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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
My name is Shannon Rossi, and I’m a Collections Specialist, Cataloger, for archival items. I started at The Henry Ford as a Simmons Intern in 2018, and have been a Collections Specialist since March 2019. Anyone who knows me knows that I love The Wizard of Oz. It is my favorite film. I collect Oz memorabilia and am a member of The International Wizard of Oz Club.
The artifact I’m going to talk about here is related to The Wizard of Oz. But it’s not the artifact you might expect.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first edition, 1900 / THF135495
On my second day as a Simmons intern in 2018, Sarah Andrus, Librarian at The Henry Ford, showed me a beautiful first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. The little girl who used to dance around the house singing “We’re Off to See the Wizard” rejoiced when I was able to hold that book in my hands. In my own collection of Oz memorabilia, I have a 1939 edition, but this was another experience entirely.
Last year marked the 80th anniversary of the 1939 musical starring Judy Garland. I signed up to do a History Outside the Box presentation to commemorate the anniversary. History Outside the Box allows us to showcase some of our archival items that visitors to The Henry Ford might not otherwise get a chance to see. In addition to the first edition book, I knew we had some fantastic Oz artifacts in our collection. We have copies of the special edition TV Guides that came out in July 2000, each with one of the main characters on the cover. We have sheet music for “We’re Off to See the Wizard” and “Over the Rainbow,” a coloring book from the 1950s, an original 1939 advertisement for the film an issue of Life magazine, and a photograph of Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion) when he visited Greenfield Village in the 1960s.
Bert Lahr Signing Autographs during a Visit to Greenfield Village, August 22, 1966 / THF128032
The artifact I want to talk about isn’t as famous or recognizable as anything I listed above. You pretty much have to be a diehard Oz fan (or have worked on acquiring, cataloging, or digitizing this item—which I did not) to even associate much meaning with it.
While browsing our collections for archival items to use in my History Outside the Box presentation, I found a theater program from the 1903 musical production of The Wizard of Oz at the Boston Theatre. (Be honest, how many of you knew that the 1939 film wasn’t the first musical production of Oz?)
Theater Program, "The Wizard of Oz," Boston Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts, 1903 / THF93092
We’ve established that I am a huge Oz fan. I knew about this production, as well as several of the early film productions (check them out if you get a chance!), but I had never seen a program from the show. This program is not visually spectacular. It is black and white. The vivid colors and magical illustrations from W.W. Denslow that are featured in the Oz first edition are conspicuously absent. In fact, the only illustration that anyone might associate with Oz is on the cover, which features a beautiful illustration of the Cowardly Lion about to fall asleep among a field of poppies that create a border around the page.
The story and lyrics for this musical adaptation was written by L. Frank Baum, but not all of it would seem familiar. We’d see, of course, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Wizard. The Cowardly Lion, however, cannot speak, as he does in the book and almost every later adaption, nor does he ever befriend Dorothy. Dorothy’s house doesn’t land on any Wicked Witch. Nor does she receive any magical slippers (silver, as in the book, or ruby, as in the movie). Even our favorite precocious Cairn Terrier, Toto, is missing from this story. Toto is replaced by a cow named Imogene, who serves as Dorothy’s Kansas companion.
The cast list for Act I in the program includes Dorothy Gale and “Dorothy’s playmate,” the cow Imogene. / THF141760
The action in Oz has to do with political tensions between the Wizard and Pastoria, the King of Oz (who does appear in later Oz books). In fact, even real-life politicians and notable members of society at the time, including Theodore Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller, were mentioned in the script.
The Boston Theatre production that audiences saw in November 1903 featured songs by composer Paul Tietjens, who had approached L. Frank Baum about creating an Oz musical as early as March 1901. Tietjens wasn’t exactly famous, but the play did feature some well-known actors of the early 20th century.
Most importantly, there are two names in the program that stand out: Fred Stone and David Montgomery. The two actors were paired on stage in many vaudeville shows. The pair played the Scarecrow and Tin Man in this musical adaptation. Later, when Ray Bolger was cast as the Scarecrow in the 1939 musical, he would credit Stone with inspiring his “boneless” style of dance and movement as the character.
Page seven of the program lists actors Fred A. Stone as the Scarecrow and David C. Montgomery as the Tin Woodman / THF141761
I’m grateful that this artifact was digitized. It’s not something you see or hear about very often, but it has a lot of power for Oz fans like me. That’s the power of digitization—the impact of a digitized artifact doesn’t have to reach huge audiences, if it reaches a smaller but enthusiastic audience. Digitization can allow us to marvel (slight pun about Professor Marvel in the 1939 musical definitely intended…) at an object we know exists somewhere out in the world, but have never seen before.
