For my class presentation, I interviewed Diane Lee, the Collections Manager at the Connecticut Historical Society.
Amy: What is your name? How long have you been at the Connecticut Historical Society? What is your education and experience?
Diane: My name is Diane Lee. I’ve worked at the Connecticut Historical Society for ten years and been in this position for two. I fell into this on accident – I majored in history in college, then worked in retail and waitressing. I realized I had time to volunteer, so I stumbled across the Connecticut Historical Society and volunteered in their graphics collection. I worked on other jobs and projects, then a renovation project, and then fell into this job when the last collections manager left.
Amy: What is your museum’s collections policy, and how does it affect what you collect?
Diane: We focus on Connecticut, particularly objects that are manufactured in or tell the story of the state. We focus on strong connections, home life, technology, post-first contact. But not really Native American history because other museums in the state, such as the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, do that.
Amy: What are the most common ways your organization obtains collections? Donation, buying, bequest?
Diane: People frequently walk in the door with items, especially graphics. We do purchase and watch auctions and dealers for items that would fill holes in the collection, although we recently eliminated our decorative arts curator position due to necessary budget cuts.
Amy: How do you manage loan objects?
Diane: We have a standard facility report that lists details such as the exhibit length. We charge a flat fee for items and the borrowing institution pays for transportation. We take in loans too, formal loans with other institutions. For the women’s basketball exhibit, we borrowed lots of objects from private owners.
Amy: Would you consider collecting an object that is outside of your collections policy simply because it is significant and/or rare?
Diane: We don’t accept outside of our collecting policy as it would not be in line with our mission and we don’t have the space to store items that we would not be able to use due to size issues. But we try to suggest other institutions for people to send it to where it would fit that might accept it instead. We were originally founded in 1825 as a library and began collecting in 1839. People donated whatever was popular and trendy, some interesting, some not. We take various items, like furniture, that have been bought and used in Connecticut, but it’s not every single thing that people were doing, just representative of what everyone was doing.
We do have a Collections Steering Committee to review those items. It consists of committee members, staff, a history professor, lawyer, doctor, and other members of the committee. We also have a collections steering committee that oversees the museum and library collections. Its role is to review acquisitions, approve deaccessions recommended by the deaccession task force, and review our policies to make sure they’re still moving in the right direction. We’re a private institution, run by a board and trustees, but the committee is willing to listen to all staff opinions.
Amy: Can you ever have too many of the same artifact?
Diane: Yes, we have many duplicates. As we catalog the collections, we find out what we have that might be a duplicate of something else in the collection that is in better condition, or has a more interesting history. We keep what people will go out of their way to see. Our strong points are our Connecticut furniture collections, which is very well known and recognized. We have a large tavern sign collection of about 65 or so, which is the largest in the area. Our costumes range from a few 18th-century pieces until modern clothing. We have a lot of ceramics, paintings, and needlework, as well as many graphics – such as photographs, prints, drawings, and school girl work.
Amy: How do you use those collections to educate and excite the public?
Diane: We’ve been talking about that a lot lately, especially considering our recent discussions on deaccessioning. How can our collections tell a story about Connecticut and the history of the state? An ongoing exhibit that opened three years ago in the Old State House was “History is All Around Us” – the basic theme was that everything you do every day has a historical meaning and your culture has a historical meaning. It helped the audience make connections to people and what they’re interested in and not just dates. We made relevant local connections, and that made the exhibit more real.
We have one permanent exhibit and some rotating. Recently we’ve used our collections to make exhibits about women’s basketball, tavern signs, and an upcoming exhibit on needlework in 2010. People seem interested in seeing the real thing, making it more interesting and alive. We did a mini exhibit relating to Abraham Lincoln, with a badge from a club in Hartford that supported his election, and a lock of his hair!
We also hosted a furniture show. The Keno brothers, of Antiques Roadshow, came and examined pieces of furniture and we videotaped it. The video shows them about it the construction and process of creating the pieces, so celebrities explore and break down these historical objects for you. We also demonstrated the construction – the curator at the time had reproductions made of turnings that the audience could touch and see how they would have looked fresh off the lathe.
Amy: What could you improve on? In storage and for the exhibit rooms.
Diane: I’d love to improve access to collections. We want to be able to tell a story through our exhibits. Our current permanent gallery is “Tours and Detours Through Early Connecticut” and tours visitors through Connecticut from colonial times to post Revolutionary War. We are currently planning the other gallery.
We also need to continue cataloging our collections so we actually know what we have. We’ve been a museum for so long, since 1825, and so many people have looked at our collections and tracked them in different ways on multiple computer and filing systems. So cataloging into our current database and getting online, which we have started, and allowing people to just browse and see what’s here.
Amy: Do you think museums should restrict public access to collections?
Diane: In the curatorial world, people are possessive about stuff and information about stuff. They sometimes don’t want to throw all this information out for people to be able to get it for free. I disagree with the idea that it’s special and the public should have to jump through hoops to access it.
We at the Connecticut Historical Society have a library and museum and for most of our history, those have been kept very separate. Family collections donated to the institution would have, for example, a wedding dress, diaries, and letters, and these would come in the door and the staff would separate into archives and collections. Later staff members would only find these relationships purely by accident because they weren’t noted in any filing system as being lined.
The public could do research in the library, but they had to call up the curator and make a special appointment. Now we have a more overall research center concept where people can just walk into the study room.
This is one of my favorite stories. We had a gentleman and his son who saw a photo online, one of our digitized ones, of a baseball team in Hartford in the 1940s. One team member was the gentleman’s father, and the two came in wanting to see it. The museum just happened to have the uniforms too, and we offered to show the visitors those too. When looking for the uniforms, it just happened that we also had the catcher’s test plate and shin guards – and turns out, the father was the catcher! But they were just excited enough to see the uniform and what he was wearing. There was no way for the visitors to know this connection existed without this suggestion.
We’re more than happy to show the public the collections storage and give them tours. It’s a disruption to our day, sure, but the main goal in a museum is to share knowledge and have people enjoy it through seeing our collections. Visitors do have to know to ask for a tour, but the staff will offer to show visitors objects of particular interest, making the visitors feel special. We do employ security, of course, visitors are always accompanied by staff, but as I said, the main priority is to give this access to visitors.