Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The History Center Up Close

Hola again!

This last week Molly and I were lucky enough to get a behind the scenes look at the History Center, given by Marcia Anderson. The History Center, located downtown St. Paul (it has a great view and is practically next to the capital) and houses nearly all of the Minnesota Historical Society's collections. It's a relatively new building that was created to unite not only the collections but the staff of MHS as well.

Sadly, this was also the day I forgot my camera. In light of my forgetfulness you will simply have to imagine everything. :)

Anyhow, Molly and I get a behind the scenes look at MHS's artifact storage led by Marcia, who appears to know everything there is about not only the collections and MHS, but everything else too. She walked us downstairs, through a secure area with a swipe card access, into a huge room lined with cabinets. Like to the Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit, MHS uses these huge cabinets to house many of its objects. The cabinets make accessing the objects safe and easy (for both people and the artifacts), they don't off-gas nasty things that could over time damage the objects, and they are super space savers. Of course, unlike the Logan museum, MHS ordered 400 of them. Holy crap.

Here's a few statistics for ya'll to give you an idea of just how large not only MHS is, but the History Center as well. In its archaeology section alone it will house over two million objects. Over fifty percent of its collections are from its historic sites, like Fort Snelling. The other collections are from old excavations and gifts with good provenance. (Provenance is a reliable explanation of where the object came from, through generations, and tracing it back to its beginning. Basically, provenance is what gives the object its story and makes it useful. Without provenance a shoe is a shoe, with it a shoe can have belonged to a Holocaust victim and traveled across Europe.)

Molly and I then got to see some of the awesome things housed in the storage. One, a bandolier bag, had such a good provenance that Marcia was able to tell us exactly who made it and for whom... even the year. This is what makes inanimate objects interesting. Without their stories... why even bother. We saw beautiful moccasins, bank robbers' coats, a flight suit, a 1960's TV set, and loads of other fascinating things housed in the basement of the History Center. They have an entire huge room set aside for furniture! Because it is MHS's job to record and preserve Minnesota's history, every aspect of it is being collected. Even things that currently seem silly. A certain style of lawn chair, suitcases, and even (yes) TVs.

And, because MHS realized that their mission statement projects a (literally) infinite level of collection (as long as Minnesota has a history, MHS will be collecting to preserve it) there is a whole wing of the History Center which is currently empty, waiting to be filled with objects in the future. With over two football fields of empty space... that is planning ahead!

The building itself was beautiful too - it has apparently been nicknamed by MHS's employees "the palace" because it's so huge and elegant looking. Lots of wealthy businesses and individuals contributed to its making and it shows.

All in all, it was really awesome. :)

I'll definitely be going back to check out the exhibit currently on display, Minnesota's Greatest Generations, which looks at MN during the depression when I next have the chance. :D

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