Now that we are getting close to wrapping up our Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Museums for America grant to conserve, photograph, catalog, and rehouse artifacts from our collection, some of the staff who have worked on this grant would like to share interesting objects they’ve encountered over the course of the grant.
Marlene Gray, IMLS Project Conservator, has three objects she would like to share.
Dodge & Zuill Easy Model C Washing Machine, circa 1912 / THF186088
As the IMLS Project Conservator for the last year of the grant, clearing space for larger objects in storage was our main priority. However, there were chances to conserve some interesting objects, one of which was a copper electric washing machine from the early 20th century. The dazzling copper tub was a sight to behold while in the conservation lab. While cleaning it, I remember thinking how grateful I am that technology has come such a long way in making tasks simpler!
Next is this footwarmer from the mid-19th century:
This footwarmer was a cute object to conserve because of the decorative elements in the wood frame and pierced tin stove box. One of the wooden columns had separated from the rest of the object. The opportunity to completely reassemble the object and give it a thorough cleaning made it feel as though the little stove could still be heated for the approaching cold months.
The great thing about conservation is that you are always learning about history through ordinary objects. While the conservation treatment of this object involved relatively simple metal polishing and glass repair, learning about the inventor of the lubricator cup, Elijah McCoy, and his connection to Detroit was fascinating. I highly recommend exploring his story, like I did!
Next up are Susan Bartholomew and me, Laura Myles, Collections Specialists in the Registrars’ Office. We have worked closely cataloging and researching the objects that have been selected for the grant. It was hard to narrow down our favorite objects, or at least the ones we think are the most interesting, but here is a brief overview of some of the objects we enjoyed working with the most.
My name is Susan Bartholomew. I am a Collections Documentation Specialist and simply put, my role in this project was to update or revise catalog records for objects selected for the grant. This included identifying and applying accession numbers, which allow us to track an object both physically and digitally using our database, as well as conducting provenance research, and creating or modifying existing records in our database using cataloguing standards.
My personal highlights for this grant include the following.
Model of a Hook and Ladder Truck, circa 1900 / THF170406
This incredibly detailed handmade model of a turn-of-the-century fire truck is complete with removable ladders, firemen’s tools, and what are possibly the world’s tiniest leather fire buckets.
From the tiny to the huge, this is a shop sign in the form of a giant gold-painted tin teapot. It stands over three feet tall and four feet long from spout tip to handle. For more information about this unique giant teapot, check out this blog post Senior Conservator Louise Beck wrote about its surprising discovery.
A very early example of a type of telephone that had no batteries, this device operated on the same principle as two tin cans connected by a string, an idea that had been around for centuries. They were used in pairs and were connected over a short distance by a tightly stretched wire. With no dependence on electricity, they were advertised as being more reliable than battery-operated telephones. This unit was one of a pair used by the father of the donor to connect the flour mill he operated to the boats he used to ship his flour. One set would be at the mill and the other was placed on the wharf boat half a mile away.
And now, Laura Myles shares her favorites.
Like Susan, I have assisted with cataloging, but I also research objects more in depth to uncover missing dates and/or manufacturers, as well as approving records to go online into our Digital Collections. Working on the grant over the last three years has been a wonderful learning experience, as the objects are so varied you really have no idea what to expect.
Megalethoscope Slide, "St. Mark's Square," lit up / THF179346
Perhaps my most favorite object is the megalethoscope and its slides. One of the best parts of my job is rediscovering hidden treasures in the collection. While we knew this was something special by looking at it, it was not until we were working on the slides that we knew how truly special it was.
At first glance, it looks like the megalethoscope is a fancy magic lantern device—merely projecting the images on slides. The megalethoscope was designed by Charles Ponti while he was living in Venice, Italy circa 1862. Ponti photographed his travels through France, Switzerland, Italy, and Egypt, and it was these photographs that he turned into transparencies for his megalethoscope, costing five francs each at the time. These transparencies look like normal slides until they are inserted into the megalethoscope and manipulated to show night views painted onto the backs of the images but hidden by a dustcover. One of the 22 slides can be seen above. For even more information about the megalethoscope, here is a blog post written about its conservation and photography.
Another object that I enjoyed researching was this naval cannon. While we know this cannon was accessioned in 1929, we do not have information about who made it or where it was used. Based on its estimated manufacture date, circa 1780, and similar design to British artillery, I reached out to the Royal Armouries, which helped eliminate the possibility of it being British in origin. Unfortunately, we do not know its history, but at least we know it was very likely made in the United States to be used on a merchant marine vessel.
This sign advertising the O. H. Perry Inne is one of my favorites just for its connection to the War of 1812 and Oliver Hazard Perry. On the front of the sign is a portrait of Perry, there is an eagle with seventeen stars above (although there were eighteen states by 1813, further adding to the mystery), and the words “Lake Erie” below on the reverse. Perry was regarded as a hero after defeating a British squadron in Lake Erie, which led to Detroit being freed from British control. Unfortunately, this sign’s history has been lost to time, although there are similar signs that have come up for auction. It seems likely that some local establishment capitalized on Perry’s name, probably along Lake Erie. We can only imagine the building it adorned.
