History museum readies for renovations

July 20, 2011

Box by box, the storage areas in The History Museum of Hood River County are being cleaned out.

Before the museum closes just after Labor Day everything must be cleared out. After closing for the season, the museum will begin a renovation project, the first of several stages, designed to increase its size and visibility.

Before the move, though, all the items and artifacts the museum has collected over the years have to be cataloged and documented.

That has proven to be a complicated, but often interesting, process.

Whole boxes in the museum's attic have never been catalogued before. Some of the ones that were cataloged years ago were entered in the wrong place or with the wrong description.

Sometimes even the boxes items were stored in are historic in and of themselves.

The first time records were actually kept at the museum was 1949, and many of those are hand-scrawled and some are even attached to the wrong items. The collection itself started in 1907 with the Pioneer Society, which boxed up many of the items.

In one instance last week, the records were trying very hard to convince a volunteer that a small medicinal spoon was in fact used for scraping away dirt in mining projects.

Mismatched records set off a hunt by Museum Director Connie Nice and her dedicated volunteers to find the right object associated with the record.

Among the items to be catalogued is everything from smoking pipes, weights scales, golf clubs, flags and tools … lots of tools.

"We've got boxes of rusty old tools," says Gilbertson. "Connie doesn't want to see any more tools."

"If anyone takes a donation of any more rusty tools I will fire them," Nice says with a laugh.

On this particular day volunteers Doug Fry, Becky McAllistre, Nancy Facteau, Carol Faull and Gilbertson are helping Nice and Museum Education Coordinator Casey Housen go through the items.

As they sort through boxes and drawers each object is found in the old records and re-cataloged - or identified and placed in them if it doesn't have a place - and then photographed so it can be identified into the future and then entered into computer records.

In addition to the volunteers, intern Emma Fish, a sophomore at OSU, is crosschecking the computer records and entering everything into an archival database while another intern sorts through photos, which will be scanned and digitized.

Once everything is sorted through, cataloged and photographed, they are boxed up and sent to a secure off-site storage facility, where they will remain until renovations are finished.

Many of the items in the museum's attic have never been displayed and have been accumulated over the years through donations.

Think of the process as clearing out before a move - except the museum is not allowed to have a garage sale.

"Once we are given something we can't get rid of it," Nice said.

Nice wouldn't want to get rid of anything anyway.

Some items may seem relatively insignificant at the time - such as meetings of a social club Nice digs out of a drawer - but decades later they can provide a window to what life was like in Hood River at the time.

"We've found some artifacts from as far back as the Revolutionary and Civil wars in some of the drawers," Nice said.

The attic was never thought of as a long-term storage space, but it has proven almost perfect for the task, with a fairly consistent temperature, dry air and darkness.

"Some of the shelves were completely filled with stuff we hadn't touched in a long time," Gilbertson said.

Pictures were crammed into storage nooks, and items overflowed from boxes.

"People would just give us stuff," Gilbertson said. "They would find something and say 'Oh the museum could probably use that."

And it could (unless it's more tools, of course); it just didn't have a place to put it all.

Now with the planned expansion, the museum will have more storage and display space.

"Once we take this stuff off-site it will stay there until phase two," Nice said. "Some of it will come back for displays in the spring, but if it it's little items ... they will probably stay in storage."

Through all the sorting the volunteers have found some interesting stuff, from old snake oil medicine to numerous bottles of Mount St. Helens ash to glass photo negatives.

They've also had to ask some interesting questions, and not just the basics of the who, what, where, when and why of the artifacts they are cataloging, either. Sometimes the questions have to get a little more complex.

For example: Is the dust in the old vacuum cleaner historic? What about the mints or the pills in the old little metal boxes?

The museum will try to find out, and if they are, preserve them for future generations in Hood River County.

"We protect things by keeping them," Nice said

The museum wrapped up clearing out the upstairs storage late last month, but there is still plenty of work to do. Nice said the museum is constantly looking for more volunteers to help out. To sign up, contact Casey Housen at thmvolunteer@hrecn.net or fill out a volunteer application on the museum's website.

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