at The Henry Ford.

Today, 90% of all loan requests are made after borrowers peruse our Digital Collections website. Recently I received a loan request in the form of an user set, one implement in our digitization toolbox that allows a researcher, casual browser, school group, or curator to create a custom set of favorite artifacts from our collection. For an example, check out my own Expert Set, On the Road with The Henry Ford, which highlights some of our artifacts currently on loan! (If you’d like to create your own artifact user set, simply click “Add to Set” from any artifact page in our Digital Collections and log in or create a free account. You can create, save, and share as many sets as you like!)

As we all become more comfortable with embracing new technologies, I see this trend only expanding the significant impact of the collections of The Henry Ford. Not only are our Digital Collections a way to attract new audiences and provide them with new and better experiences, they are also a valuable work tool!

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technology, digital collections, by Patrice Fisher, digitization, #digitization100K, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Gray wall with images and text in larger building; hanging figure of superhero in right foreground
Entrance to the exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

We curators love to show off our expertise in these blog posts—with knowledge we’ve gained from books and articles and stories we’ve gleaned from our own collections. But one thing we often forget to do is to invite opinions from other staff members. As an avid comic book fan, I have written several blog posts about comic books—about my own favorites, the censorship wars of the 1950s, and how you can tell the difference between DC and Marvel superheroes.

When it came time to reflect upon the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibition currently at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, I suggested we talk to other Marvel fans who work here. They could be like ambassadors, I proposed, both for Marvel devotees and for those who are new to the Marvel Universe. What did these fans on our staff like best? What do they think other people shouldn’t miss? Below are their responses to questions I posed to them. And don’t be surprised if you find a few opinions of my own in here. Sorry. I couldn’t help it!

Mannequin in blue and red unitard hanging upside down in spotlight with silhouettes of people in windows on either side
Spider-Man photo op.

First, meet our panel.

Kate Morland is our Exhibits Manager. Although she loved Archie comics as a kid, it was the movies that first interested her in the Marvel franchise. The Spider-Man movie from 2002 was her first Marvel movie. She loved Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker and Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson. As a teenager herself at the time, she found Spider-Man relatable as a peer. Over the years, she’s broadened her interest through the different movies. Recently, she’s grown to love Guardians of the Galaxy, as she’s come to appreciate humor in tense situations. For that reason, Goose, the Flerken/cat, is another favorite!

Oversized, illuminated comic book cover with images and text; framed text and images on walls on either side
X-Men section of the exhibition.

Tim Johnson is our long-time Program Leader in Talent & Culture. He got “hooked” on Marvel through the comic books. His best friend is a massive comic book collector and got him hooked after college. As his friend tired of Tim giving him grief about his own love of “funny books,” he made Tim a bet that he would change his view after reading Watchmen by Alan Moore. He was right. After reading that series, Tim jumped into X-Men. Over time, he has continued to love a wide array of superheroes, especially the antiheroes and “gray hats” (that is, those who are not naturally “white hat” heroes--Wolverine, Punisher, and Gambit would all qualify as Gray Hats). He prefers the antiheroes because being heroic and doing the right thing doesn’t come naturally to them. That’s his “beef” about Superman (the original superhero from that other company, DC)—very little struggle with his conscience! He just naturally always did the right thing.

Melissa Foster is our Senior Manager, Public Relations, Media & Studio Productions Department. Her love for Marvel has been a “slow burn”—in a good way! She’s seen every Marvel movie—including the 2002 Spider-Man and the X-Men movies. Some are better than others, she says, but when Marvel Studios set its focus back on the Avengers, that’s really when her level of interest changed.

What started out as a general interest in the movies flourished, thanks to one of her friends, who is a giant comic enthusiast and gave her more insight into the bigger Marvel Universe and the stories behind the characters. Seeing how innovative Marvel really is when it came to stories of diversity, and making their heroes relatable beyond the big screen, changed her from an occasional enthusiast to a person who owns Marvel TOMS (i.e. casual footwear featuring images of popular Marvel characters and scenes), pays for a subscription to Disney+ so she can watch their content, and is an avid reader of their comics. The movie that really made her say, “Wow!” was Captain Marvel. She loved watching a female superhero who didn’t have a love interest on the screen—and just was a total powerhouse. To Melissa, Captain Marvel is the most powerful Avenger. She’s so happy that this female superhero is represented in the exhibition.

For me (Donna), it has always been about the comic books, which is where I started my interest back in the early 1970s. Like Kate, I found Spider-Man relatable too. Like Tim, once I discovered Marvel, I thought Superman was totally one-dimensional. And I also first learned about Marvel from my best friend.

