Brevet Brigadier General John C. Smith
Caring for the Museum’s Artifacts Appeals to Our Meticulous Nature
For nearly 80 years, The Historical Society has served as a repository and public trust for the most interesting and important pieces of local history. Managing our artifacts is just one way that the Society supports its mission, though it is the least visible. Unless specific artifacts are on display in an exhibit or being used for research, few people see these roughly 10,000 artifacts and the ongoing collections operations.
Like everything the Society does, the collections process is governed by its Board of Directors, specifically the board’s Collections Committee via a document called the Collection Policy. The Collection Policy (a type of document common in the museum field) dictates what types of artifacts and documents are accepted from donors, and it is up to the curator to make a decision based upon those guidelines. The museum curator makes these decisions based on the potential artifact’s condition, rarity, value, connection to the local past, provenance and repetitiveness of currently held pieces, in addition to the cost of perpetual care.
If an artifact is accepted, the curator then works with dedicated staff and volunteers to process and organize it into the existing collections.
First, proper documentation for the donation needs to be produced; the Deed of Gift form transfers ownership from the previous owner to the Historical Society. An identification number then is assigned to the item so that it can be properly recorded in the Museum’s database.
Each artifact receives a number that begins with the year it was acquired, followed by the number of donation it was a part of in that year, and ending with its own individual number. For instance, the second piece from the first collection of items donated next year will be given the number 2019.001.02 (Year 2019, first collection of items donated that year, second item in that collection). Like a fingerprint, each piece is uniquely numbered and can be easily tracked using that system.
Next, the data files for that piece are completed with all pertinent information; it is scanned or photographed; and it is prepared for storage, where it will rest safely and securely until needed for researchers or use in an exhibit.
Beyond that, the ongoing care and preservation of these pieces is the most important job of the curator. The curator oversees the organization, preservation, and use of the artifacts for research or exhibition purposes. He/She also works with other institutions—such as the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque—to borrow their artifacts for our exhibits and lend our artifacts for their exhibits.
Currently, several of the museum’s treasures are being featured at the Peoria Riverfront Museum’s Illinois bicentennial exhibit.
Staff and volunteers work year-round to ensure that all pieces are stored, recorded properly, and that all information is kept consistent. After nearly eight decades of record-keeping, much time is given to updating and digitizing the information, as well as ensuring that all information is recorded uniformly. Conditions such as temperature, humidity, lighting, and threat of pests are monitored and dealt with routinely.
Staff and volunteers alike ensure the long-term security and preservation of the historical collections.