Cataloging Artifacts During a Pandemic…From Home
By Nathan Chisholm, Education Supplies Manager
While the museum is closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, work continues, although slightly different than normal. Through the course of any given year, the museum receives hundreds of new objects to be added to the permanent collection. Working with the collection is one of the most interesting jobs at the museum and a great opportunity to get up close and personal with Sheboygan County’s past. As we thought about what might be done in the event that activities were limited or the Museum even had to close, we started to discuss some of those “behind-the-scenes” projects that might get a little extra attention. Little did we know!!
When the “Safer at Home” order was issued, and with Travis’ and Tamara’s blessing, we loaded up my car with a plethora of the artifacts from the backlog shelves for me to work on from home. We grabbed everything from shirts and dresses to toilet paper (yes, toilet paper and I had to promise it would return!) Other than the toilet paper, I have come across a few other very interesting artifacts while cataloging. So join me as I show you how we process the objects and introduce you to a couple of my favorites.
The process of cataloging can be quite labor intensive, which is why we tend to have a backlog of items. The first thing we do is locate the Object ID number that every item is given (this is a whole additional aspect of the Museum’s collection management process). Think of an Object ID as an artifact’s fingerprint, as each number is unique and can be called up in the computer at any given time. A basic catalog record consists of several different kinds of information. We call this critical object data; it includes name (which is determined according to a standardized nomenclature used by museums), measurements/ dimensional information, date and/or date range, and identifying marks (typically maker’s marks or labeling). The most important data is a physical description of the object, so even without seeing the artifact, anyone would have a basic idea of what it looks like. Finally, we detail the overall condition of the artifact.
Before each object is given a permanent home it also needs to have photographs taken that get added to its digital file. The pictures are taken on a plain white or black background so that nothing distracts from the object. We also place the item alongside a scale to give an idea of the object’s true size.
Unfortunately, working from home means I don’t have access to our collection database software, PastPerfect, but we made due by creating a spreadsheet. The data will be transferred over to the main database when we are able to return to normal operation. It’s quite a bit of work, but necessary for us to understand what we have in the collection and where things are when we need them.
When I said the museum has toilet paper in the collection I meant it! One might ask, “Why does the museum have a package of Costco’s Kirkland brand toilet paper? Did a company in Sheboygan make it?” Well, the short answer is no, but the Hayssen Mfg. Co. made the machine that packaged this particular product. The company also manufactured machines to package paper-wrapped toilet paper, rolls of paper toweling and packages of paper napkins, all of which are represented in the collection.
As a musician, one of my personal favorites is an original score for the “She-Boy-Gan Centennial March” written by local composer Henry A. Maas for Sheboygan’s 100th birthday celebrations in 1953. Mr. Maas was a well known and respected director, musician, and composer whose musical career spanned nearly seven decades. When he wasn’t involved with his music, Maas worked as a superintendent at the Vollrath Company until his retirement in 1948. It is such a treat to get up close and personal with this score to see the work of a talented musical mind.
Of course this is just a small fraction of the items in the collection and the items that still need to be cataloged. It’s quite a bit of work, but necessary for us to understand what we have in the collection and where things are when we need them.
As the order to stay home is in place until the end of April for sure, myself and the rest of the staff will continue to work on all the behind-the-scenes work that makes the museum tick. As much as I am enjoying skipping the commute into the office and working in pajamas, I look forward to returning to the museum and enjoying the company of my fellow staff members and our visitors!