As a Collections Specialist in the Registrar’s Office, I help catalog The Henry Ford’s collection. If you have used our Digital Collections, then you have seen a small part of what we capture when cataloging.
Cataloging is the process of documenting collections objects by recording information in a computer database. We record such information as who made the object, where it was used, what its measurements are, what it is made of, how it may have been used, and any related stories. In order to fully flesh out catalog records, we often must become detectives to figure out an object’s past. This could be as simple as searching patent records, or as complex as using Ancestry.com to learn more about the people behind the object.
This graphic shows how cataloging fits into our larger digitization process.
So how do we catalog? Using standards that have been informed by the Getty Research Institute’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus, Library of Congress, and Nomenclature 4.0. We have adapted these standards and developed our own to ensure that each cataloger is on the same page. These standards guide us when describing the objects we are cataloging to ensure we use the same language—for example, whether or not to spell out the Saint in Saint Louis. This consistency will make sure the records are easily retrievable, both in our database and online.
Each object is assigned a number that enables us to track it in the collection, both physically and digitally (in our database). We record as much information as we can from the object itself. Unfortunately, most objects do not tell us when they were made, even if they do have manufacturer information. If it has patent information, that does not necessarily mean it was made in that year, either. We cross-reference catalogs, primary source documents, and sometimes other objects in the collection to narrow down date ranges.
Model of Van Depoele Rotating Pole Motor, circa 1885 / THF165665
Sometimes we have to dig through genealogical records to figure out when an object was made. One such object, the motor model shown above, was documented as made by “Feigo,” but when the typo was corrected, I used Alexander J.R. Fiego’s entire professional history (from city directories available on Ancestry.com) to figure out when he made this motor model. It was fascinating tracking all of his professional changes throughout the years, as well as seeing advertisements in the city directories. Catalogers often fall down interesting rabbit holes while researching objects. Sometimes such research tangents help us connect previously unrelated objects in the collections, or we just learn more about the past – fun adventures we share with our co-workers!
A screenshot showing some of the many records available on AncestryLibrary.com that were used when researching Alexander J.R. FIego.
Ensuring that our cataloging information is accurate can mean poring over United States patent records to help with narrowing down dates or finding manufacturers. While researching a light socket with the inscription: PAT. MAY 6 - 84APR 21 - 85JUNE 16- 85 / U.S. / SYSTEM, patent records helped not only to narrow down when the object was created, as it would not be associated with any patent taken out after June 16, 1885, but also to identify the creator. Any company with “United States” in its name, like the “United States Electrical Lighting Company,” is likely going to be a challenge to find unless they are in a niche industry. Thankfully, the light socket had full patent dates that allowed me to easily search through patent records with the help of Google Patents; the ones that helped me identify the creator of this socket are linked above, and a screenshot, below, shows one of the June 16, 1885, patents.
One of the three patents that was used during the course of research on 00.1164.6.
Even with all of our due diligence, objects can sometimes be disassociated from their number over time. We refer to these objects as “found-in-collections,” and when researching them, go through the same process as above. However, since we do not know when the object was donated or how the donor used it, this is where we really become detectives. If we cannot uncover its actual number using our files, then it receives a found-in-collections number in the hopes that one day we can reunite it with its provenance.
(As an aside, provenance research is a very important part of our process and can take a long time. Look for an upcoming blog post by my colleague Aimee Burpee highlighting some interesting stories we have uncovered via provenance research.)
Once cataloged, if an object is requested for digitization, it is photographed and then the object record is put through a review process. After these steps are completed, the artifact is flagged for our Digital Collections and harvested by automated processes for release online—where you can search and view it!
For the entire month of November, we at The Henry Ford are celebrating the digitization of over 100,000 artifacts! To reach a goal of 100K artifacts digitized takes many people and departments coordinating and working together. Let’s look at how our conservation department contributed to this momentous achievement. I’ll be highlighting one of the current projects in which digitization is a crucial step.
This graphic shows the various steps in The Henry Ford's digitization process, and where conservation fits in.
As Project Conservator on a three-year Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant awarded to The Henry Ford, I work with other conservation and collections specialists to clean and stabilize 3D objects from our Collections Storage Building. These objects oftentimes have never been on display, let alone photographed. As conservators, it’s our responsibility to make sure the objects are not only camera-ready but are structurally sound for exhibition or museum storage.