And now, on to the questions…

Q: What were the most memorable parts of the exhibit to you? Why?

  • Kate: In my role, I look at both the guest perspective as well as how the exhibit comes together during installation. The most memorable part to me is Dr. Strange’s mirror dimension. Not only do we have two highly recognizable costumes from the film, but the immersive set, including disorienting mirrors and projection, is so intricate and transporting. All of the work that went into its construction was really worth it.
  • Tim: Oh, boy, that’s a toughie! I loved the original artwork, since I have no artistic skill whatsoever and wish I did. The photo ops are tremendous, especially hanging on the couch with The Thing. The flow of the exhibit is on point, and I am always into the backstories of the characters and creators.
  • Melissa: I’ve seen the exhibit many times—including once before it came to The Henry Ford—and every time I walk through, something new strikes my interest. One of the most memorable things for me during all of this has been watching the “mini”-superheroes dressed in their Iron Man, Black Panther, Spiderman, and Captain Marvel costumes, coming in and not wanting to leave. I was on a shoot with a film crew one day and we were filming a tiny Iron Man interacting with the “Be Iron Man” experience in the exhibit. His mom looked at me and said, “We’ve been in here for two hours and he won’t leave.” That, to me, was amazing. I love watching people connect with our exhibits, and this one has brought in so many different and interesting connections.
  • Donna: I loved both reconnecting with my “old friends”—Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer—and becoming familiar with superheroes I didn’t know that well. And, like Melissa said, watching the families go through the exhibit is fascinating. It is so rare to see an exhibit where the kids are the experts!

Dark room with illuminated images at various angles
Mirrors in Dr. Strange section of exhibition.

Oversize mannequin with orange reptilian skin sitting on couch with illuminated drawing of city skyline behind him; additional cases and framed drawings on wall to right
Photo op with The Thing.

Q: What is your single favorite object or feature in the exhibit? Why?

  • Kate: My favorite object to talk about in the exhibit is right at the beginning—an original copy of Marvel Comics #1 from 1939. I’m a sap for a good origin story, and the beginning of the franchise is as good as any.
  • Tim: The photo ops, both in the exhibit and the photo booth outside. Who wouldn’t love seeing their picture in a comic book? Best $8 souvenir ever!
  • Melissa: If you go into Dr. Strange’s Mirror Maze, be sure to walk back through the opposite way one time, or at least look back before taking in the X-Men artwork. The kaleidoscope effect of the artwork displayed is absolutely beautiful, and it’s something you can’t get the full effect of if you walk through only once.
  • Donna: The issue of Amazing Fantasy #15, from 1962—the first appearance of Spider-Man. I never get tired of that!


Comic book cover with images and text in case
Marvel Comics #1 from 1939

Three framed drawings with text and images on wall; additional text and images in lighted case below and to right
Original artwork for
The Incredible Hulk comic books.

Q: If you were to describe the exhibit to someone who is new to Marvel, how might you describe it?

  • Kate: I would describe the exhibit as an excellent one-hour overview to the franchise. When I first saw the exhibit at a previous venue, I was astounded by how much was covered. If someone is considering jumping into Marvel comics, movies, or shows, they can certainly find a hook in our exhibit that could lead to continuing interests.
  • Tim: It’s a wonderfully immersive way to both experience the character history of Marvel and to enjoy a tangible way of putting yourself into their world.
  • Melissa: I would describe it as an exhibit for everyone. Seriously, people who love the movies might be interested in seeing their favorite character’s costume up close, but don’t skip the original artwork. There are some very talented artists at Marvel, and I think the work within this exhibit, would be appealing to even those who have zero interest in comics.
  • Donna: It’s great if you have a Marvel fan as your tour guide but the exhibition nicely helps you understand the characters and the Marvel Universe without having to feel embarrassed in front of your friends or family!


Person looking toward intersection of two walls with images and text
“Become Iron Man” interactive.

Q: What should they not miss?

  • Kate: “Become Iron Man” is such a fun interactive because you get to pretend to wear one of his suits and practice shooting targets. It’s my favorite interactive in the exhibit.
  • Tim: Bring a camera! You will want to capture and preserve the memories you create!
  • Melissa: Do NOT miss the Ant Man and Wasp area of the exhibit located just behind Spiderman. You won’t regret it. Its whimsical, and quirky—and I love it. If it wasn’t for the cool kaleidoscope feature of Dr. Strange’s Mirror Dimension, it would be my favorite part of the exhibit.


