Pragmatic Historian
history museums pragmatic historian preservation

The Museum of Loaned Artifacts – For Reals!

After publishing last week’s post about a thought experiment regarding setting up a history museum that has no collection but uses short-term loans, I got some feedback on LinkedIn. David Grabitske (yes, him again!) said he knew of someone who was part of such a museum.

The museum of loaned artifacts – for reals! –  is the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, Texas. Tom Wancho, exhibit planner for the museum, said in our LinkedIn conversation that, “By design the Bullock Museum was founded as a non-collecting institution. That is, all of the Te[x]as-provenance artifacts on display are borrowed from other museums, private collectors, TX state agencies, and TX historic sites.”

He added that the museum borrows paper items for 6 months and three-dimensional artifacts for 1-3 years. The Bullock accepts short-term loans of artifacts right in the pocket of time I thought would be easiest to manage, from 1-5 years.

During my thought experiment, I purposely didn’t consider paper documents, partially because we tend to use copies of them at our museum for exhibit purposes due to fragility, but also because I didn’t want to think about a non-collecting institution that doesn’t have an archive. I didn’t want my thought experiment to grow tentacles of complexity that might shut down the whole experiment. But the Bullock seems to look at paper documents like any other historical object, taking into consideration fragility by shortening the loan duration.

In poking around on the Bullock Museum’s website, I discovered that the institution isn’t completely non-collecting. They are collecting stories from people around Texas through The Texas Story Project. It appears that the stories are online, making this a digital collection.

I don’t know whether there is a physical component to the project, but digital collections are still collections that need care. Digital data needs regular migration to new formats and equipment. It also has to be checked for degradation, particularly if it was saved in an unstable-over-time format.

Think about how quickly cassette tapes degrade and the lack of access to data stored on floppy disks and you can see the magnitude of challenges that come with data that is encoded in newer formats.

If you think history museums, including small historical societies, don’t have to worry about digital collections because we only have physical collections, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only are we offered digital data, we create our own digital products (newsletters, photos, videos, bookkeeping, collections records, just to name a few).

In considering all of the digital data available today, there could be a museum that cares for nothing but digital collections. This hasn’t remained in the realm of thought experiment, though. The Internet Archive is already doing this work, not only by digitizing past books, but by archiving websites on its Wayback Machine.

As of today, the Wayback Machine has saved this website (the one you are reading now!) 37 times since August 1, 2015. I’m very thankful for this service because websites can easily disappear. As soon as you stop paying fees for server space or your domain name, your site will become unavailable … unless it’s been archived through the Wayback Machine.

I use a tool that allows me to find broken links on my website. When I first used the tool, it found hundreds of broken links that I had to fix. Most of them were caused by my fiddling around with combining two websites into one, but no small share of them were links to outside resources that were no longer available. The great thing about my broken link plugin, though, is that it will often suggest an archived version of the link, served up by the Internet Archive. Pretty cool, eh?

Whether a traditional history museum with physical collections, a museum of loaned artifacts, or an all-digital museum or archive, museums can be configured in all sorts of creative ways.

Thoughtful comments welcome.