Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged artifacts

Taking Up Collections

September 16, 2013
In addition to those many hats, collections managers often have to wear gloves.

Even now, after having interned with the Collections Management department at The Henry Ford for an entire season, it is difficult to come up with one succinct, all-encompassing description of my job and duties. I will say, simply and incompletely, that collections management is the care and regulation of the objects in a museum. Collections managers are asked to do so many different types of work that the job necessitates a variety of skills. In an institution as large as The Henry Ford, there is such a large number of specialized job titles as to warrant an entire Collections Management team. During the course of my internship, however, I learned that even in a specialized department, a historian has to wear a lot of different hats to get the job done.

Even before this summer, I was familiar with The Henry Ford. Besides growing up in the area, I was also an intern at the museum in the fall of 2010, researching automobile specifications for Driving America. As I entered graduate school at Appalachian State University in 2012, I knew that I was required to do another internship; I also knew where I wanted to intern. My first experience at The Henry Ford was so beneficial that I felt compelled to return.

This “Gaudy Welsh” style Coffeepot (left), object ID 28.953.9, and “Boston” Rocking Chair, object ID 24.111.120, are both of the period and were within the means of a Baptist minister's family in Saline, Michigan. We like to call these artifacts "parsonage-worthy."

Together with two other Simmons interns, I was fortunate enough to work on the George Matthew Adams Birthplace in Greenfield Village. About two years ago, employees at The Henry Ford noticed that the house appeared to be sliding down the hillside. This challenged the institution to find a way to halt the slide and preserve the historic integrity and structural stability of the house. Curatorial staff researched the history of this Baptist parsonage and decided that another interpretation provided more compelling stories and was more compatible with the institution's mission. In this new interpretation, the date shifts from the mid-Victorian 1870s to the early Victorian 1840s. This requires replacing furnishings dating from the 1860s and 1870s with those dating from the late 1820s to early 1840s.

That is where I came in. I was hired on as the Collections Management intern for the Adams House project. My duties took me to every storage unit at The Henry Ford, both onsite and off, in order to track down artifacts that curators deemed as possible fits for the new interpretation. After locating the furnishings that appeared on the list, I documented my findings by taking photographs of artifacts and reporting on their condition and location. I then updated their information and added reference photos to EMu, the institution's collections management system. If the objects were selected by the curatorial team, I moved them to conservation, where they are undergoing preparation for eventual installation in the house.

During this internship, my professional and historical skills grew by leaps and bounds. I learned the proper ways to handle, transport, and store artifacts. Just as importantly, I now know how to recognize, update, and store the data that goes along with the artifacts. With a collection as large The Henry Ford's, it is important that details are not lost in the shuffle; EMu is a great tool for keeping collections organized and projects flowing smoothly. Like all professions, the museum field has become increasingly dependent on new technology in recent years. One such example is with the program Sketchup, which allows the user to create 3D renderings of objects and buildings. I used this program to plan the layout of the Adams House, allowing staff members to determine what furniture can fit in the new interpretation.

An early rendering of a possible layout for the parlor and sitting room in the reimagined Adams House. Sketchup allows staff to create a rough floor plan before moving any artifacts.

This internship made me a more well-rounded museum professional. I have had internships filled with research and education in the past, and it was a very welcome change to have an experience with a little more physical work and independence. Most museums are not as large as The Henry Ford. The variety of skills I gained working in this expansive, fast-paced environment can easily transfer to any museum, large or small, when I begin my career.

Jacob Thomas was one of this summer's Simmons Graduate Interns.

artifacts, collections

It’s always a thrill when we get to meet descendants of people connected with our Greenfield Village buildings. A few weeks ago, we hosted five descendants of Dr. Howard, whose Tekonsha, Mich., office is located out in the Village next to the Logan County Court House.

Numerous Dr. Howard descendants attended the formal dedication of this building in Greenfield Village back on Oct.15, 1963. (1963 – P.B.34298 – THF109613)

These five knowledgeable and enthusiastic members of the family came from North Dakota, California, and as far away as Australia! The group drove here together from North Dakota, visiting other family sites along the way—including, of course, the original site of Dr. Howard’s office in Tekonsha (near Marshall).

From left to right: Corey Washburn (North Dakota); Susan Gillies (Australia); Dawn Gunther (California); Fiona Lynton (Australia); and Angela Karaca (Australia). Corey and Dawn are great great great grandchildren of Dr. Howard; Sue, Fiona, and Angela are great great grandchildren. (Photo by Donna Braden)

All five descendants who came to visit trace their lineage back to Dr. Howard’s second of four children from his second marriage, Letitia Elizabeth (right, born 1864). In 1884, Letitia married Edwin DeMott Washburn and the couple headed out west to North Dakota. Many Washburn descendants still reside there. Letitia and Edwin’s grandson, Howard DeMott Washburn, donated the doctor’s office to Greenfield Village. (86.18.337.1 – THF109605)

Dr. Howard’s office was brought to Greenfield Village to represent the office of a country doctor. It is particularly unique because virtually everything in the building is original and dates to the time of his practice.

Dr. Howard's Office

Dr. Howard Office in Greenfield Village

Interior shots of Dr. Howard’s office in 1956, just before the building was moved to Greenfield Village.

Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard (1823-1883) was known to have a keen mind, an earthy sense of humor, and a colorful personality.

