What Does it Mean to be “Museum-Worthy?” How a Political History Curator Defines the Term

The ATM blog team regularly reports on new donations to the various museums around the Smithsonian, most recently detailing the acquisitions of WWII Italian Air Force artifacts by the Air and Space Museum and the portrait of Andrew Young, now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery. These items, often offered to the museums by the families of the original owners after their deaths, or by the owners themselves, add layers of personal history to the collections and make space on the highly sought after exhibition floor hard to come by.

But what about those items which are sought after and collected by museum curators themselves? What criteria is used to determine which artifacts are worthy of being added to a museum's collections? While the process is different at every museum, and even among different departments within the same museum, we focused our attention on the American History Museum. As the political campaign season heats up across the country, the ATM blog team wondered how the museum preserves political history as it's happening. We spoke with Larry Bird, curator of the campaign collection in the division of political history, to get some answers.

What is the process for how artifacts are chosen for inclusion in the museum?

There’s no formal process, per se. But in terms of making judgments, deciding what to get, we typically focus on the kinds of events and things that even a normal person on the street might think of, or be aware of. So, that would be the beginning of the presidential primary season, which now starts with the Iowa caucus and then very quickly moves to the New Hampshire primary, and the idea is to try to get something from each one of the national candidates before they drop out. We like to keep the collection focused at the national level.

What do you collect?

There are things that the campaign gives out that are sort of “officially sanctioned,” that they are using to get their message out, like a button. And then there are things that people make and wear themselves. Typically, I like to try to get something from a person who’s wearing something—it could be a lapel pin, a sign they made or a sign they’re carrying. It’s very difficult to talk that item off of a person and in fact, it's almost not even fair because if they could just give it to you, would you want it? What you want is what they can’t give you. It means so much to them personally. That’s what you want to collect.  You want to collect the material of activism and engagement.

How do you know it's "museum worthy?"

"Museum worthy" implies that there’s some kind of aesthetic judgment going on, which there may be, but that’s hardly the first thing that you think of.  The material that we get is so inherently ephemeral; it doesn’t really have any great inherent value. The items can be quite modest and even flawed—they can have rough edges and corners and be duct-taped to a paint paddle or something. I mean for a couple of bucks you can pick up a couple of buttons, but when you get it all together at the end of the year, it really is quite valuable as a record because it doesn’t exist anywhere else.

So, it's a judgment call?

Yes. The curators know what they would hope to find, which would be that material that shows spirited activism and engagement, no matter what the cause, issue, candidate is. That’s what you’d like to see, an expression of our democracy in a material way.

Once the items are brought back to the museum, is there then a discussion about what you keep?

Yes, usually between the people who went to the event. In the end, it comes down to the curator looking at it and vetting it. We weed out the duplicates or pick the best one. You’re trying to figure out what can be most easily or best preserved. What will last, holdup? What had the least amount of tape or what isn’t going to destroy itself with some inherent vice, with something stuck to it? You don’t  want to create problems for your future curator down the line. We do look at things and say what do you think?

How many people are a part of this process of collection and curation?

Anybody in the division, which would include seven or eight people, is encouraged to collect. One of the things about this job is you can go out to lunch and be leafleted and come back and you have an addition to the collection.

Why is this collection significant?

It comes back to what the function of the museum is, which is to put things out where people can come see them and inspect them and come to some kind of understanding about what it means to be a democracy in our country. So in that sense, it’s kind of like a continuing improvisation on the democracy theme.

Bird, who has worked at the museum since 1976, is partial to something that was already in the museum when he arrived—Jefferson's writing desk. See this and the rest of the collection, including a framed collection of the hair of the presidents, at the National Museum of American History, open daily (except December 25) from 10:00 AM until 5:30PM.

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