“… or a building full of old stuff.”

by Gene Bering on

The blog below is the first of several postings by Gene Bering. I asked him to share his experiences working in a small rural museum. Small museums everywhere – whether they’re rural, urban, academic, or something altogether different – share similar challenges and rewards. I hope their unique characteristics, while perhaps unfamiliar to some of you, may provide some interesting perspectives for comparison and contrast. Paul Katz, Member, Small Museums Committee

 “… Or a building full of old stuff.”

A while back, Stacy Klingler asked, “What’s your ‘How I got here’ story?” I’d been thinking about that lately, and since I decided to wade into these waters, I thought it would be a pretty good place to start.

I was in newspapers for the better part of the last three decades. When my wife took a job as library director in a small town, I checked first with the town’s local newspaper and learned that it was fully staffed.

I started freelancing, including writing a story about the newly-hired director of the county’s museum. I became a volunteer at the museum and was eventually hired as a part-time assistant.

The new director had a mission in mind: to develop a museum that reflected the cultures that helped shape the county. We compared notes on museums we’d visited, and decided that a museum could reflect the story of a culture, a place, a technology, an event… or it could be a building full of old stuff.

Unfortunately, our museum fell into the latter category.

And so it began… sorting, organizing, finding out just what we had. A new accession record was in order, since the previous record – a partial one, at best – was handwritten in spiral notebooks and ledgers and on index cards, Post-It notes, and napkins. Information was incomplete, conflicting and often duplicated.

Other discoveries abounded:

  • One display case contained a military uniform that had fallen from its hanger into a corner. Picking up the uniform revealed a World War II-vintage Remington rifle.
  • Several items in the museum had garage sale-type price stickers on them. It looked as if the previous owners couldn’t sell these things, so they decided the only way to dispose of them was to give them to the local museum.
  • One cabinet contained an olive oil can, with a handwritten display label dating it to 1906. Sure enough, an image of a medal on the side of the can claimed the olive oil had won a contest in France in 1906. I gave the can a closer look and told the director, “Well, it’s surely not from 1906.”

“Why do you say that?” he asked.

“Well, first of all, the bar code on the bottom…”

And so it went.



One Response to ““… or a building full of old stuff.””

  1. May 12, 2012 at 4:52 pm, Peggy Mershon said:

    Well,I certainly could identify with part of your blog — I too spent most of my working career as a newspaper editor and, after retiring, faced a considerable challenge with a small museum — until I saw the word “hired.” Most “small rural museums” run only with volunteers — no paid staff. And volunteers, I’ve found, think they have a great deal of leeway in what they do and how often and long they work. I hope we can discuss here the problems and solutions in the areas of volunteers, setting priorities with a very limited and erratic workforce and finding funds to pay people to do what no one else is qualified or, more likely, wants to do. So many of us in small rural museums are struggling with the basics and would love to hear about new approaches, opportunities and success stories — not that I don’t spend way too much time on-line searching for them. And by the way, neglected exhibits and uniformed personnel is not just found in small rural museums. Paying somebody does not guarantee their competence. Another topic that might be explored is how much these museums can gain by cooperating with each other.


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