Clock with rooster, because I don't have one with a chicken or eggs, 2018.
history history relevance museums pragmatic historian using history

The Danger of Putting All Collections Eggs into One Museum Basket

Clock with rooster, because I don't have one with a chicken or eggs, 2018.
Clock with rooster, because I don’t have one with a chicken or eggs, 2018.

As a person working in a local museum who has had disaster preparation and recovery training, I think a lot about the safety of our collections. There are items in our museum that cannot be replaced because they are one-of-a-kind.

Two Bandolier Bags & a Ledger

The two Ojibwe bandolier bags are such items. One of them was gifted by Chief Shab-osh-kung to Nathan Richardson for Nate’s legal work against timber thieves on behalf of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.This bag is unusual in that we actually have the provenance for it, having discovered a newspaper article discussing the presentation of the bag by Shab-osh-kung to Nate.

Uncle Nate, as he was called, was the Father of Morrison County, being involved in the formation of the county and holding more public offices than any other person in the history of the county. Nate also wrote the first history of Morrison County, which was published in serial form in the Little Falls Transcript in 1876. There is only one existing copy of this original history, carefully clipped from the newspaper and pasted into an old ledger book. That’s within our museum’s collection, too. As I studied the ledger in order to write a history of Nate, I noticed faint additions to the series, written in pencil in the ledger. That’s when I realized this must have been Nate’s editing copy of the history, which he updated in 1880. That makes the ledger even more special. If the ledger and bandolier bags are ever destroyed, there’s no getting them back.

And so it is with many of the documents and artifacts that help society remember and convey its history.

The Fire at Brazil’s National Museum

On the evening of Sunday, September 2, 2018, a fire broke out at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro and wiped out an estimated 90 percent of a collection with over 20 million pieces. Photos of the museum from the air show a gutted building.

My heart aches for this massive loss of culture. The collection included the Luiza skull, “the oldest human fossil in the Americas.” It also contained documents and audio recordings of indigenous languages, many of them extinct. Firefighters are working to make sure the building is safe while investigating the cause of the fire, so museum staff won’t be allowed to enter to determine the extent of the damage, or whether any of the many, many irreplaceable items survived, until they are given the all-clear.

That’s one of the first points stressed in my disaster recover training: Never enter a disaster area until given the all-clear by authorities. The safety of people comes before the safety of collections, even though the staff of the National Museum in Brazil have to be anxious to get back in and start the recovery process. (Actually, right after the fire broke out, “a group of museum staff, technicians and students entered the burning building and rescued a small selection of items,” which included holotypes of mollusk specimens. They knew exactly what they wanted to get out and couldn’t have had much time to do it.)

Among the items feared lost in the National Museum blaze was a set of Torah scrolls from the 13th century, but the scrolls had been previously moved to another institution.

Fire & Water

This is part of what I think about regarding our museum’s collection. We’ve got so much critical history, how do we make sure it’s not all in one building? No matter how structurally sound a museum or archive seems to be, there’s always a vulnerability.

When our museum was designed and built in 1974-75, the professional recommendation of the day was to NOT install sprinkler systems. The thinking at the time was that if a fire broke out in one area, you didn’t want sprinkler systems going off all over the building, causing water damage to items in the areas unaffected by fire.

That thinking has since changed because fire is far more devastating to a collection than water and you want that fire put out fast.

There are methods to recover all sorts of material from water. Museum disaster planners even train people how to salvage paper, photos, and a variety of other artifacts immersed in small swimming pools. I’ve been through this training twice. You always start with an assessment of what’s in the pool. What’s the most fragile? What’s the most important to the collection? Then you find ways to carefully pull items out of the water without further damaging them and put them in a safe place to dry.

Hedging Our Bets

When it comes to museum and archival collections, we want to find ways to hedge our bets. Yes, it’s nice for ease-of-access to store a collection all in one building, but how do we avoid vulnerabilities to our buildings and the collections within them?

Some of that comes in the design of the building and how the collections are stored. Cement block or granite buildings are going to withstand fire much better than wood buildings. Alarms that alert authorities and staff of motion (think burglar alarms), excessive heat or cold bring (hopefully) quick assistance to minimize damage. Fire suppression systems stop, well, fires. Fireproof cabinets and fire doors can buy time in protecting critical collections items. Constructing museums and archives in areas not prone to flooding or other regular severe weather events will minimize these potential disasters.

Institutional staff can also mitigate vulnerabilities to collections through simple activities. We can close doors throughout the building at the end of each day in order to create fire breaks. As staff members at the National Museum did, we can unplug electrical equipment before going home for the day. We can create disaster plans that include a list of the most precious items in our collections, with a priority of which to save first and where these items are located. And, we can store these items in more protected areas of our institutions. We can also provide a copy of our disaster plan to local authorities so they know what they are dealing with should an emergency situation arise. We can do our best to keep our buildings maintained and emergency systems operational.

Distributed History – Putting Our Collections Eggs into Many Baskets

We can also find ways to disperse portions of our collections to other institutions, provided those institutions are set up to care for collections and have appropriate methods for preventing and recovering from disasters. The Torah in the National Museum’s collection is a case in point. It was safe precisely because it was no longer in the building.

It may feel like heresy for a geographically-based museum to have some of its history and collections elsewhere, but our stubbornness in keeping everything in one location can also be our downfall. There is a danger in putting all of our collections eggs into one museum basket.

In Minnesota, we have the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS), a statewide institution that contains some information on all of the state’s 87 counties. This includes the 1,000+ oral histories collected during the Works Progress Administration that were the start of my institution. If our originals are ever destroyed, we have the copies at MNHS to begin again.

This distributed history works in reverse, too. Smaller organizations tend to look to MNHS as the saving grace for the rest of us, but if something were to happen to MNHS’s collection, there are 87 county museums (plus hundreds of other history institutions) throughout the state ready to rebuild Minnesota’s history.

There are also institutions like the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) at St. John’s University that are working around the world to digitize endangered manuscripts. HMML is located in St. Joseph, MN, not too far from my museum, so we asked Dr. Daniel Gullo to speak at our organization’s 2018 annual event yesterday. He opened his talk with the fire at Brazil’s National Museum as a prime example of why he and HMML are doing this important work.

Through digitization, HMML not only preserves the contents of endangered manuscripts, it also works to provide more access to those manuscripts, partially through its library, but also through its website. That’s distributed history at its best.

Museums around Minnesota are working to digitize at least portions of their collections, however, this effort takes massive amounts of time and money, just as caring for museum and archival collections and buildings takes time and money. Brazil’s National Museum shows the importance of appropriate funding for cultural institutions, but this is a subject for another article.


By the way, if you happen to have any photos from the National Museum of Brazil, there is an effort by Wikipedia to collect them so the museum can rebuild records of its collections.