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!
Rendering of Mustang Design Proposal by William Shenk, 1967-1968 / THF174987
Suit, Worn by Elizabeth Parke Firestone, 1949-1950 / THF28855
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.
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!
Earlier this year I introduced readers to a small collection of artifacts unofficially known as Henry Ford Tributes. As I mentioned earlier, a few of these objects have some pretty amazing backstories. The wall hanging, shown above, is one such example. One may not think that Henry Ford and the subject of reincarnation could appear together in the same sentence but the fact is Henry Ford was an advocate of transmigration, stating in many interviews that he became a believer at the age of 26. He had earlier been given a copy of Orlando J. Smith’s book A Short View of Great Questions, originally published in 1899. The theories expressed therein regarding reincarnation and the tenets of a religion the author termed Eternalism seemed to answer some of the life questions that had begun to occupy the automaker’s thoughts. It also curiously coincides with the work ethic of Henry Ford as well as his definition of greatness.
Housed at The Henry Ford amidst many large and significant acquisitions is a small collection of quirky and one-of-a-kind items. Located mostly in storage, this group of artifacts is unofficially known as the Henry Ford Tributes. The objects range in size, materials and creation methods, but all have one thing in common – they were gifts given as tokens of gratitude and appreciation to a single man whose innovative ideas changed the lives of so many. Corporations, farm wives, Ford dealers, immigrants and civic institutions were all contributors to this eclectic group of gifts and commendations.
This collection has never been considered for a museum exhibit, but thanks to The Henry Ford’s digitization initiative, we were given the opportunity to highlight just a few in this unusual collection. For members of the Historical Resources team, this was a long-sought-after opportunity; many of us have our ‘favorites’, and as the project began in earnest, the suggestions came in at a rapid rate. It was hard to keep the online exhibit to just 76 objects!