One of the more recent objects to make my short list, and Susan’s as well, is this turtle spittoon. We think it is one of the cutest objects to have come through the IMLS pipeline, especially since spittoons themselves are not the most elegant of objects. Apparently turtle designs for spittoons were quite popular in their time, as well as remaining popular among collectors. The one in our collection is functional: pressing the turtle’s head flips open the shell to reveal the bowl.
If you would like to know more about the cataloging process, you can read more about that here (and see a few more interesting objects we have worked on as a result of this and a previous IMLS grant), and if you would like to know more about the provenance research Susan refers to, check out Associate Registrar Aimee Burpee’s blog post.
This is but a small sampling of some of our favorite objects from this grant. Over the course of the grant so far, we've digitized nearly 3,000 objects, and cataloged and conserved over 4,300 total objects. Unfortunately, this means that we had to be a little bit picky in what we shared here, but hopefully you will discover more of the treasures from our Collections Storage Building yourself while searching our Digital Collections.
Marlene Gray is IMLS Project Conservator, Susan Bartholomew is Collections Documentation Specialist, and Laura Myles is Collections Specialist, all at The Henry Ford.
Throughout the month of November 2020, we’ve been celebrating reaching the milestone of 100,000 digitized artifacts by sharing out blog posts and fun facts, hosting Twitter chats with our digitization staff, and counting down the 20 most-viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections. In case you missed any of these great resources, we wanted to share them all here for easy reference.
If you follow us on social media, you might have seen the “top 20” countdown of our most-viewed digitized artifacts of all time, but if you’d like to get a broader look, you can check out the top 100 in this Expert Set. Fans of The Henry Ford will recognize many of the artifacts, but there may be some on the list that surprise you.
The Henry Ford's all-time top 20 most-viewed digitized artifacts. Do any of them surprise you?
Here, also, are all of the fun facts about our digitization program and our Digital Collections that we shared out on social media.
Twenty fun facts about digitization and our Digital Collections.
During the first week of November, we provided a general introduction to our Digital Collections, our digitization program, and our workflows.
First was our announcement that we had just digitized our 100,000th artifact, and were kicking off the month-long celebration. You can also read our press release here.
If you’re interested in becoming an expert in using our Digital Collections, or just not sure where to start, this blog post will give you a run-down of the ways you can search, view, and use our digitized artifacts.
Associate Curator, Digital Content Andy Stupperich shared how we add context to artifacts in our Digital Collections in this post.
Like many other people around the world, a lot of our staff have spent time this year working from home. Find out how we continued to digitize artifacts despite the closure of our campus this spring in this post.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Photography staff and volunteers shooting the geodesic truss on location at a storage building.
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!
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.)
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!
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!
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.
Paragraph from a 1951 brochure detailing the microfilming project. Cold War tensions were running high. / detail from THF135511
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 showing part TT-7851-R for a Ford Model TT Truck. / THF138486
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.
Envelope for drawing TT-7851-R, dated August 25, 1926. / THF406916
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.
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.
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!
If parts are symmetrical opposites, there is only one drawing for the pair. / detail from THF400831
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Today I’m going to share a bit about the challenges of photographing glass artifacts.
This graphic shows where photography fits into The Henry Ford's overall digitization process.
If you haven’t had a chance to check out our extensive studio and art glass collection (whether in person in the Museum or Village glass galleries, or online), I recommend you do so! We have pieces that range from teapots and cups to whimsical studio glass sculptures. Photographing these beautiful pieces of glass provides unique challenges.
The first task is to figure out the angles to shoot. Many of these are works of art, so figuring out the “front” and the “back” is difficult. Take the piece below, "Bubble Boy" by Richard Marquis, for example. It’s hard to tell what the best angle would be, so we take our best guess, and take more than one photo if we need to! Most of the time, we’ll look for a defining feature: say, a handle, or an area of the design that is most appealing, and start there.
Often, the curator notes that one of these pieces is either historically significant or is important because of the artist that created it. In these cases, we take another step to capture more and create a rotating 360-degree image. We do this by (carefully!) placing the glass on a platform, rotating it by 20 degrees at a time, and taking 18 total photographs. This way we get a full picture of the piece from every possible angle! Take a look at an example below, or check out all the glass 360-degree views in our Digital Collections.
Another tricky part of photographing glass is dealing with its reflective qualities. As glass is usually shiny, creating an environment in the studio where we can control reflections can be tricky and time-consuming. Usually we create a fully white space around the object—if we don’t, every light and tripod and piece of furniture will be reflected on the object’s surface. We accomplish this very creatively with large boards or cloth, or if the object is small enough, we can put it into a tent that will allow us to fully control the space and light around it.
Examples of the Photo Studio set up to photograph a glass spittoon.
Then once we have everything set up, we take the photos, clean up the backgrounds with the magic of Photoshop, and enter the images and their metadata into our collections database—then voila, you get to see the finished photos in our Digital Collections!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Landscape Architecture Drawing for Fair Lane, "A Planting Plan for section around service buildings," June 1920 / THF155896
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!