Collecting the History of Technology at the National Museum of American History

Collecting the History of Technology at the National Museum of American History

Collecting for history museums is challenging work, and there needs to be more research and writing on both its history and how to do it. We need to understand how and why collections came to museums; what decisions that shaped collections they hold today? And we need to talk more about how to collect, how to train museum curators to collect, and how to evaluate collecting and collections. We need to share best practices.

Those were among the conclusions of a session on collecting technology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History at the recent Society for the History of Technology meeting in Dearborn, Michigan. The session was one of several sessions, at a range of scholarly conferences, organized by the museum as part of its semi-centenary celebration.

There were four speakers:

I spoke first, on the ideology of collecting. One of the challenges for the museum, I argued, was that the Smithsonian never developed a good way to evaluate curatorial collecting. Museum managers encouraged each curator to collect as he or she felt best, in the area he or she was most interested in, and (mostly) for his or her own research. The museum borrowed its ideology of collecting from the Natural History museum, and thought of collections as research tools for curators, not as public resources. That approach began to change in the late 20th century, but how, what, and how much to collect, and how best to make the collections useful, remains a challenge. (The Federal History Journal will publish a longer version of this talk in its January issue.)

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Kathleen Franz, of American University, spoke next. She compared two large-scale collections. The Allen B. Du Mont Collection came to the museum in the 1950s, when the DuMont company went out of business. Kathy is in the process of collecting material from Univision now, for exhibition as part of the museum’s upcoming American Enterprise exhibition. Both represent important TV networks that are not part of the mainstream history of network television. Franz noted the intense collaboration required to collect documents and artifacts from a large corporation. The engineers, for example, are the experts in their work. One needs to work closely with them, to share authority with them, to jointly decide what artifacts the museum should collected — and to convince the firm to donate good materials.

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Peter Liebhold, of the National Museum of American History, offered a second comparative study. The Bracero History project, about a decade ago, used extensive in-person collecting to acquire artifacts and oral histories from former braceros and their families. The  Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive, part of the collecting for the new American Enterprise exhibition, used social media as well. Peter argued that social media’s a good start, but personal contact is still essential to collect good artifacts and good stories.

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Allison Marsh, of the University of South Carolina, spoke about orphan collections at the museum — those without a curator. Focusing on the engineering collection, without a curator for the past decade or more, she asked two questions: how might the museum make these collections available, and how might the museum continue collecting in this important area? She suggested, among other things, ways that engineering drawings from the collection might be scanned and made available, and used for teaching, and urged that new staff be found to care for and expand the collections.

Allison’s talk was based on her article in Issues in Science and Technology, which is online here.

There was good discussion after the presentations, with questions and conversation about new ways to let researchers know about what collections are at the museum, taking advantage of new digital tools; the role of deaccessioning at different museums; issues of copyright and trademark in making collections available both online and in the museum; and how social media and curatorial expertise might best be combined to improve collections.

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