Three mannequins in costumes in case with text panel to left
Costumes from the Black Panther film.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

  • Kate: Marvel has such a long history that one of the best parts of hosting the exhibit is the intergenerational relationships that it nurtures. I love seeing two or three generations of Marvel fans walk through together, swapping stories of different plot points from stories about the same character over the decades.
  • Tim: Marvel is one of the best exhibits we have hosted in the Gallery. It is colorful, informative, and fun for all ages. I can’t remember another exhibit we have hosted that was as much pure kick-in-the-pants fun. To sum the exhibit up in one word, let me quote Marvel legend Stan Lee—“Excelsior!”
  • Melissa: This year has been such a difficult one for everyone. Sometimes it’s nice to escape the reality for a minute and get distracted by something fun. The Marvel exhibit does just that. Even if you aren’t a fan of Marvel, just walking through and seeing the excitement it brings to so many, might be a little—dare I say it—contagious—in a good way!


So…there you have it! Thanks, Kate, Tim, and Melissa! We hope this little fan exchange has whetted your appetite to see—or return to see—the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibition before it closes at the end of January 2021. And no doubt you have—or will have—stories of your own to tell!


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Check out these links for her previous blogposts related to comic books:Hooked on Comic Books,” “Comic Books Under Attack,” and “Battle of the Superheroes.” All photographs courtesy of Caroline Braden.

#Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, popular culture, events, by Donna R. Braden, Henry Ford Museum, comic books

Here’s a quick story from the somewhat strange, but definitely true, files of a Collections Specialist, Cataloger, at The Henry Ford.

Recently, I was cataloging some photographs in our collection from the original site of the Susquehanna Plantation. This white house with a deep porch, now located in Greenfield Village, was originally located in the tidewater region of Maryland.

Long white house with sloped roof and open porch
Susquehanna Plantation in Greenfield Village. / THF2024

Some of our photos of the house when it still stood at its original site came from families who lived near the plantation. There are two photographs that include a woman with a rather unique name. She was born Rose Etta Dement in 1902 in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. When she married George Leonard Stone in 1919 or 1920, her name became Rose Etta Stone.

Group of about seven people in and on a truck
Edward "Buster" Pussler, Malcolm Morris, Rosalie Pussler, Earl Stone, Wilhelmina Morris, Rose Stone, Helen Morris, and Mary Ruth Stone Woodburn Posing on a Truck, 1934. Here, Rose is pictured third from the left, sitting in the truck. / THF249737

Five women posing for photo in front of a house
Margaret Jones Dement, Agnes Ward, Elizabeth Russell, Viola Russell, and Rose Stone Standing in Front of the Susquehanna House, 1936. Rose is on the far left. / THF249739

When I was cataloging these two photos and doing some research on the people on Ancestry.com, it amused me to come across such a name. Obviously, the Rosetta Stone language learning software was far from existence in the mid-1930s when these photos were taken. It is possible this family knew of the actual artifact called the Rosetta Stone, which helped archaeologists decipher ancient languages, and got a nice little laugh when Rose Etta Dement married George Stone.

You never know what quirky treasures you’ll find among the digitized artifacts at The Henry Ford. Check them out for yourself here.

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Man in suit and hat slightly leaning over towards a clock and wall with many slots for cards
Thomas Edison Punching the Time Clock at His West Orange, New Jersey Laboratory, August 27, 1912. Read on for more on this provenance research story! / THF108339

As my colleague Laura Lipp discusses in her blog post on cataloging, The Henry Ford’s registrar’s office sometimes “plays detective” by engaging in provenance research to determine the history of the ownership of an artifact – and to deepen our knowledge of the stories behind our artifacts.

First, a little background on our early collecting.

In the 1920s and 1930s, The Henry Ford received thousands upon thousands of artifacts from sources all over the country. Staff at that time attached paper and metal tags to the artifacts, writing their source information (either the donor or the point of purchase) on the tags. They also typically included the geographic location of the source and a date. In the 1950s, staff began to catalog the collection, assigning object identification numbers (“object IDs”) and creating files that held any documentation or correspondence about the artifacts. The object ID is the unique number assigned to an artifact that indicates what year the artifact came in, and links it to its “provenance”—the source it came from and any associated stories.

On occasion over the years, staff encounter artifacts that have lost their tags, or the tags have crumbled or become illegible, so the artifacts have been disassociated with their histories. At this point, the detective work begins, to figure out the artifact’s provenance. We have many internal resources at hand to perform provenance research – our catalog database, our files and correspondence, photographs of artifacts, inventories, original cataloging cards, and more. We also use the Internet, oftentimes turning to online genealogical databases of census and demographic records.

