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. Continue reading

A mouse in the house

by Meredith McGovern, Art and Culture Collections Manager

Recently, I stumbled upon a couple of mice while reorganizing artifacts in one of our storage rooms. As a collections manager, this would normally count as one of my worst nightmares. However, these were not the kind of mice that smuggle crackers, peanuts and other snacks from the pantry! These were toys, two little windup rodents.

Toymakers have used steam, cranks and clockwork for hundreds and even thousands of years to make toys move, whether it be a leaping jack-in-the-box or a twirling ballerina en pointe inside a jewelry box. During the 19th century, toymakers started mass producing coils and keys, the parts that make windup toys move. They were able to make toys easier and cheaper; more children had the chance to own a windup, in many cases a toy mouse.

Meet this little guy from the Indiana State Museum collection — a gray suede mouse with black beady eyes and a string tail. The Schoch sisters who lived with their parents on the south side of Indianapolis played with this mouse, probably using it to torment their mother. When the key on its back was wound, a clockwork mechanism inside turned the brass wheels and sent the mouse scurrying across the floor. I can only imagine the Schoch sisters’ poor mother screaming bloody murder the first time the mouse raced between her feet! The sisters played with this toy sometime in the 1930s, but it might have been manufactured as early as the 1880s.

And here’s our somersaulting mouse, clearly an early knockoff of Mickey Mouse, made in the 1920s. This mouse features a brown velvet body and sports a pair of red felt shorts. When wound, his long, mechanical arms rotate, sending him tumbling head over feet! Advertisements for acrobatic windups from the late 19th century describe these toys as “exceedingly laughable and comical.” This little mouse sure knows how to put on a show!

Be sure to check out the museum’s collection of toys and other objects here .

Researching & Writing Lincoln

Written by Dale Ogden, chief curator of cultural history at the Indiana State Museum

With the portion of the spectacular Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection that is to be housed at Indiana State Museum (finally) home, we’ve dramatically shifted gears. After being consumed by the effort to acquire the collection for 16 months, we can now dive into the artifacts and get our hands dirty … metaphorically, of course. Yes Jane/Cindy, I wear my white gloves, religiously. I am not a Philistine.

Thousands of prints, engravings, framed artworks, sheet music, sculpture and 3-D artifacts have been unpacked and temporarily re-stored. Jeana, Meredith and others in Collections Management have been cataloging items for the February exhibition and Conservation has been looking for condition issues. I am, however, the one who gets to have all the fun.

We have about half the time I’d like to have to put the exhibit together, so I’m writing furiously. I enjoy writing, so it’s not a chore, but exhibit labels have their own challenges. Unlike a book, or even an article, you don’t have the luxury of wandering. Limited to 25 to 200 word snippets, you’re pretty much restricted to “Just The Facts, Ma’am.” It’s still fun, though. So far, I’m up to about 6,500 words worth of snippets.

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