First in a Series – By Mike Whittlesey

Preserving America’s heritage is not as easy as one may think. Researching and telling the stories about that heritage is an effort that takes preservation to a whole new level. Before the La Porte City FFA Historical and Ag Museum opens its doors for the 2015 season next month, much careful thought and preparation has been done by museum staff and volunteers to bring life to the artifacts on display and add meaning to each visitor’s museum experience.
The popularity of television programs like the History Channel’s American Pickers and DIY’s West End Salvage have brought the work done by “pickers” or collectors to the forefront of modern home decor. The reclamation, repurposing and resale of architectural, commercial, and industrial artifacts has generated a renewed interest in the hunt for treasures long since forgotten, creating an insatiable appetite for historical artifacts, antiques, and the stories associated with them. For La Porte City area residents interested in unique historical collections, a visit to the FFA Historical and Ag Museum is a must.

The process of developing the museum’s annual theme can begin months, and in some cases, more than a year before the exhibits presented to the public are assembled, according to Museum Director, Jan Erdahl. It starts with the museum’s design team, a group of volunteers working together to brainstorm ideas for potential exhibits. As the design team explores various possibilities, they look to a variety of sources for the artifacts that will ultimately be on display for public viewing. Some displays are traveling exhibits on loan from other museums. Other displays, like the museum’s featured works of artist Fred Bombach in 2014, are augmented by pieces on loan from private collections. Many of the items the design team decides to use come directly from the museum’s own collection, which contains hundreds of artifacts ranging from textiles to farming equipment.

Keeping track of such an extensive collection is a job that requires significant attention to detail. Preserving the past means handling each artifact with extreme caution, especially items whose age make them quite fragile to the touch. Organic items, those made from animal products such as fur, leather, wool or feathers, and plant products, such as wood, paper, cotton and other natural fibers, are typically handled with clean cotton gloves, as the oils, acids and salts from human skin can damage these artifacts over time.

Keeping track of each item in a vast collection is equally important, so the museum uses computer software to help inventory and catalog its belongings. Each item is documented and photographed. A detailed description of each artifact is critical, especially if any markings or damage is present when an item is first received into the collection. An accurate inventory allows staff to identify when the museum has accumulated multiple quantities of like or similar items. When such a situation arises, staff will assess the condition of the duplicate items and determine which ones will be retained. The museum has a policy in place for artifacts that are deaccessioned, or removed permanently from the collection. In many cases, these artifacts can be loaned or transferred to another museum.

Given the care that must be taken when preparing items for storage, the work is not over for staff members when the museum closes for the season. Erdahl noted the display of Civil War uniforms exhibited a few years ago offers an excellent example of the effort required to properly store artifacts. Many of the uniforms in the museum’s collection include the medals of honor that adorned them. Great care is taken to make sure those medals are placed in the proper location to accurately display how the uniform looked during the period of time it was worn. Proper storage of the uniforms means carefully packing them in material such as unbleached cotton or acid-free tissue. As part of the process, each medal is removed from the uniform and wrapped individually in material that will not damage it, then placed in one of the uniform’s pocket to make sure the medal is not accidentally separated from the uniform on which it belongs.

With the exhibits of 2014 safely packaged, stored, and in some cases, returned to their owners, the museum has turned its attention to telling new stories in 2015. To assist them in this endeavor, longtime La Porte City collectors, Junior and Peggy McBride, have graciously shared portions of some of their unique, rarely displayed collections for museum-goers to enjoy.

Next Week: Have you seen a sewing machine that sews sideways? A sewing bird? A brown wedding gown? A hammer? A cane with a flask and a dagger? Join the La Porte City FFA and Historical Ag Museum on their journey to explore a time gone by, as represented by the collections and stories told about sewing machines, wedding gowns, pocket watches, hammers, canes, walking sticks and more.