The IMLS (The Institute for Museum & Library Services) Project team is plugging along, cataloging, conserving, and rehousing artifacts from our collections storage building, as we mentioned in our blog a few months ago. Thus far we have worked on radios, phonographs, computers, adding machines, and their components. We have found some interesting objects in our collection, like this Motorola Radiophone, pictured above, ca 1950.
While conserving these objects from our storage facility, we are discovering cadmium corrosion on many objects, including the Radiophone. Cadmium is a bluish gray metal and was first used as a pigment (cadmium yellow, red, and orange) in paint, plastics, and glass. It was also used as a stabilizer in plastics, a component in batteries, and as a plating to prevent corrosion. Even though it is used to prevent corrosion of an underlying metal such as steel or aluminum a cadmium coating will corrode in the presence of organic acids, sulfur compounds, and atmospheric pollutants. Organic acids and sulfur compounds are emitted as a result of the deterioration of many materials from which objects in our collections are made, such as rubber, wood and the plastic cases of radios and phonographs. Cadmium corrosion products can range from brown to bright yellow. In our case, we are often finding plates, screws, brackets, and other plated metal components coated in bright yellow powdery cadmium sulfide corrosion.
Last year, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded a two-year “Museums for America” grant to The Henry Ford to conserve, catalog, photograph, and rehouse some of our communications collections. We are nearing the halfway point of the grant, and have digitized more than 400 grant objects so far. Many items we’ve uncovered through this project have been one of a kind prototypes and innovations, but many others, like the pink Princess phone digitized this week, are mass market phenomena. Browse our collections website for radio receivers, computers and peripherals, loudspeakers, vacuum tubes, and calculators, many of which were digitized through this grant. You can also learn more about the grant and see some of the behind-the-scenes work it entails over on our blog, or peruse some of Curator of Communication and Information Technology Kristen Gallerneaux’s favorites here.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
The Henry Ford is busy with many projects right now, including an ongoing two-year grant awarded to us by The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to digitize and rehouse our communication collections - things like TVs, radios, phonographs, computers and typewriters. We have about 1,000 artifacts to process. With a project of this size, it’s important for the many people contributing to this project to coordinate and organize each step to make sure every artifact is processed correctly. Here is an overview of the steps that we are using:
Discovery: The artifacts are currently stored in our Collections Storage Building, so the team must first pull all the objects off of shelves systematically. Once that is done, our Curator of Communication and Information Technology, Kristen Gallerneaux, determines which objects are considered part of the grant using our proposal for reference.
The Henry Ford, like other older, long-established museums, can only display a very small percentage of its artifacts at any given time. The remainder is kept in storage for future generations. In recent years, The Henry Ford has begun to digitize its collections, and put them online. This effort has helped expand what we can say about what is on exhibit, and importantly, has made it so that people don’t have to wait decades to be able to find out about artifacts that are in storage.
Thanks to a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) “Museums for America” program, The Henry Ford has an opportunity to digitize over 1,000 artifacts that tell the story of changing communications technologies from the late 1800s to the late 1990s. The project is focused on communications collections that are stored in a large, tightly-packed warehouse on The Henry Ford campus. Many of these artifacts have been in this building for many decades, with limited cataloging. This project will inventory, catalog, preserve, re-house and digitize for online access these computers, radios, telephones and televisions, cameras, printing presses, teletype and telegraph machines and other artifacts, making them available to The Henry Ford staff and the public to a degree never before possible.
Our computer collections have been the focus of the early work. This work has reminded us of how rapidly technological change has occurred with computers. Check out the (not so mini) DEC PDP-11/20 Minicomputer, 1970 mini-computer.
The challenges presented by this densely-packed storage area has meant that the project staff has really needed to live up to our mission of innovation. Before any work can be done on the artifacts, decades of accumulated dust, dirt and mold needs to be removed. Collections Specialist (and in-house McGyver) Jake Hildebrandt fashioned a downdraft table, complete with HEPA and charcoal filter, out of a portable ventilator, steel shelves and leftover grid for overhead lights. A downdraft table quickly pulls away dust and dirt as the artifact is cleaned, making the cleaning process faster and more effective.
We look forward to highlighting some of our exciting “re-discoveries” as we work on this project; collections digitization projects in museums around the world have led to new “re-discoveries.” We expect to add the tremendous collections of The Henry Ford to this ever-expanding resource of artifacts online.
Mary Fahey is Chief Conservator at The Henry Ford.