For this IMLS grant, the objects undergo a multi-step process involving many hands in order to get to digitization. First, objects are tagged by collections or conservation staff with a Tyvek label that states the object number (if known), description/identifying name, and location found in storage. This tag stays with the object throughout the various stages and is updated with staff initials as tasks are completed.
Objects are then vacuumed to remove surface dirt and/or mold before moving from the storage building to be cleaned thoroughly in the Conservation Lab. If the object is too large to handle, it stays in the building for conservation treatment performed in a section that has been zoned off as a clean room. Outside contractors bring in heavy-duty equipment to lift and move the bigger and heavier objects.
A Herschell-Spellman steam engine (27.139.1) rigged up for moving out of storage.
Caravan of large objects being moved out of storage!
If the object is an appropriate size for the IMLS team to handle and move by forklift or box truck, we bring it back to the Conservation Lab for cleaning and stabilization.
Due to the number of objects we conserve, not all get photographed in the lab. That will happen later! However, we do take before, during, and after conservation treatment photos for some objects that have interesting conservation treatments and/or a significant change from start to finish.
Check out a recent blog on the conservation treatment of this Megalethoscope (32.742.113).
Other staff are also involved in the IMLS grant, including registrars who catalog and attach a unique accession number to each object.
Quick photographs are often taken at this stage in order to research and find more information about the object.
Finally, the object is ready for its close-up! It moves down to our photography studio to be photographed under the proper lighting and with a professional grey backdrop. Sometimes the object is so large that is easier to photograph it in its new storage location. You can find all of these images in our Digital Collections on THF.org.
Here is a Pratt & Whitney Gear Cutter and Lathe, circa 1900, getting set up for photography in storage.
Click here to visit our Digital Collections and search for digitized artifacts!
As we are all facing challenges this year brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had to adopt new procedures to keep the process running smoothly! It has not been possible to photograph all objects included in the grant. Before the object leaves the conservation lab and moves to storage, though, it gets quickly photographed, and that image is attached to the record in our collections database.
At a later date, our photographer will take the beauty shot for Digital Collections and keep the tally rolling on our digitization numbers! As of today, over 3,500 objects have been pulled from storage, conserved, and rehoused during this three-year grant. Close to 3,000 of those objects have been digitized and are available online.
Photographer Rudy Ruzicska taking the perfect image.
The final step for these objects is moving to a new home in storage, going on loan, or display for THF visitors to see up close. We work with collections management staff to box, palletize, and wrap the objects before finding the perfect location in storage or sending them on their next adventure for public viewing. The objects from this IMLS grant are just a small portion of the 100,000 artifacts that have been digitized, but they also include some of the largest objects we have in the collection!
A couple of generators sitting in front of boxed and palletized objects in storage.
Let’s end with a blast from the past of The Henry Ford’s early digitization days in 2012. Here are a few images of what it took to digitize an abundance of hubcaps! Some of these you may have seen on display in the Driving America exhibit. The rest you can find in Digital Collections.
For an in depth look at hubcaps, check out this blog post.
Congratulations to all who have helped over the years to get so many of The Henry Ford’s artifacts digitized and accessible!
Collection management staff play a crucial role in The Henry Ford's digitization process. We not only find and pull objects from their storage locations and move them to the photo studio, we also unpack or assemble objects if needed, assist the photographer with setup, repack the objects, and return them to storage after being photographed. We also track the locations of objects in the collections database as they are moved from place to place.
This graphic of our digitization process shows where collection management fits in.
Most movements are pretty straightforward and involve only minimal handling, but some objects give us a greater challenge. Sometimes it is the sheer quantity of objects that creates a challenge in coordinating and streamlining the digitization process.
One example of this type of work is our recently acquired Hallmark ornament collection. Over 6,600 ornaments were acquired, and we initially set out to digitize them all, with photography completed by the end of 2020. (Note that this goal has since been disrupted, like so many things, by the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.) With this many ornaments, it became clear that a plan was needed to maximize efficiency and that it was way too much work for the present staff to accomplish due to other job duties, so contract employees were hired to work solely on the project.
We streamlined the process as much as possible, but there were still quite a few steps.
Pallets of incoming unprocessed ornaments in our storage building.
After the ornaments are catalogued by our registrars, collection management staff move the ornaments from the processing area to the Photo Studio, making sure all items are securely packed so no damage occurs during the journey. Because our campus is so large, this involves moving the objects from one building to another.
