Tales from the old-timerIssue Date: August 8, 2013
Small Town Museums
One of the many problems apparent in small town museums is the lack of a courteous but efficient screening process for new donations. Otherwise the museum gets stuck with things that dont belong, out of a concern for the feelings of persons wishing to donate something unsuitable for inclusion. You will get loaded down with weird stuff otherwise.
Modern craft items, for example, dont belong in a historical museum. If somebody makes a dollhouse out of old popsicle sticks, it is a novelty, but it doesnt fit a local history museum.
The Marinette County Historical Museum at one time had about 15 old typewriters stored in a loft. They were old, but not old enough to have historical value. They were essentially junk.
There was also a rock collection some youngster had brought home from the Grand Canyon years earlier. The parents donated it after the boy grew up and left home.
Some proud parents donated a trophy earned at college in 1920 by their son for his high grades, and the museum was displaying it.
If you arent careful, you will get Readers Digest condensed novels and even old magazines, Life, Better Homes and Gardens, Cosmopolitan, and the like, along with the popsicle stick creations.
The one that topped them all was the stuffed bantam rooster at the Peshtigo Fire Museum.
I served as a volunteer and on the Board of Directors for several years for the Marinette County Historical Society but was unable to affect policy to any extent. Suggestions for change were not welcome.
The Evancheck log cabin, from about 1920, had to have a spinning wheel, although women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries no longer made their own cloth. They bought cloth at the store. Spinning wheels go back to American Colonial times, and this is not a Colonial era cabin.
Another problem is the supposed need for a non-stop talking tour guide to hang at your elbow while you are trying to look at the exhibits. The guide delivers a steady stream of gratuitous narrative. I went to the Menominee County Historical Museum a few years ago, and a well-meaning lady latched onto me and delivered a continuous monolog as I tried hard to look at the displays.
These old artifacts bring a sense of wonder, a reverence in me for the men and women on long ago and their world, and the yakety-yak destroyed that mood. My tour guide assumed total ignorance on my part, though most of the exhibits were well-marked and their meanings were obvious.
A woman friend of mine told me the real purpose of tour guides is to keep an eye on people, as thievery is a major risk.
An old friends grandfather lived through the Peshtigo Fire, holding his little brother and sister in the cold river. In the morning the little ones were dead from hypothermia. He is well versed on local history, but was unsuccessful in telling a tour guide at the Peshtigo Fire Museum that he didnt need her to tell him about the fire the usual spiel about how the Chicago Fire took place at the same time etc., etc. He politely told her he knew those things, but we were unable to shake her off, and we left before we really intended to, because of the annoyance.
One museum has a logging tool item with a card proudly listing the donor and the notation, this tool is 90 years old. Ninety years old as of when?
There are many well-designed and arranged displays in our area museums. The miniature logging camps, the very old farm items, Indian items, furniture arrangements, and many other great exhibits are things to be proud of. A small town museum can be well run from a standpoint of arrangements, themes and good taste, but it takes hard work, leadership and a true reverence for history.
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