Besser Museum storage rooms house hidden treasures
ALPENA — The Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan houses thousands of artifacts, but not all of them end up in exhibits where visitors can see them.
Of the 38,000 artifacts owned by the museum, only a fraction make it into the museum’s exhibits. Artifacts that aren’t included in an exhibit are housed in six different artifact storage rooms in the museum’s basement, with specific rooms designated for furniture, textiles, art, and the museum’s archive.
Inanimate objects line the shelves in those storage rooms. The items range from everyday items such as a progression of kitchen appliances to typewriters to once cutting edge medical equipment to farm equipment.
The museum also has many treasures tucked away on those shelves such as a 15th Century Savonarola chair, 84 pieces of pottery by Charles Clewell, and a table that once graced a yacht owned by Andrew Carnegie, an American industrialist, who is best known for leading the expansion of the American steel industry.
Museum Executive Director Chris Witulski said when the museum’s founders determined what should be in the museum’s collection, they selected things that provided a snapshot of what life was like in Northeast Michigan.
“It’s very eclectic because being the only museum, and when the founders started it, they were wanting to preserve their history, but Jesse Besser was also wanting to bring in experiences to Northeast Michigan that you might not see in other places,” she said.
Volunteer Lisa Dahlinger said she was surprised at the size of the museum’s woven basket collection.
“That was a huge surprise to me,” she said. “It was like, ‘oh wow,’ because it’s one of the largest collections of baskets in the Midwest.”
The museum has approximately 175 baskets in its collection, including baskets made by the late Edith Bondie, a Chippewa Indian and basketmaker from Northeast Michigan.
Some of the items ended up in the museum’s collection because they were donated. The Carnegie table, for example, was donated from the estate of Katherine Gilchrist Fletcher in 1972.
The museum still receives donations from the public, but has recently adopted a more formal intake process.
Sarah Honeycutt, museum assistant and collections volunteer facilitator, said items first go before the museum’s collections committee, which determines whether the item fits within the museum’s mission.
Honeycutt said the committee also determines whether the item goes into the permanent collection, where it would receive top care, or its education collection where it is preserved to some degree, but can also be used for education purposes.
There are hundreds of items in the museum’s intake room and Honeycutt is among the volunteers who process them. A picture of a company of Alpena citizens who fought in the Spanish American War is among the items Honeycutt has been processing.
When donating an artifact to the museum, Witulski said one of the most important things is that people can provide information about the item.
“It’s so important when people are donating to the museum to give us as much provenance or background information on the artifact, so that it’s a useful artifact to the public into research,” she said, noting the artifact loses value when there’s no information to accompany it.
Once an artifact is accepted it’s given a number, which helps recognize when the item came in and who donated it, and is uploaded into a database to keep track of the item once it’s in the museum.
Witulski said items do move from their storage rooms. The museum staff discovered photos within the Jesse Besser collection of Anna Besser, wrote an article about her for women’s history month, and decided to keep that information in the Besser Hall.
“You know Jesse was the president, she was his vice president, and we can do more to tell her story,” she said.