Friday, May 16, 2014

Saving Stuff

Museum-a-holics like me tend to find themselves in some out of the way places looking at some pretty strange objects and artifacts and wondering who saved this and why? A related question also arises—why and how is this tiny museum committed to responsibly caring for this item in perpetuity? I emphasize ‘responsibly’ because as the Heritage Health Index (Heritage Preservation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2005)  has laid out, the sad fact is most collections are in a pretty sad state in sub-standard housing, in sub-standard buildings with security, environmental, and disaster risks looming. Where are the resources (human and financial) and what stories can the object tell that are relevant and engaging to visitors who stumble in (as we did) and how can staff and volunteers keep visits fresh for locals? These are the questions that occupy all museum professionals and those volunteers who are charged with running our country’s 17,500 museums, roughly 80% of which are small.

This summer in a crazy caravan trip with my family we traced the old familiar route we took as children from Oklahoma to Colorado for our annual mountain vacation and respite from the heat. Driving west we wound our way on back roads (typically no one in sight for miles!) over several days. We poked around through the Texas panhandle with a slice through New Mexico (defunct volcanoes!) and up into Colorado, elevation rising as the mountains drew nearer and the air became crisper. In three separate vehicles we pulled into Dalhart, Texas and arrived at the XIT Museum for a stretch, a rest room, and some fun as we poured out of the cars and into the lobby of this small museum. The lone attendant was clearly a volunteer; it was unclear if he was a retired teacher or rancher or ran the local Dairy Queen. Either way he seemed knowledgeable and had an air of pride as he welcomed us out of the heat and into the air conditioning. He was delighted to see such enthusiastic visitors and encouraged us to sign the register where we saw other far away zip codes. Two in our group were from Germany and two from Boston. Had the visitors from Virginia and California also arrived with the expectation of a kind of kitsch adventure mixed with local history?  The first and still only visitors of the day, we fanned out, one calling out about the collection of rooster-themed objects—kitchen items, lamps etc.—another commenting on the typological display of barbed wire (a requisite in these parts), and still another beckoning from the natural history display of taxidermy snakes and coyotes, hawks and roadrunners in mock action poses. There was a map of the United Stated rendered in postage stamps. Artists in the group critiqued the lack of imagination as the stamps were simply pasted over an existing map (“It would have been cooler had they started from scratch!”) and one member couldn’t stop laughing at the strange period room with bedroom set and mannequin wearing what was identified in tiny type, in a tiny bound book, on a tiny easel on the dresser across the room: “Chemise, Drawers and Nightgown, part of a trousseau used in the year 1879. Loaned by Mrs. G.H. Finch, Dalhart, Texas.  Boudoir  lace cap, owned by Mrs. Frank (Ruth) Tatum. ”

As the group made its way deeper into the rambling galleries a clarion call was made…ELEPHANTS! Lo and behold…casework crammed with a local woman’s collection of elephants. Grouped by materials, the elephants trumpeted their trunks and stood in global unity despite their wide ranging origins as venerated spirit animals in teak or goopy grinning, long-eyelashed elephants in carnival colors. Wow! My sisters and I stood awe-struck before the florescent lit shelves recalling how a collection can run away like a freight train (e.g. my sister’s fondness for owls has morphed into a bursting collection as word got out and everyone brings her owls). Finally, we were called into the last gallery where folks were gathered around a huge tangled mess of wire, some four feet across. The label explained it was a crow’s nest made of bailing and barbed wire worked by the birds. Typically lined with dirt, twine, hair and feathers, these were common during the Dustbowl era when there was a scarcity of trees and are evidence of the crow’s ability to adapt. For me, I coveted the nest as an art object, a Dadaist dream of found beauty. I also found in it a poignant call to action. Museums must continually adapt in order to not just survive but thrive. Recalling Andy Warhol’s 1970 ‘Raid the Icebox’ exhibition at Rhode Island School of Design, I was wondering what an artist might make by raiding the icebox at this small museum and working with the collections to make new combinations and connections, to help locals see their history anew and to create a buzz and a destination for travelers. I wondered what could be created from raiding this collection. Playful pachyderms on parade anyone?

-Elizabeth Wylie, Executive Director
The Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation

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