The museum behind the museum

by Jeff Tenuth, Science and Technology Collection Manager

I give a lot of tours at the Indiana State Museum. These are mostly “behind-the-scenes” tours, not gallery tours. Visitors can take themselves through the galleries, but behind-the-scenes tours offer much more.

When visitors come into the museum, they see galleries, attend programs, eat at the restaurants or shop at the museum store. They tend to think that’s all there is to a museum. But in reality, what they see is the end product. Most of the work for the galleries (and programs) is done behind the scenes and the public rarely sees any of it. Nor does the public see the actual size of our collection. The artifacts they see in galleries represent only one or two percent of our total collection. The larger the collection, the more of it is in storage. This is true in most museums. Take the Smithsonian for example. Their collection numbers well over 250 million artifacts. Imagine how big their galleries would have to be to show all of their collections. For a large museum like the Indiana State Museum, we show a few thousand artifacts at one time, but we have hundreds of thousands of artifacts in our collection. It’s simply impossible to put everything on exhibit — we would need galleries the size of football fields! That’s why it’s so important to show visitors and other guests what lies behind-the-scenes. I’ve never had a tour participant who didn’t walk away astonished at the size and breadth of our collection. Only then can the public see what a daunting task it is to care for the largest publicly held collection in the state. With a greater understanding of what the casual visitor doesn’t see, a tour guest usually comes away with a greater appreciation for the collection and what it takes to care for it.

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Another reason the public doesn’t see and doesn’t know about the size, diversity or location of the collection is intentional. We do that to maintain the security and environmental integrity of the collection. The collection is actually hidden in eight storage rooms in the Administration building, not the building where the galleries, restaurants and other public facilities are located. The eight storage rooms allow us to store the collection by type of material. We could put everything in one or two big rooms, but that’s not what’s best for the collection. Different types of artifacts require different types of climate control. For example, paper artifacts require different humidity, temperature and lighting levels than metal or wood artifacts. One type of environment does not fit all types of artifacts. Currently, we have the collection divided up into eight groupings: paper, clothing and textiles, metals, furniture/decorative arts, toys/popular culture, Fine Art, biology and geology/paleontology.

We can never give an exact number of how many artifacts we have in the collection because one collection in particular has not been counted. For more than 20 years, we’ve been excavating a cave in southern Indiana that has yielded hundreds of thousands of bones spanning a hundred thousand years. Because the excavation is not finished [link to Aug. 17, 18 and 19 posts], we haven’t counted the bones. And we may never count them anyway because it really doesn’t matter how many artifacts we have. What matters is what they are and what we do with them. When we combine these with how many other artifacts we have counted, it’s safe to say that we have half a million artifacts or more in the collection. Some collections are small and some are large; but we care for all of them in the same way because they are all equally important.

Once people see the collection, they want to know why we don’t show more artifacts. They ask why certain types of artifacts are exhibited for only a few weeks or months. After seeing the Ice Age mammal collection, people want to know why we have so many different mastodonts. Aren’t they all the same? For that matter, they could ask the question about wedding dresses, fossil trilobites, televisions or anything else in the collection. The answer is no, they are not all the same, and that is exactly why we have so many. Take mastodonts for example — each is different and tells us something new about their species and the environment in which they lived. So we have males, females and juveniles of different ages and different environments to give us as complete a picture as possible of and how they lived. As for wedding dresses, the answer is the same — they all have different stories. Each one tells us about how people dressed; the types of material used, or even the size of people at a given time in the past.

I love these questions — even when they come over and over again! It tells me that, once visitors see what we have in our collection, they are fascinated. And as long as people are interested, I’ll keep giving tours and answering questions!

One Response

  1. Question: I am helping my mother-in-law (86 years old now and trying to downsize by moving from her home of 60+ years to an apartment) with her many “collectible” items. She would like to donate her mother’s wedding dress (dating back to the 1920’s), as well as her own (1946 silk gown and lace tiara) to a museum or educational institution that can appreciate the historical value of these garments. Can you suggest a name or place I can contact to follow-up on these type of donations?

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