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Nebraska museum decides what artifacts to display and store

February 18, 2018

Legacy of the Plains Museum Curator Olivia Garl carefully turns the pages of an old scrapbook that was recently added to the museum’s collection. At nearly 100 years old, the book itself is history, but within its pages, it tells the story of a church and its people.

As Garl looks through the stories on each page, she must determine whether or not the book is in good enough condition for the public to see. Unfortunately, the book cannot endure the potential damage that might be caused by the general public flipping through its pages. Garl plans to scan the pages into a digital archive so future generations can see the book without causing more damage to the original.

Museums are often criticized for not displaying everything in their collections, but staff, from curators to directors, must consider many options when determining what artifacts they can put on display.

“I’ve struggled a lot because it’s a story. It’s history. And it deserves to be preserved,” Garl said.

At the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering, the staff needs to make decisions about what they can and cannot accept, the Star-Herald reported.

“From a museum perspective, we have to make determinations because of space,” she said. “There are things we think are extremely important and we would love to take, but we don’t have the space for it.”

Garl flips through another scrapbook and sighs. She would like to just accept every piece of history that passes through the museum’s doors.

“It’s hard because we view it as important,” she said. “But, at the same time, we need space to store it and exhibit it.”

As with other museums, even the items the museum takes in to preserve cannot always be on display. The artifacts are stored for research and may go on display, but there are never guarantees.

“Almost all museums have most of their collection in storage and that is just how it is,” Garl said. “It doesn’t matter how big or small they are.”

When considering taking in the recent addition of items from the Plymouth Congregational Church, which recently closed, Garl had to consider the chances of what the museum can put on display and sift through all the items, every single page of more than a dozen scrapbooks.

If it is one piece of paper, it’s not much to add, but scrapbooks take up a lot of room.

“That’s why we have to be extremely selective with what we take,” she said. “I struggle with it because I see the reason why a person donated an item and we have to be picky with what we can take.”

Garl learned in college that museums suffer from three problems — space, budgeting and conservation. Some museums have one, some have all three.

“We’re not perfect institutions,” she said. “It’d be great if we could do what we want and take everything we want.”

Legacy of the Plains, however, is a private entity. It is not funded by anyone. They don’t have state or federal funding. They survive on donations and grants.

While at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Garl learned that many photographs need to rest for a period of time before going on display again.

“Theirs need to be in storage for five years before it can go out again,” she said.

One aspect where the Legacy of the Plains can reduce damage to items on display is the artificial light in the museum. It’s dimmer than the sun and isn’t going to damage clothing on display. Many museums want to make the most use of natural light, but they also need to consider how that light will damage their artifacts.

“I did a report on the National Park service and how their museums work,” Garl said. “At the Grand Tetons visitor center, they had American Indian garments that were damaged because of sunlight.”

With all the decisions needed to be made before accepting an item, museum staff also needs to decide what to do with it once the artifact is acquired.

“There are always issues with putting things on display,” Garl said. “We have to work with what is best for the artifact, and still make sure it is not getting damaged by being on display.”


Information from: Star-Herald, http://www.starherald.com

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