Looking back on previous Village News columns, I see that the curatorial staff at Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) write a lot about upcoming exhibits and new artifacts, but we don't often write about what else we do behind the scenes. Since I've been doing a lot of cataloging lately, I thought I would write about what happens after we accept an artifact for our collection. We already have over 16,000 artifacts at MHV, so ensuring that we record every single artifact - and making sure it can be found later - is an essential part of what we do here.
In this article, I'll be tracking a donation we received last year: two suits and other items that belonged to the Honourable Jake Epp, former Member of Parliament for the riding of Provencher. It all began when a volunteer at the Steinbach MCC Thrift Shop found these items in the donations pile and asked us if we wanted them. Before we could say yes, however, we needed to ask ourselves the standard questions that help us determine how a particular item would fit in our existing collection. For example, do we know who owned it? In this case, there was a note inside the garment bag saying that these items had belonged to Jake Epp, and a quick phone call to the Epps confirmed it. Next, do we already have lots of the same thing in our collection? We do have many suits but have only one other artifact that belonged to Jake Epp - his chair from the House of Commons. Lastly, and most importantly, we ask ourselves how the item will help us tell the history of Russian-descendant Mennonites. In this particular case, it is significant that Jake Epp was the first Mennonite to represent the former Mennonite East Reserve in federal politics. With all the boxes ticked, so to speak, regarding this donation, we were able to tell the Thrift Shop volunteer yes, we would like to have the suits.
Once we had decided to accept this donation, we had to fill out a detailed donation form. This form transfers legal ownership of the items to MHV and helps us track and take care of our collection according to museum standards. Then we recorded the donation into our accession register (a list of every single item in our collection) and assigned a number to it. This donation's number is 2016.11, which means that it's the eleventh donation we received in 2016. Each separate item in the donation is assigned a third number; this means that 2016.11.1 is the first item in the eleventh accession of 2016, and is the only item in our collection that has this number.
To make sure that we know which item has been given which number, we attach each item’s number directly to the item itself. Most of this particular donation consisted of formal wear, so we used an archival-quality permanent pen to write each number on a separate piece of archival-quality twill tape and then sewed each tape onto the designated item of clothing.
My next step was to catalog the donation. This means entering as much as we know about the artifact into our database. We observe and describe the item down to the smallest detail, what its dimensions are, where it was made, where it comes from, where it was used, what condition it’s in, and so on. This is also where we record the item's history and significance.
You have to get very up-close and personal to artifacts to catalog them properly. On occasion you find the things that stayed behind in the pockets, the tiny rips in the lining, and the food and sweat stains that didn't come out during dry cleaning. Handling the clothing of someone who, in this case, is still alive and whom I've never met, is a little strange, but it's still just another part of my job.
Once everything you know or can observe about the artifact is in the database, it's time to put everything away. I put Jake Epp's tuxedo on a mannequin, brought his chair out of storage, and made a small display about Mennonites and politics in our Permanent Gallery. But that still left several items that need to be put into storage at this point.
We can't just put artifacts wherever they fit in our storage space. We position them according to function - all shoes in one place, all kitchen utensils in another - in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. Every shelving unit is assigned a unit number, and each shelf is also numbered, so every artifact can be assigned an identifiable permanent location. Every time we move an artifact, we update its location in the database so we will know where it is at all times.
This whole process is not a very visible part of a curator's job, but cataloging and storing artifacts properly are some of the most important things that happen at a museum. This helps us to track the artifacts that have been given to us in trust, to preserve them, and to record their histories for future generations.
Calendar of Events
September 4: 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM - Fall on the Farm festival
September 17: 11:30 AM – 5:00 PM – Open Farm Day
September 29 & 30: 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM – Manitoba Culture Days
October 13 & 14: 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM – Threads of Time Quilt Show