Saturday, July 19, 2014

We wonder, all of us, what lasting contributions we have made?   This post is pretty much about me and something that I did.  Now make no mistake there were many talented people who made it happen, designers, fabricators, collections curators, really wonderful people.  This was "my baby"; the "V is for Veterans" exhibit at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids in Grand Rapids Michigan.

Me in foreground, museum in background.  I worked at the PMGR, in various capacities for seventeen years, the last four as the head of the education division.   I was fortunate to work with some great people and to be surrounded by some pretty fabulous artifacts.

The old museum of the 1930s was replaced by a huge glittering structure able to accommodate more artifacts, more exhibits, and more visitors.  The three-story galleria encloses the old City Hall clock, a biplane, an enormous Corliss stationary steam engine and a forty-foot long whale skeleton!

But, in 1994   when the beautiful new public museum opened,  almost immediately came the recurring question "Where's all the stuff?"

Despite the best efforts of all the consultants and designers the museum was awash in great expanses of empty wall space and many, if not most, of the beloved exhibits and artifacts of previous generations had been left out of the new museum.  On opening day I actually had one visitor grab my arm in a near death-grip demanding "Where are the dolls?!" I had no answer for her.

It took awhile for the great minds at the museum to get up to speed and really embrace what the taxpayers were upset about.  Many of the most cherished exhibits from the old museum were gone.

The disappointment of the visitors was palpable and entirely understandable.  Gone were the exhibits that they had grown up with, the exhibits they had wanted to share with their children and grandchildren.  Dolls, guns, mummies, tools, glass, clothing, musical instruments, toys, all gone, seemingly forever.  Objects that the museum had been collecting since 1854.  It was a sad thing.  It was a bad thing.

Within two years of opening staff members came up with a way to get more of the collections back out on display, many of the old favorites, and many more that hadn't seen the light of day for fifty years or more.  Thus was born the exhibition "Collecting A to Z".  It was an inspired idea.

A is for Automobilies, T is for Toys and Games, P is for Pewter, D is for Dolls, and so on.

In this instance "F" is for "fossils"
   (photo from the museum's facebook page which you can like here)

"V" is for "Veterans", and this was my project.

It was the most satisfying thing that I did at the museum and was my last project before I left.

As part of the planning process each of the letters were examined for the potential of public interest as well as the ability of the collection to support the exhibit.  No use saying "C is for Coco Chanel" if there's no textile collection, if you get my drift.  I lobbied really hard for "veterans" as I knew that our collection was rich in objects including weapons, uniforms, medals, insignia, posters and other graphics, and above all personal connections with actual West Michigan veterans, who's uniforms had been donated to us over the long (long) history of the Museum.  We had the frock coat of Grand Rapidian Steven Champlin, colonel of the 3rd Michigan Volunteer Infantry regiment in the Civil War as well as the POW uniform worn by Butch Strickland, a crewmember of the USS Pueblo which was captured by the North Koreans in 1968.

In short, we had a ton of cool stuff...

including one of George Armstrong Custer's shoulder straps and a sword-sash worn by Robert E. Lee

The ground rules for inclusion were pretty simple: it has to be cool and it has to have a West Michigan connection, in this instance Custer's shoulder strap was a gift to Victorian-era Grand Rapids resident Rebecca Richmond and Lee's sword sash was in a baggage train captured by men under General Steven Champlin of Grand Rapids.

Every exhibit starts with a plan; goals, objectives, audience,  take-home messages, potential artifacts, etc.  The Planning for "V is for Veterans" began in 1998 and steadily, slowly but surely, inched forward.

There were varying levels of enthusiasm for the project; needless to say, I was the head cheerleader.

The space allocated for the exhibit was a challenging one; the curved exterior wall outside of the "Anishinabek" (first peoples of West Michigan) exhibition.  That curved wall, in a linear sense, provided little room for the exhibition of the merest fraction of the available artifacts.

I came up with an idea of how to increase the available space.

I suggested a series of triangular "pods" jutting out from that curved wall like teeth in a giant cog.

A talented designer took my sketch...

and turned it into a set of design drawings.

Each of the pods would provide glassed-in cases able to accommodate two uniforms, back-to-back as well as lots of smaller objects.  Suddenly the potential for artifact inclusion grew exponentially.

And I got to curate those artifacts.  Boy, was I in heaven.

I was also able to put my cartooning skills to use.  For many of the uniforms I made a "Read the Uniform" label showing the the elements on the uniform can tell you a lot about the veteran 
who wore it.

When the exhibit opened it was very well received by the community in general and veterans and their families in particular.  And I was very happy with the way it all turned out.

Uniforms that had been in storage for a hundred years once again saw the light of day beautifully lit and  showcased in all their splendor.

Under a poster of the five Sullivan brothers is the POW uniform of Butch Strickland, a former crewman of the USS Pueblo.

A poster of Joe Louis towers over an MP uniform worn by a West Michigan soldier who served on occupation duty following the Second World War.

On one of the steel pillars I had magnetic cartoon uniforms that kids could dress the "well-dressed" veteran in.  And some things never change...

Many years later and I'm fortunate enough to still be at it, now for the National Park Service.

When we opened a new gallery in the visitor center last year I got to have a hand in it;

making exhibit furniture to mount artifacts upon...

and mounting those artifacts.

It was a very satisfying experience.  And I am privileged to have been able to 
participate in the process.

I'm proud of what I've been able to do and proud of all the people who helped me do it, including my old museum friend Gina who took many of these pictures for me, what a peach.

Its nice to leave a footprint.

From just north of Sharpsburg,

Ranger Mannie