What lies beneath
MSU Museum works to modernize, preserve collection under Spartan Stadium and elsewhere
Behind an unassuming green door on the east side of Spartan Stadium and up a couple of flights of stairs, troves of historical treasures are hidden underneath tarps, cardboard and a coating of dust — a world away from more than 75,000 roaring fans above.
Resembling a musty family garage full of nostalgic heirlooms, the MSU Museum does the same — only theirs are from the turn of the century.
“It’s really cool to me to think that pioneers used these to break the sod in Michigan,” Collections Manager Lynne Swanson said as she examined antique farm tools. “And here they sit. I wish they had a place to be shown.”
In order to look at a plow from the early 1900s up close, Swanson had to pull on a string connected to a single bulb screwed into the ceiling.
“Really, there’s not much in these rooms anymore,” Swanson said. “Some of the things left in here are (examples) of our rural and agricultural past; as a land grant university that teaches agricultural technology … these are items from our past that really should be preserved.”
Across the street in the Cultural Collections Resource Center, a flip of the light switch reveals thousands more artifacts, kept company by the hum of climate control machines.
In the renovated space, the museum houses thousands of historical items from African masks and hundreds of quilts from across the world to extensive collections of salt and pepper shakers and duck decoys from throughout American history.
“The (quilts) are rolled on acid-free tubes so they don’t become stained from acidic cardboard,” Swanson said. “They’re rolled so we can avoid creases and covered in a nylon film that’s transparent.”
In about 200 cabinets and countless shelves made specifically for preserving the more delicate items, historic artifacts are cataloged and checked often for dust and pest damage.
The difference between the two facilities is night and day.
Since much of the MSU Museum’s collections were moved to the stadium decades ago, museum staff have worked diligently to move most of their collection into the technologically-advanced conditions they have in its Cultural Collections Resource Center nearby.
The MSU Museum is focusing on moving forward — not only by moving what’s left of their stadium collections to other, more regulated locations throughout campus, but by digitizing its collections to follow the worldwide trend of integrating technology into traditional museum techniques to be a historical resource all over the world.
Under the bleachers
MSU historians are working to modernize the process of storing their antiques in hopes of preserving history more effectively.
“This is the way stuff used to be stored,” Swanson said. “It was a (laborious) task to find stuff in this situation. You had to use wooden ladders — it’s much better now.”
Although the stadium was an adequate location for the museum’s collections in the 1950s, standards have changed, and museum officials have moved the majority of the artifacts to their highly regulated spaces throughout campus — primarily their Cultural Collections Resource Center, located next to the stadium.
Most of the artifacts have been moved since the museum received grant money to move them in 1989. The other items are either too large to fit in their indoor facilities or are on a list to be given away or thrown out.
Although the distance the artifacts have to travel is short, the moving process is both complex and expensive.
“We’ve moved almost all of our things of a relatively small size and basically filled this building now,” Swanson said. “We have to get outside money, which means we write a grant to federal government … (then) we write a grant to purchase cabinetry … and then we start the process of packing things and moving it over here with student help.”
While the museum’s storage facilities have improved during the last 50 years, Museum Director Gary Morgan said they can always use more space — much like most museums.
“All museums struggle with space; it may be the single most common challenge facing museums everywhere,” Morgan said in an email. “The large items in the stadium pose some challenges purely because many of them are large. But overall, the items there are those that are most robust and least in need of high-quality museum storage conditions.”
Ideally, the museum would need roughly 5,000 square feet of additional space to house the items remaining in the stadium, but the idea isn’t probable because the process is so expensive.
The thousands of artifacts — from ancient archeological specimens to women’s hats from the 1800s — give endless research opportunities.
“A diverse collection allows (for) diverse research and diverse support for student education and public exhibits,” Morgan said.
“We can link across disciplines because we are multidisciplinary, and we are growing that cross-disciplinary program.”
Since the MSU Museum has nearly a million objects among their four on-campus locations — Spartan Stadium, Cultural Collections Resource Center, McDonel Hall and the museum itself — professor and curator of the MSU Museum Marsha MacDowell said an exhibition rotation process and sharing artifacts with other museums both locally and globally are important to keep exhibitions fresh.
MacDowell recently returned from a trip with three of her colleagues to Kunming, China, to visit and collaborate with the museum staff there. She said the international connection wouldn’t have been possible if MSU wasn’t following the trend in museum culture of the moment by moving toward a more online base for its collections.
“People can’t always physically get to our collections,” MacDowell said. “But this enables access … so that anybody can have the benefit of learning from these objects for their own teaching or research or to be inspired. It takes our collections far beyond the physical environment, not just in a building.”
*A digital age *
In order to keep up with these trends in museum science, history senior Jordan Stoddard and other students are employed to photograph every item in the library’s arsenal for their online database.
By doing this, Stoddard, who is working toward a museum studies specialization, said they are staying relevant with the industry’s expectations in an evolving field.
“As a history person, it’s really cool to be able to handle the stuff and be able to see it,” Stoddard said. “This (work) is useful, especially the digitization stuff, (since) everything’s moving toward online and interactive things that will help in the future in museums — that’s what most museums are moving toward.”
By working to move their extensive folk collections online, MacDowell said the museum is making an international name for itself.
Museum staff have worked to compile an online database of 50,000 quilts, 600 of which are housed on campus, as well as similar ones for historic stained glass and barns throughout Michigan. These databases have gained international attention, MacDowell said, especially in museums including the Nelson Mandela Museum in South Africa, as well as some in Japan and China.
“Once we got majority of items moved out of (the) stadium … then we were (focused on) turning our attention to making those more accessible through digital means,” MacDowell said. “They’re structured in a sense that engage the community contributions of data; they’re all searchable and accessible.”
Despite doubts some have expressed with going down an online path, Stoddard said he thinks the future is bright for museums.
“A lot of people are worried about online presence of museums losing visitorship,” Stoddard said.
“But studies have shown when people can see what’s available online, they’re more apt to come in and see the museum themselves. I think it’s a really cool aspect that’s up and coming and will really help museums in the future.”