Dr. Alonson B. Howard, about 1858 (P.B.34260 – THF109611)

From the time he started his practice in the early 1850s until his death in 1883, Dr. Howard used a combination of methods to cure sick patients. These included herbal remedies that he concocted himself and more conventional medicines he had learned about while attending Cleveland Medical College and the University of Michigan for a few years. When he wasn’t in his office in Tekonsha, he was “out tending to patients” in the local area.

Inside the office today. The rows of medicine bottles and the wooden kegs that had once been filled with botanical extracts reflect the combination of herbal and conventional methods that Dr. Howard practiced. (THF11271; THF 11280)

When Dr. Howard’s descendants came here a few weeks ago, they were hoping to unearth clues to this long-ago history that would build upon their previous research into family stories and genealogy. They spent a lot of time out in the building, talking to staff and visitors and taking loads of pictures. Then they combed through our archival collections that contained materials about their family and about the office.

In the Benson Ford Research Center. Foreground, left to right: Fiona, Sue, Corey and Dawn. Angela is at the table in the back. (Photo by Donna Braden)

We were delighted that they were also willing to let us interview them so they could tell us more about their family history—filling in gaps in our own knowledge, revealing new insights, and truly putting new life back into the Dr. Howard story.

Thanks, Corey, Dawn, Sue, Angela, and Fiona, for reminding us that people all over the world continue to have deep personal connections to our buildings in Greenfield Village. It was a pleasure meeting you and we hope you come back to visit again soon.

Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

artifacts, Doc Howard, Dr. Howard, family, Greenfield Village buildings

Scanning through history

September 20, 2012

I spent this summer interning at the Benson Ford Research Center helping the effort to digitize the museum’s enormous collection. When I started working here, I told a friend our collection has more 20 million 2-D objects. They replied, “Wow, that’s a lot of stuff about cars.” Well, we do have a lot of stuff about cars—everything from old concept car drawings to bumper stickers through the ages. But The Henry Ford collection also includes many other objects.The Henry Ford Museum was established in order to collect and preserve pieces of everyday life that would tell the story of America to later generations. In my time as a scanner, I helped to digitize many objects that we are not exhibiting — I helped to prepare these objects for digital exhibition on our website so we could continue to tell stories about the history of America, and not only that, but reach an even wider audience for those stories.

It’s amazing how advertising has changed in the past 100 years

The Henry Ford online collection is a 24/7 digital exhibition of various artifacts from American history that the museum has collected over the years, an exhibit that keeps growing, an exhibit that you can visit any time, anywhere, for free — if you have Wi-Fi. Before working here, I knew the museum’s collection was impressive, but I never understood how big the collection really was. If I were to keep scanning images, adding about 60 new artifacts to the website every day, it would take me over 50 years to finish updating the website — and I’d be old enough to retire.

The collection is not only enormous, it is also incredibly diverse. I have scanned old trade cards, original baseball handbooks, and pictures from events at the Chicago and New York World’s Fairs. This was an awesome opportunity because many of these objects have never been on exhibit in either Greenfield Village or the museum. Working here, I learned more about the museum’s impressive collection, and in the process, more about American history, facts that we often ignore in history courses, the experience of everyday life.

Letter from The International Chili Society

For example, I spent some time scanning albums of the Unser family. I did know about Bobby Unser’s career in NASCAR, but I learned more about his day-to-day life and his relationship with his family — I saw him as a person I could relate to instead of a distant historical figure. I learned about his love of travel, his fondness for deer, and his passion for cooking chili.

Perusing the archives changed the way I think about history — I understand how events and people from the past are similar to my own life. Drawing these parallels makes the past more familiar and helps to explain how and why things have changed. I enjoyed my time working at the museum very much, and I encourage readers to spend some time looking at the online collection, a fun and enriching historical resource.

Keshav Prasad is a sophomore at University of Michigan, and spent the summer interning for The Henry Ford Digitization Project.

artifacts, digital artifacts

Introduced in the United States in 1984, the Transformers have been among the most popular toy lines ever since. They were robots who could change into sportscars, jets, spaceships, and dinosaurs.  The appeal was obvious.  Cartoons and comic books established a storyline about the heroic Autobots protecting Earth from the evil Decepticons. The above sales brochure was included with boxed Transformers toys in 1984.

The Henry Ford has a small collection of some of the early Transformers. Most of the toys in our collection have a single image as part of their catalog records, but we wanted to be able to show these “robots in disguise” in all of their configurations.

Powermaster Optimus Prime (1988) changes from a truck into a robot, and he combines with his trailer to form a larger robot. (THF152304-152306)

Each configuration needed to be lit differently, because the shadows and reflections would change as the toy’s parts were moved. As many as eight different light sources were used for each shot.

Dinobot Sludge (1985-1986) changes into a mechanical “brontosaurus.” His reflective chrome surfaces were especially tricky to light. (THF152316-152317)

We also found that some of the robots’ joints had become extremely tight from age, making them difficult to transform. Other joints had become loose, making the robots difficult to stand.

Decepticon Triple Changer Blitzwing (1985-1986) changes into a tank and a fighter jet. In robot mode, he topples over easily. (THF152313-152315)

This is just one example of how having a little insider knowledge (in this case, of the geekier kind) can help better document and display a collection item.

The rest of the Transformers can be viewed on our collections website.

Jim Orr did not offer to help photograph the Transformers as a way to spend an afternoon playing with some of his favorite toys.