Catalogued ornaments awaiting delivery to the Photo Studio.
Upon arrival in the studio, the ornament product packages are removed from the storage cartons and then the ornaments are unpacked from their product packages. Care is taken in opening the packages, and the items are carefully removed as to not tear the boxes, damage the ornament, or lose any small pieces. The ornaments are then sorted to keep similarly sized ones together, so the photo setup doesn’t need to be changed between each photograph. Glass or shiny ornaments usually require different lighting, so these are kept in their own batch as well.
The ornaments are readied ahead of the photo shoot to easily move through the process, allowing a large number per day to be shot. We don’t want to get slowed down by taking time in between each shot to unpack the next item.
Ornaments getting prepared to be photographed.
Ornaments with their packages and accession number tags ready for photography.
Ornaments lined up on a cart, ready to be photographed.
Photographing the ornaments.
Assisting with the photography setup is also part of the job: placing the ornaments on the table, removing them after they’re photographed, making sure all parts are included in the shot, and assisting the photographer as needed.
After the photographer is done, we wrap the ornament in clean new tissue paper and carefully place it back into its product package. The product packages are then placed in new, clean archival storage boxes, sorted by year. For permanent storage, the bubble wrap that was included in the original packaging is removed, as it does not contain a stable plastic and may break down and harm the objects.
Photographed ornaments being sorted before being boxed up for storage.
Since this a very large collection, it would take up a large amount of shelf space in storage. To save space, we stack the completed cartons on a pallet. When the pallet is full, it is then shrink wrapped to keep all the cartons in place during movement to their storage location.
Palletized Boxes shrink wrapped to keep everything in place.
Diagram of location of boxes to easily locate boxes (and the individual ornaments they contain) within the pallet in the future.
Barcoded boxes ready to be palletized.
At each step of the process, from cataloging to the final storage location, the location of each ornament is tracked in our collection management database [Axiell’s EMu]. We update the location field each time we move an artifact. With 6,600 ornaments in the collection, that’s a lot to keep track of—so we streamline this step as well.
A holder location is created in EMu and a barcode is generated for each storage box and pallet used. Each time we move a box to a pallet, we scan its barcode and the one on the pallet, and all ornaments in that box get their location updated automatically in our database. Then when we move the pallet, we scan its barcode and the barcode of its storage location, and all ornaments in all the boxes on the pallet get their locations updated. This saves a lot of time and is much more efficient then updating each object individually each time.
Due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, our digitization priorities have shifted—but we were still able to digitize more than 2,000 of the Hallmark ornaments before we had to stop. You can check out some curator highlights from the collection in our Expert Set, or browse them all in our Digital Collections.
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.
As The Henry Ford celebrates the milestone of digitizing its 100,000th artifact, we have been given the opportunity to reflect on the importance of this work and how it positively impacts our ability to share our stories with the world.
What does digitization mean? Digitization is the process of getting an artifact online for the public to view in a digital format. The Digitization and Digital Content pillar of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship directly contributes to the museum’s digitization effort. As Project Curator, I work with other curators to identify entrepreneurial stories within our collections and select items to be digitized by the Entrepreneurship team. I am then able to use the digitized artifacts within pieces of digital content, such as blog posts and expert sets, to share these stories with the public.
Product Catalogue of F. & J. Heinz Company, circa 1878. Through the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we were able to digitize this amazing catalog of F. & J. Heinz products from The Henry Ford’s sizable H.J. Heinz Company collection. Digitization of this catalog, as well as other objects from the Heinz collection, provide greater resources for researchers and visitors interested in learning more about the history of this company / THF291879 & THF291887
So how does this process begin? For me, it starts with doing background research on the individual, company, or collection identified, and then spending time in the Benson Ford Research Center looking at every item in that particular collection. This can take hours—sometimes days—depending on the size of the collection, but it’s fun to work with the physical documents, photographs, and other materials within the collection and see what interesting things I discover.
Project Curator Samantha Johnson with items from the H.J. Heinz Company Collection in the Benson Ford Research Center.
While looking through the collection, a story begins to unfold and I can start to see how we might utilize some of the items to tell that story in a blog post or expert set. When selecting items for digitization, I really start to think about what items would visually represent the story I’m trying to tell. I also look for items that I find personally interesting and artifacts that I think others will enjoy. But to use the items in digital content, they must be cataloged and imaged.
