- Associated Press - Monday, February 9, 2015

WINONA, Minn. (AP) - Anyone who’s tidied an attic won’t envy them the task.

For 80 years, the Winona County Historical Society has been accumulating stuff - high button shoes, Civil War muskets, princess telephones, bunting, buoys, and briar pipes - stuff that overflowed shelves, cupboards, cabinets and storerooms.

And for years, no one knew exactly what, how much, and where all that stuff was.

That’s changing.

Winona’s community attic is getting organized.

“When we’re done we’re going to know where everything is,” WCHS curator of collections Jodi Brom told the Winona Daily News (https://bit.ly/1DDMhkl ).

For 10 months Brom, WCHS archivist Andy Bloedorn, and inventory specialists Alexandra Carrier and Maria McEachran have been identifying and cataloging each and every three-dimensional object owned by the historical society. This inventory, expected to be completed by the end of June, is the first phase of a five-year project to bring the history center’s collection, archive and facility in line with state and national standards for maintenance and preservation of museum collections.

This phase of the inventory project is funded in part by a $109,000 Arts and Cultural Heritage Grant through the Minnesota Legacy Amendment. Additional private donations have covered expenses for upgraded technology and storage equipment.

The process is patient and exacting.

“We go shelf by shelf, room by room,” Carrier said.

Each object is taken from its assigned storage space, photographed, measured and its condition noted, then identified, described and entered into a comprehensive database. “Then we put it back and repeat the process with the next item,” she said - about 25,000 times so far, with an estimated 19,000 remaining.

Most of these items will never be seen by the museum-going public. Only about 10 percent of the collection is on display at any one time, Brom said. Some items - such as a piecework quilt created to commemorate members the local Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans of the Civil War - are simply too rare and delicate to expose to the degrading effects of light and varying temperature and humidity.

“It’s the nature of stuff to degrade,” McEachran said. “The job of a museum is to slow the process as much as possible.”

Still, on display or in the vaults, there’s a lot of stuff, and some of it is, well, interesting.

A lighted beer-and-salted-nut sign was the first item inventoried. The crew went on to work their way through the museum’s collection of model steamboats, dresses worn by lumber heiress Francis Prentiss-Lucas in the early years of the last century, and, tucked away in the back of an exhibit, unnoticed and unnoted, J.R. Watkins’ first desk. “It’s old and rickety … pretty unassuming,” Carrier said.

Museum records from the 1950s had cataloged Watkins’ desk as part of the collection, but, at that time, artifacts were identified by affixing gummed stickers.

Sometime in the past 60 years the sticker stuck to the desk came unstuck, and an item closely identified with one of Winona’s most noteworthy personages became just another anonymous piece of old furniture - underscoring the lasting importance of the inventory project.

The team is nearly finished with the inventory of artifacts at the downtown museum complex, yet to be cataloged are items at the Bunnell House, the Arches and items on loan.

And when they’re done, they’re just starting.

Phase two will be an inventory of the historical society archives - documents, maps, photos, negatives, clippings, scrapbooks and other two-dimensional artifacts possibly totaling close to 500,000 individual pieces, Bloedorn said.

Phases three, four and five will involve upgrades to storage equipment, climate control and other aspects of the museum facility. Funding for phases two through five has yet to be secured, Brom said, adding that Legacy grants are awarded on an annual basis and generally must be utilized within a year.

“Knowing what we have will help us better care for what we have,” she said.

The better to pass the collection on to future generations intact and identified - J.R. Watkins’ desk and all.

___

Information from: Winona Daily News, https://www.winonadailynews.com

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