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Besser Museum working on collections care, preservation

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Besser Museum Executive Director Christine Witulski handles a piece of Clewell pottery using white gloves in one of the collections storage areas in the lower level of the museum in this March 2020 News file photo.

ALPENA — The Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan continues to focus on artifact storage and preservation projects during the State of Michigan Executive Order shutdown.

Collections care and preservation is at the heart of every museum’s mission. Museums hold cultural artifacts in public trust for all generations. Used for education, exhibition, and research, these valuable resources help bring a better understanding and appreciation for past and current cultures.

The Besser Museum has a long history of collecting and preserving artifacts. When helping to establish the Besser Museum in the 1960s, then superintendent of Alpena Public Schools, Dr. Russell Wilson, stated, “A regional museum has a unique opportunity possessed by no other museum or organization. By exhibiting materials from the collections, it may demonstrate the individuality of the community it serves in an intimate, authentic manner which cannot possibly be achieved by a museum, no matter how large, in another community.”

Much is unknown about the work that goes on behind the scenes to ensure the safekeeping of museum collections. The physical and intellectual control of every object can be daunting. Maintaining a proper environment, having the proper storage material for each artifact, and entering data into the museum collection management software on each artifact are just a few examples of the procedures involved in safeguarding our cultural treasures.

The museum currently houses over 38,000 objects ranging from art (A) to zoological specimens (Z).  The first collection received by the museum when it opened in 1966 was from Alpena Fire Chief Richard E. Wilson. He had been accepting local artifacts and memorabilia for years and had created a display at the city’s fire station. The collection of 798 items includes archaeological stone tools and weapons, geology specimens, Native American beaded and quill decorative clothing, logging industry tools, agricultural implements, blacksmith tools, mechanical and carpentry tools, household and personal items, books, Alpena City records, photographs, and City of Alpena Firemen memorabilia.

Courtesy Photo Besser Museum volunteers have been organizing and cataloguing artifacts for the past six months.

Other notable collections donated in the first few years included: the Arthur Linke photograph collection of nearly 600 images of early Alpena and the surrounding region; the Stanley Thomas collection of logging tools and brands; a collection of instruments, books and papers from early Alpena physician, Dr. Campbell; the Arleigh Graham collection of cooper tools; Thomas Bakers’ Blacksmith Shop; the Marston General Store; and the Carl and Charles Henry Law Office.

 Since 1970, the museum has purchased and received through donations significant artifacts, specimens and information about Northeast Michigan.  Briefly, a few of the most significant include: the Gerald Haltiner archaeology collection; the Sagonakato Fire Pumper used by the City of Alpena to fight the fire of 1872; a Clewell art pottery collection; the personal papers and memorabilia of founding namesake, Jesse Besser; the business and personal papers of the Fletcher-Gilchrist family, early Alpena land and lumber barons; the Dale Chihuly art glass sculpture; the Van Nocker photograph collection; the Alvina Cracknell doll collection; a collection of Native American art and basketry; and a collection of nearly 1,000 pieces of fine art paintings and prints from Michigan art dealer Albert Scaglione. The museum also has seven historic structures that have been relocated to the grounds of the museum. These include a homesteader’s cabin from the mid-1860s; the 1872 Maltz Exchange Bank; the1895 McKay Cabin; two outhouses; the 1895 Green School; and the 1912 Spratt Church. The 1928 Katherine V Fish Tug was accepted in May 2001 and the retired DNR Chinook Research vessel was accepted in 2016.

Managing large collections is a major challenge for many museums. Not only are they caring for what they have, they are constantly considering new acquisitions. Museums are regularly offered donations for consideration. Often when people are cleaning out a loved one’s attic and come across something old their first thought is, “this should be in a museum.” Museums, including the Besser Museum use their Collections Management Policy to help guide acquisition decision and determine if the object being offered fits the scope of collections. The scope of collections determines the type of objects a museum collects and why.

The original founders of the Besser Museum, Jesse Besser, Dr. Russell Wilson and Fred Trelfa, determined, “the major emphasis, as far as collections are concerned, shall be historical including the political, industrial, agricultural, educational, social, and general economic development of the region. Fine arts illustrative of the aesthetic interests and accomplishments of citizens in the region shall be exhibited and traveling art exhibits shall be encouraged. Natural history collections epitomizing the geology and geography, and natural environment and resources of the region shall be included.”

Besser Museum’s successful longevity is due in part to staying true to its original mission. Artifact preservation is a longtime commitment that comes with financial responsibility. To be good stewards of the public trust, good decisions need to be made. However, it is often hard to convey to a donor that the museum has to decline their offered item. There are several reasons why a donation is declined. For instance: (1) the museum may already have a significant number of this item in storage, (2) the item does not fit the scope of collections, (3) the condition of the item would cost the museum too much to restore and care for, (4) the museum may not have the room to properly store the item. Because those conversations with local donors who cherish their loved one’s possession are hard to have, many museums, including the Besser Museum, have taken in items that they do not need, do not have the room to properly store, or cannot properly care for. Years of that kind of practice can create big problems for museums, and the Besser Museum is no exception.

Courtesy Photo Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan collections include many original paintings and fine artwork, seen above.

Since receiving its American Alliance of Museums peer review site visit report in 2017, which cited several areas of concern that had to do with collections care, the Besser Museum has been working diligently with museum professionals from across the state and with local volunteers to address these concerns. Many were addressed immediately, allowing the Besser Museum to receive AAM national accreditation status, with the stipulation that the Besser Museum submit a report by March 1, 2024, showing the continued progress made to ensure best industry standards where collections care is concerned.

For the past six months, a small dedicated group of local museum volunteers has been meeting two to three days a week working to organize, catalogue, and properly store artifacts. During the mandatory shutdown, these volunteers are continuing to work from home, processing handwritten accession logs dating back to 1966. These logs, spanning over 50 years of the museum’s operations, contain information on the artifacts in the museum’s collections. The volunteers are creating specially formulated digital files that can be uploaded to the museum’s new collection management software system. Having this information digitized into an easily accessible data software program system will prove invaluable for collections management. As soon as it is deemed safe to return to the museum, volunteers will reconvene and pick up where they left off to carry out the mission of the museum.

During these unprecedented times, museum staff also continues to work from home on education programs and exhibit development. The Besser Museum recently hired two members of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians to consult on the development of the narrative for the renovation of the Native American Gallery. This phase of exhibit development will take place over the course of the next 12 months. Work on the Great Lake Fisheries Heritage exhibit also continues with the addition of the retired DNR Chinook Research Vessel and the historical narrative of the work achieved by the scientific crew aboard the vessel.

The Besser Museum is a nonprofit 501(c)3 charitable organization dedicated to serving the public of all ages and abilities. The mission of the Besser Museum is to collect, preserve, interpret, and exhibit authentic articles and artifacts of art, history, and science to inspire curiosity, foster community pride, and cultivate personal legacy.

This article was provided by Besser Museum Executive Director Christine Witulski.

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