What does it mean to catalog an artifact? Cataloging is the process of entering important identifying information about an artifact into the museum’s collection’s management database. Important information includes the artifact’s unique ID number, title, maker history, date, location, and description of the artifact, among other things. Catalog records are not only accessed by internal staff, but much of the information is also made accessible to a global audience through our Digital Collections – one of the many ways we present information about our collections to researchers, other organizations, and the general public around the world.
Project Cataloging Specialist Katrina Wioncek cataloging a sample book from the American Textile History Museum Collection. (Photograph by Samantha Johnson)
For the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, after individual items have been selected for digitization, the Project Cataloging Specialist makes sure that the items are cataloged and any important information is included within the catalog record. It is extremely helpful if the catalog record has an image of the object available, which is one reason why the next process, imaging, is so important.
What does imaging mean? Imaging is the process of rendering an object, document, photograph, etc. into a digital format. For 3D objects, imaging occurs through photography—for example, to learn how we photograph our quilt collection, check out this blog post. For 2D materials, digitization can occur by scanning or by photographing the objects, depending on their size, material, fragility, and other considerations. The images must also be cropped and processed through programs such as Adobe Photoshop—but it is important to note that we do not use these types of programs to make the objects look better. Our imaging goal is to provide an accurate representation of the physical object.
Project Digitization Specialist Karen Wissink imaging an artifact. (Photograph by Katrina Wioncek)
For the Initiative for Entrepreneurship, after the item is cataloged, the Project Digitization Specialist images the object and processes the image(s), then uploads it to our collection management database. When the artifacts are both cataloged and imaged, they are harvested to our Digital Collections, for people all over the world to enjoy.
Once artifacts are online, I can then use them in digital content like blog posts, using the objects to help share stories with the public. “The Larkin Idea” is one of my favorite posts, because we had the opportunity to tell the entrepreneurial story of the Larkin Company utilizing a variety of digitized artifacts.
Digitization for the Initiative for Entrepreneurship began in February 2019, and since then our team has digitized nearly 2,500 artifacts from 19 different collections! This initiative, funded by the William Davidson Foundation, has given The Henry Ford an amazing opportunity to analyze our collections through an entrepreneurial lens and highlight the stories of entrepreneurs from the past so that they might inspire the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow. Check out our blog for more about these stories and The Henry Ford’s digitization program.
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.
When production of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation began in 2013, we knew the show would provide a tremendous opportunity to share our stories with new audiences. We also knew it would require tremendous resources. But we couldn’t have predicted the show’s longevity or success, with six seasons and three Emmy awards to date – or the important role our digital collections would play in the project. From planning to post-production and beyond, the images and information we’ve made available through digitization have become TV stars in their own right.
Digital Collections pages are a handy resource for the Innovation Nation producers. They provide information about artifacts – like this tomato harvester, which will be featured in season 8 – and help the stories take shape.
Our Digital Collections factor into the earliest stages of story development for Innovation Nation. Even before the show’s producers begin to discuss potential angles for a particular topic with the experts at The Henry Ford, they’ve often explored related Digital Collections pages. This provides background information, helping to guide the story and ground it in solid historical research. It also shapes the producers’ vision for the story, helping to determine where it will be filmed and what we might need to bring out for the cameras.
After a story is filmed, our work is just beginning. We add any featured artifacts that aren’t already online to our queue for digitization. Including them as part of our Digital Collections makes them accessible to wider audiences and gives us the option to include them in future digital content. In addition to the “on camera” collections, supporting graphic and video assets from our holdings often appear in the final cut. We research our collections, digitizing new material as needed, and provide high-resolution image and video files to the story’s producer and editor. Sometimes, the producer will even write a script that highlights these supporting assets. An artifact doesn’t have to be two-dimensional or in video format to be considered – photographs of our three-dimensional collections may be featured, as well.
Though informative, the short-form stories that air on Innovation Nation can only say so much. Our Digital Collections and content offer viewers a chance to dig even deeper. Each episode has a dedicated webpage on thf.org that provides links to resources – such as blog posts, expert sets, or groups of related digital collections – that provide context for a particular topic and further highlight our holdings and expertise. Often, the “Dig Deeper” section of an episode webpage contains brand-new content, created specially to support that Innovation Nation story. So, whether you’re a long-time viewer or just learning about the show, it’s worth visiting thf.org to explore more. To get started, consider checking out content related to some of our most recent episodes here, or browse featured artifacts from all the seasons of Innovation Nation in our Digital Collections.