A rusty old handgun, foot-powered corn-cutting blade, tiny glass pitcher, box full of loom parts and an antique telephone would seem to have nothing in common. But they do.
They're among the 4,500 items in the History's Center's 27,000-piece collection that can't be properly restored, displayed or even disposed of because they're caught in a kind of legal purgatory created by decades of indifferent record-keeping the museum is addressing in a comprehensive way for the first time in its 93-year history.
“Before (Curator Walter) Font arrived in 1983, we generally followed the professional standards of the day. But there were no real standards until the 1960s or 1970s,” Executive Director Todd Maxwell Pelfrey said – meaning that thousands of items were donated to the collection with little more than a verbal agreement to establish transfer of ownership or the intended use of the artifact.
This lack of “provenance,” or proof of the item's source and owner's intent, complicates things for the center in Old City Hall at 302 E. Berry St., since it would be risky to spend money or manpower to repair or display artifacts it does not definitively own. “As we refurbish our exhibits, I would hate to spend time on something somebody might come and claim,” Pelfrey explained.
So this week he placed an ad in the local newspapers inviting anyone wanting to claim ownership of the items to do within three years “or you will be considered to have waived any claim you may have had to the property.”
It's the kind of housecleaning museums do from time to time, and the History Center has done similar outreach in the past on some individual items, only one of which – an enormous loom – was ever claimed. But the current effort is unique, Pelfrey said, because the center's digital database now provides a greater understanding of its collection than previously possible.
“It's like somebody's grandkids brought over a casserole during the Depression, and you've been legally required to keep that dish, but you can't cook in it,” Pelfrey said. “We're saying, 'If you want your casserole back, please take it."
Although Pelfrey said the outreach may not be legally necessary – the museum could probably claim ownership of items that have been in its collection for decades – he said giving the public a chance to respond will help avoid any suspicion that the museum does not maintain its collection with the utmost care and concern for donors' wishes. Even so, he suspects few if any of the items in question will be claimed, since many of the donors and their descendents will have moved, died or lack the necessary proof of ownership or donation.
Before Font's arrival, the museum's record-keeping was spotty at best, as evidenced by the yellow tags dangling from the countless items stored in the museum's attic or a nearby warehouse – tags that indicate lack of clear ownership. And the uncertainty dates from even before the museum's incorporation in 1921: Some of the items in its collection date from the city's centennial celebration in 1895 or were collected by the Daughters of the American Revolution starting in 1901.
“Some of the items have a lot of historical value and we would like to display them. Many have little to no value,” said Pelfrey. “Maybe in the 1920s some of it was just shoved into a corner and not fully dealt with (by the museum). But we have a legal and ethical commitment to share our items forever, to preserve them and use them for educational purposes.”
Once ownership is clearly establish, the museum will evaluate how best to use the artifacts. Some will be prominently displayed. Those deemed to be duplicative or of limited historic or financial value could then be donated or traded to other museums.
And, no: The History Center will not offer such items at what would surely be the coolest garage sale in city history. “Even if we could do it, we wouldn't,” Pelfrey said. “That would just create too many misunderstandings. You have to be extra sensitive when dealing with family heirlooms.”
So if you want Grandma's casserole back, you've got three years to stake your claim.