SHERIDAN — For several Saturdays this winter, the Sheridan County Museum has opened its doors to residents to get a “behind-the-scenes” look at how the museum cares for and displays artifacts in its possession.
The Saturday events operate on an open house basis, with visitors filing in throughout the day, visiting one-on-one with staff about artifacts and exhibits.
“We have a very broad assortment,” said Nathan Doerr, museum director, about the museum’s collection. “Most of the artifacts in the museums collections are relative to the cultural history, so really from the 1890s and up.”
The next Behind-the-Scenes Saturday will be March 16 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The theme is “Installing Exhibits” and will give participants a chance to see how the installation process works from conception and design to the final product.
Doerr said the idea behind the events is to give people an idea of how busy the museum is during the winter months, even when it is closed to public visitation.
“It is a quality experience and that is what we have found with everyone who has come up,” he said. “Staff is able to have meaningful conversations with people about what we do. It is just a fun opportunity to realize we aren’t on vacation to Hawaii for six months!”
Doerr said the museum is in the midst of a huge collections project. He estimates there are 6,000 to 8,000 items in the collection.
“Basically what we have been doing is having a huge focus on organizing the collection and making it accessible not only for purposes of exhibit but also for research purposes,” he said.
“It is also a time for us to realize what duplicates we have in the collection,” Doerr added. “Having been a historical society since the 1960s we have accumulated a lot of stuff. So now is our opportunity to look back on what we have and focus on if we are properly caring for that.”
Doerr said donations come from local residents, as well as from out-of-state donors who mail items to the museum. Each item accepted into the collection takes one-half hour to one hour of time to catalog. Paperwork is filled out for each item, it is photographed, numbered and eventually stored in a manner most suitable to its preservation.
“One huge portion of our collection comes from an older generation that is realizing their children and grandchildren don’t want this stuff and they want to see it preserved for future generations so they contact us,” Doerr said.
He added that the generosity of donors makes it important that the large number of items accepted are catalogued and then stored properly to preserve their integrity.
“I would say the biggest issue we face is really a staffing issue, to make sure we have the sufficient staff to give the collection the attention it deserves,” he said, noting that about a dozen volunteers assist staff in collections maintenance. “We are fortunate to have that great crew of folks that help out.”
“It is not just about throwing it in a box,” he continued. “It’s about having a regular schedule of going back and checking on things. Anytime you introduce something new, particularly a textile, you never know what insects are in that. You can’t see them with your naked eye. To just throw them into this room, six months later or a year later, you might open a box and realize you have an infestation, which we have never had, but we have to always be on the lookout.”
Doerr said in order to properly preserve items, a variety of factors have to be monitored, including exposure to sunlight, protection from insects and animals, humidity control and temperature control.
Once items are formally accepted into the museum, they may then be used for future exhibits. Due to the large number of items in the collection and the need to reduce their exposure to light and other conditions in the museum, exhibits are rotated often.
“Because there is so much history locally to tell, we rotate exhibits and collections, and for the long-term conservation of the artifacts themselves,” explained Doerr. “We have some that have been on display for a year in a non-natural position (such as hanging), so we take it down and let it rest.”
Doerr said the proper care of artifacts and the creative exhibits they are used for are really the result of cooperation between museum staff and volunteers who log hundreds of hours throughout the year.
“We have an amazing crew of volunteers who help with collections,” he said. “Our volunteers have taken on a passion of working with the collection and so we use that. We always have fun. I know that is partially the reason the volunteers do it. You are doing serious work, but you are sitting around a table and talking and laughing and learning. How can you beat that?”