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.
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.
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.
The coming of a New Year is a great time to set resolutions, and for 2012, The Henry Ford has picked at least one doozy that we are very excited to share!
Over the course of the year, we will be digitizing our most “significant” icons in each of the core categories in our collections — and making those available on our collections website to anyone who is interested.
So what does that mean, and why are we so delighted about it?
Digitization is the process of making photos and information about the collections of The Henry Ford available online. In a way, this is a process that dates back to the founding of the institution, as artifacts have been catalogued and photographed over the years for internal purposes.
However, the information and images we’ve gathered and the ways in which we’ve stored those for our own usage don’t necessarily equate to the robust web presentation that we want to share with the world— so we have been spending a lot of time updating and standardizing catalog records, taking great new photographs of the collection, and writing brief narratives on the purpose and meaning of each object.
This is all part of a big project we’ve been calling CAN-DO: Collections Access Network for Digital Objects.
We really got going in earnest with this effort in 2011, with the bulk of the objects digitized either in or related to the new Driving America exhibit, which opens at the end of January. The Henry Ford obviously has very strong transportation collections, and this means that right now our digitized collections contain everything from the very rare and beautiful Bugatti...
As 2011 began winding down, we started to think about what we would digitize in 2012. The Henry Ford has an embarrassment of riches in its collections, including hundreds of thousands of 3D objects and about 25 million 2D artifacts housed in the Benson Ford Research Center. Digitizing it all will be a multi-year, if not multi-decade, effort. What, we asked ourselves, should be our focus in 2012?
The answer was obvious: We need to make sure the public has digital access to the most “significant” artifacts at The Henry Ford. I put the term “significant” in quotation marks purposely, as significance has multiple meanings. Few could argue that an artifact like the city bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat is not a significant historical object. It is also institutionally unique. Many museums have civil rights artifacts, but there is only one Rosa Parks bus, and the only place to find it is at The Henry Ford.
The other dimension of “significance” is personal resonance. Certainly the Rosa Parks bus has personal significance for many people. But there’s also a pretty hefty degree to which personal significance diverges. For example, I wouldn’t necessarily expect this Buck Rogers poster to have personal significance for a large percentage of the public.
For me, though, this happens to be one of my very favorite collections objects that we’ve digitized thus far. It features a space pterodactyl, a disintegrator ray, rocketships, and many spacemen in dapper outfits, all illustrated with bright colors and fantastic graphic detail. These all happen to be things that I enjoy (space pterodactyls being a new but noteworthy addition to the list), so to me, this is particularly interesting.
We’ve been having a lot of interesting conversations about all the aspects of “significance” and how they relate to the collections of The Henry Ford, and have started throwing out ideas and making lists. Over the course of 2012, you will see these objects begin to show up on our collections website, but you’ll also hear about them in other ways — via blog posts from staff members, in the curators’ Pics of the Month and any other ways we can think of to share the stories that these objects tell.
We could not be more excited to start this project, and hope you are excited about it as well. Check our collections website frequently to visit your old favorites from the collections and discover new ones!
Ellice Engdahl is The Henry Ford’s new Digital Collections Initiative Manager, which she thinks is quite possibly the coolest job ever — even if it’s a hazard of the job that her favorite collections object changes about 10 times a day.