Childs does a fascinating and thought-provoking job of explaining the immensely complicated world of collecting cultural stuff, mostly buried artifacts, whether held in private collections or public museums. He finds no easy answers, but whether you collect an Anasazi pot from the American Southwest or, in our case, a hand-made wooden shuttle given as a present from a man to a woman (perhaps a father to a daughter?), the value of a piece is greatly enhanced by knowing and sharing where it came from – its provenance.
My maternal grandmother Josepha Bushey was the Queen of Provenance. What I’ve found so interesting about going through her memorabilia (she died in Newton, KS, in 1980), is that she left stories with almost every item she saved. Her methods were low-tech (most often a hand-written note pinned to a piece of fabric), but they give us not only a window into her past, but a window into life at an earlier time.
Take this little square of black netting. Alone, it is just a worthless scrap of fabric that might as easily go to Goodwill as to the trash. Instead, I learn from my grandmother’s note that she attended Marymount College in Salinas, Kansas, in the 1920s – and that she had to wear this veil to chapel every day, accompanying her uniform of navy wool serge with a stiff white collar and cuffs. But, she notes, they could wear a dress of their choice on Sundays (after church, that is). That’s a lot of information out of so small and seemingly insignificant an artifact. And she wrote many such notes.
In our museum, we of course have artifacts that bear similar tags – such as “Mary Wait Allis’ neckchief, worn to church when church was in the middle of the road, about 1840.” But for every object that bears that much of a note, we have 10 with nothing more than an item name, collection number and donor.
In most cases we can’t produce an orphan artifact’s provenance now – it is too late. But my grandmother’s anecdotes have made me realize two things: one, that I should start writing notes for my own (and my children’s) keepsakes, and two, that I should try to get stories and context with every new artifact that comes to our museum.
As Child’s says in his book Finders Keepers, “We may be making more archaeology all the time, but once the original context is lost, that story is over.”
*This post will be the first of several that reference Craig Childs’ Finders Keepers, as he raised so many thought-provoking issues relevant to the plight and challenges our local historical museum faces today.