Without a doubt, the most important thing is preserving Peoria’s rich and diverse history for generations to come. Thankfully, there are many ways to do this that don’t rely on a local historical society, or even a physical building.
Communities around the nation and world are including history narratives in developing public spaces and using technology to keep these stories available for the public.
The initial scope of work for which Museum Pros was contracted was straightforward: evaluate, stabilize, and identify the collection, educational pieces, and business assets remaining in the five buildings formerly managed by the historical society.
The state of the contents in the buildings showed significant signs of strife. Computers had been removed, leaving Museum Pros to recreate museum collections records from incomplete paperwork found in 14 different binders. Likewise, artifacts and exhibits were in disarray, and had been left unprotected from elements that cause deterioration.
Our team started by stabilizing the most threatened artifacts first — textiles. As we organized and categorized, we searched for any hints about ownership, family history, or connection to Peoria families. At that point, we weren’t sure about the disposition of items, as the court had not yet ruled on the outcome, so our job was to get things protected and wrapped in acid-free materials, get everything out of direct sunlight, and categorize items by material. Simultaneously, we rebuilt the collections database. In the end, we found about 3,400 existing collections records, and since then, we have added over 700 more “found in collection” records.
Once the court ordered the dissolution of the organization, our scope of work shifted to organizing collections by donor with the intent of returning items to donors who wanted them back. This is a somewhat unusual practice in the museum world, but with more and more small museums in peril, the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of State and Local Museums is providing more guidance about how to manage an orphaned collection.
In the past, museum best practices have urged that whenever possible, artifacts are given to other like-missioned organizations in order to keep them in the public trust. Peoria’s situation was slightly different, in that the parent organization failed to uphold the provisions of the gifts. New guidance in the museum field now includes language about returning collections to donors as an acceptable means of disposition in extreme cases.
About nine months ago, Museum Pros began returning collections to donors in earnest. We worked through the city manager’s office, helping identify collections that were ready to be returned, gathering the items and paperwork, and helping facilitate the actual meeting when people came to get their family heirlooms.
As the legal custodians of the collection, city employees handled all the correspondence with donors and donors’ families, and we provided the tactics to gather and document returns.
It was incredibly rewarding to watch as people reclaimed their past, and even though this project is clouded in sadness for the former historical society, we are honored to be part of restoring family pieces to the people who will appreciate them the most.
During this project, we have met many people who are passionate about Peoria’s history. Our hope is that they step up and help find the resources for the next chapter of preserving the city’s past.
This project is important and the city is trying hard to preserve its history and restore trust within the community. Small museums like the former historical society are difficult to sustain, and I fear similar organizations may find themselves in the same plight in the future. I hope not.
Editor’s note: Michelle R. Reid is the Museum Services Director at Washington-based Museum Pros. She led the effort in preserving the artifacts formerly in possession of the now dissolved Peoria Arizona Historical Society.