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.