An example of disassociated artifacts came up one day when someone wanted to know what artifacts we had related to Alexander Hamilton (can’t imagine why). Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable and I started looking into it. Upon searching our database, we discovered that we had received some silver that descended in the Hamilton family to Alexander and Eliza’s great-great granddaughter, Mary Schuyler Hamilton: a “sugar bowl” and candlesticks. Unfortunately, the lost tags meant we had to work through all our silver records to see what might match.

We looped in Image Services Specialist Jim Orr and he found a photo of these silver artifacts taken around the time they arrived at our museum. Now we at least knew what they looked like! The sugar bowl was not a sugar bowl – with its pierced sides, the sugar would have leaked out. We expanded our search to other silver bowls and dishes, and the curator and I came across a record for a “sweetmeat” dish that sounded promising. The record had a silver project inventory number and a location. After a quick trip to one of our storage rooms, lo and behold, the “sweetmeat dish,” a bit tarnished, matched the artifact in the image! One down, candlesticks to go.

Silver dish with basket-like shape and handle
Sweetmeat Dish, Used by Alexander Hamilton, 1780-1800 / THF169541

After an unsuccessful stop in a storage area where there are many candlesticks, I returned to my desk and started going through all our silver candlestick records. Just as I was getting ready to call it a day, I reached a record, took a double-take, and called the curator over from his office to look at it. “OH MY …!” was the exclamation all my co-workers heard, “YOU FOUND THEM!” We reunited the candlesticks with the sweetmeat dish, had them photographed, and they are now viewable online. I can easily state that was one of my proudest days.

Tall thin silver candlesticks with broad square base, many decorative elements
Candlesticks, Used by Alexander Hamilton, 1780-1800 / THF169539

Most of the time, we know who donated artifacts, and where the donors lived. When looking to further document these artifacts in our collection, we do research into the donors to fill in information that wasn’t originally captured. While working on a project related to agricultural equipment, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment Debra Reid and I were interested in learning more about some artifacts that were donated by Iva and Ruby Fuerst, such as this potato digger and this hand dibble.

Machinery with wheels, gears, and what appears to be a conveyor belt
Potato Digger Donated to The Henry Ford by Iva and Ruby Fuerst / THF97302

Digging into the Internet and genealogical records, I was able to reconstruct a small family tree. Ruby and Iva’s grandparents, Lorenzo and Barbara Fuerst, immigrated from Germany and were farmers in Greenfield Township (now Detroit) starting in the late 1850s. After the passing of Barbara in 1905, Iva and Ruby’s father Jacob, who had an adjacent farm, continued farming in that area until he sold it in 1918 and bought a farm in Novi Township. We now know that some of the equipment was likely used first on the farms in Detroit and later in Novi. Ruby and Iva, with no heirs to pass the land to, sold most of the Novi farm to the city around 1970. It is now known as Fuerst Park, and you can find a photo of young Ruby and Iva in this brochure.

Wooden implement with broad handle and pointed end
Hand Dibble Donated to The Henry Ford by Iva and Ruby Fuerst / THF171836

It's not just 3D artifacts that need provenance research, but also some of our archival holdings. One day, staff encountered some timecards in the archives that appeared to have been used by Thomas Edison. Curious to know more and hopeful to verify that exciting association, Registrar Lisa Korzetz investigated the matter and was able to find correspondence with the donor, Miller Reese Hutchinson, chief engineer at Edison’s West Orange Laboratory. Hutchinson details in his letter that the four timecards he was donating were the first four cards used by Edison in 1912 after Hutchinson had installed a new time clock at the laboratory. He also donated a photograph of Edison using the timecards at the time clock. Hutchinson was determined for a week to try to capture Edison using the timecards and clock, and finally succeeded on the last day of the week!

Card with printed form filled out with typed, handwritten, and stamped text.
Time Card Punched by Thomas Edison at His West Orange Laboratory, for the Week Ending August 27, 1912 / THF108331

Today, when cataloging new artifacts for the collection, we document the provenance via the background information that the curator gleans from the donor or point of purchase. We do additional research to verify and fill in any historical background. We apply the object ID directly to the artifact in a manner approved by Conservation – different methods on different materials. We also make sure the number is discreet and easily reversible – meaning it can be removed without any adverse effects to the artifact. By using these standard museum practices to document and identify artifacts, we assist our curatorial colleagues in their pursuit to interpret and exhibit our collections to the public.

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digitization, collections care, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, research, by Aimee Burpee