We wonder, all of us, what lasting contributions we have made? This post is pretty much about me and something that I did. Now make no mistake there were many talented people who made it happen, designers, fabricators, collections curators, really wonderful people. But this project was something that
I had a great hand in, a place where I made my mark.
Me in foreground, museum in background.
I worked at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids (Michigan), in various capacities for seventeen years, the last four as the head of the education division. I was fortunate to work with some great people and to be surrounded by some pretty fabulous artifacts.
The old museum of the 1930s was replaced by a huge glittering structure able to accommodate more artifacts, more exhibits, and more visitors. The three-story galleria encloses the old City Hall clock, a biplane, an enormous Corliss stationary steam engine and a forty-foot long whale skeleton!
But, in 1994 when the beautiful new public museum opened, almost immediately came the recurring refrain "Where's all the stuff?"
Surprisingly the museum was awash in great expanses of empty wall space and many, if not most, of the beloved exhibits and artifacts of previous generations had been left out of the new museum. On opening day I actually had one visitor grab my arm in a near death-grip demanding "Where are the dolls?!" I had no good answer for her.
It took awhile for the great minds at the museum to get up to speed and really embrace what the taxpayers were upset about. Many of the most cherished exhibits from the old museum were gone.
The disappointment of the visitors was palpable and entirely understandable. Gone were the exhibits that they had grown up with, the exhibits they had wanted to share with their children and grandchildren. Dolls, guns, mummies, tools, glass, clothing, musical instruments, toys, all gone, seemingly forever. Objects that the museum had been collecting since 1854. It was a sad thing. It was a bad thing.
Within two years of opening, staff members came up with a way to get more of the collections back out on display, many of the old favorites, and many more that hadn't seen the light of day for fifty years or more. Thus was born the exhibition "Collecting A to Z". It was an inspired idea, and Marilyn, our collections manager, was its champion.
We travelled to the Minnesota History Center which had mounted a big exhibit entitled "We Collect, A to Z" and we saw the idea that we wanted.
We took it and came up with "Collecting A to Z"
A would be for Automobilies, T for Toys and Games, P for Pewter, D for Dolls, and so on.
In this instance "F" is for "fossils"
(photo from the Public Museum of Grand Rapids' facebook page which you can like here)
"V" is for "Veterans", and this was my project, I got to write it, do the preliminary designs, and I got to select the artifacts, I even mounted many of the objects.
It was the most satisfying thing that I did at the museum and was my last project before I left.
As part of the planning process each of the letters were examined for the potential of public interest as well as the ability of the collection to support the exhibit. No use saying "C is for Coco Chanel" if there's no textile collection, if you get my drift.
I lobbied really hard for "veterans" as I knew that our collection was rich in objects including weapons, uniforms, medals, insignia, posters and other graphics, and above all personal connections with actual West Michigan veterans, their uniforms had been donated to us over the long (long) history of the Museum. We had the frock coat of Grand Rapidian Steven Champlin, colonel of the 3rd Michigan Volunteer Infantry regiment in the Civil War as well as the POW uniform worn by Butch Strickland, a crewmember of the USS Pueblo which was captured by the North Koreans in 1968.
In short, we had a ton of cool stuff...
including one of George Armstrong Custer's shoulder straps and a sword-sash worn by Robert E. Lee
The ground rules for inclusion were pretty simple: it had to be cool and it had to have a West Michigan connection, in this instance Custer's shoulder strap was a gift to Victorian-era Grand Rapids resident Rebecca Richmond and Lee's sword sash was in a baggage train captured by men under General Champlin.
Every exhibit starts with a plan; goals, objectives, audience, take-home messages, potential artifacts, etc. The Planning for "V is for Veterans" began in 1998 and steadily, slowly but surely, inched forward.
There were varying levels of staff enthusiasm for the project; needless to say, I was the head cheerleader for "V".
The space allocated for the exhibit was a challenging one; the curved exterior wall outside of the "Anishinabek" (first peoples of West Michigan) exhibition. That curved wall, in a linear sense, provided limited room for the exhibition of the merest fraction of the available artifacts.
I came up with an idea of how to increase the available space.
I suggested a series of triangular "pods" jutting out from that curved wall like teeth in a giant cog.
A talented designer, Paris Tennenhouse, took my sketch...
and turned it into a set of design drawings.
Each of the pods would provide glassed-in cases able to accommodate two uniforms, back-to-back as well as lots of smaller objects. Suddenly the potential for artifact inclusion grew exponentially.
And I got to curate those artifacts. Boy, was I in heaven.
I was also able to put my cartooning skills to use. For many of the uniforms I made a "Read the Uniform" label showing how the various elements of the uniform can tell you a lot about the veteran
who wore it.
Many talented people including Roger Van Till, Dennis O'Connell, Dave Denett, Marilyn Merdzinski, Tom Bantle, Mary Jane Wisnewski, Peter Cook, Ralph Hauenstein, Paris Tennenhouse and others all pitched in to bring this project to life.
When the exhibit opened it was very warmly received by the community in general and by veterans and their families in particular. And I was very happy with the way it all turned out.
Photographic portraits of veterans were taken by artist photographer David DeJonge and appear throughout the exhibit
On the left is an Army nurse's cape. She sewed on the insignias of numerous units, divisions, and regiments until the cape was completely covered.
Uniforms that had been in storage for a hundred years or more once again saw the light of day; beautifully lit and showcased in all their splendor.
Under a poster of the five Sullivan brothers is the POW uniform of Butch Strickland, a former crewman of the USS Pueblo.
A poster of Joe Louis towers over an MP uniform worn by a West Michigan soldier who served on occupation duty following the Second World War.
On one of the steel pillars I made magnetic cartoon uniforms that kids could dress the "well-dressed" veteran in.
And some things never change...
Here I am many years later and I'm fortunate enough to still be at it, now for the National Park Service.
When we opened a new gallery in the visitor center last year I got to have a hand in it;
making exhibit furniture to mount artifacts upon...
and mounting those artifacts.
It was a very satisfying experience. And I am privileged to have been able to
participate in the process.
I'm proud of what I've been able to do and proud of all the people who helped me do it.
Its nice to leave a footprint.
From just north of Sharpsburg,
p.s. Thanks to my old museum friend Gina who took many of these photos for me (what a peach).