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Volunteers catalog Hennepin County’s past, one artifact at a time

August 1, 2018

In June 1892, students in the industrial arts class at Minneapolis South High School made a wooden desk. More than a century later, that historic piece of furniture used at the first Republican National Convention held in Minneapolis the same year, stands preserved today in the basement of the Hennepin History Museum.

Then-Republican Party Chairman James S. Clarkson, sat behind this desk during the 1892 convention at the Industrial Exposition Building. It was the first convention at which women were allowed to be delegates, and it drew more than 35,000 people.

Nearly 25,000 such artifacts belonging to Hennepin County have been collected for more than 80 years in the museum and are being cataloged, researched and photographed as part of an ongoing inventory project that began last year. The volunteer-driven cataloging, supervised by the museum staff, will eventually lead to a database available online for the public to access.

“This is a roving museum and the artifacts had been stored randomly in the boxes whereever we have space,” said Heather Hoagland, the museum’s collection manager. “Now each piece of history will have a tag and we will have a better sense of our collection.”

Founded in 1938 as the Hennepin County Historical Society, the museum on 3rd Avenue S. in Minneapolis possesses an extensive collection of artifacts related to the history and evolution of Hennepin County from the 1850s through the present day. From coronation gowns worn by winners of the Aquatennial Queen of the Lakes in the 1950s to the permanent wave machine used to do women’s hair in the 1920s, a desk that once stood in the office of William Watts Folwell (first president of the University of Minnesota), and the famous Soap Box Derby car of 1959 — the items stored in the closets of the museum’s 20 rooms carry a little bit of the county’s history.

Consider, for example, the dental chair used by Dr. Fanny Nusia Freund Borgen, the first female orthodontist in Minneapolis. Born in 1923 in Poland, Borgen, a Holocaust survivor, immigrated to the U.S. and earned her DDS from the U’s School of Dentistry in 1956, followed by her orthodontics degree in 1964. She passed away in 2014.

“She was the only practicing female orthodontist in the state of Minnesota for 20 years,” said Hoagland.

With the museum turning 80 this year, the idea behind taking inventory was to get a better handle on what it has in the repository. A group of 50 volunteers, two staff members of the collection department and 12 museum employees are busy removing the artifacts from the boxes and cataloging them.

Saturdays are key in the long inventory process that has already cataloged more than 6,000 artifacts, and will take up to five more years to finish at an estimated cost of $100,000. On a recent Saturday, Alyssa Thiede, the museum’s assistant collection manager, led the orientation at what is known as “Inventory Blitz,” an event in which volunteers, mostly history buffs, do the cataloging.

For the museum staff, the exercise is an effort to better preserve the artifacts. For volunteers, it is an opportunity to see their county’s history up close. “I can see how the garments used before were heavy, made of several layers compared to the light ones that we use today,” said Rita Martinez, a retired IT employee who was among the volunteers.

Roberta Rott, a retired librarian and another volunteer, said she had the never-before chance to touch artifacts.

“As a librarian I loved the idea of organizing things. Here I am doing that with pieces of history,” said Rott, who found out about the project from a Facebook post.

Each artifact tells a story:

Back in 1959, a 19-year-old man sat on a humble chair at the Ten O’Clock Scholar coffeehouse in Dinkytown, playing guitar and singing songs that later would earn him the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the 1960s, the building burned to the ground. But the chair where Bob Dylan sat survived. The Minnesota Historical Society gifted it to the Hennepin County Museum, and it now is part of an exhibit at the Government Center.

In 2019, the museum will be opening an exhibit on the history of inventions and innovation in the county. The artifacts cataloged in this project will help prepare for that exhibit. The project, says the museum’s website, has been financed in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society.

Layne Johnson, a retired bacteriologist and now the museum board chairman, said he gets joy in taking pictures of all the items being cataloged.

“Once online, the museum can monetize the photographs,” said Johnson, who visits the museum every Wednesday for the photography task.

Gulam Jeelani • 612-673-4280

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