Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Taking Up Collections

September 16, 2013
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.

This “Gaudy Welsh” style Coffeepot (left), object ID 28.953.9, and “Boston” Rocking Chair, object ID 24.111.120, are both of the period and were within the means of a Baptist minister's family in Saline, Michigan. We like to call these artifacts "parsonage-worthy."

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.

An early rendering of a possible layout for the parlor and sitting room in the reimagined Adams House. Sketchup allows staff to create a rough floor plan before moving any artifacts.

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.

artifacts, collections

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