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No room for germs or more 'stuff' at the museum

No room for germs or more 'stuff' at the museum

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So that old-time Nellie Fox baseball glove in your garage that your grandpa used when he played second base for the Missoula Highlanders back in the '50s?

Or your great aunt’s butter churn from the homestead up Lolo Creek?

The ones you have no idea what to do with?

Hold onto them for now.

It’s quite possible Missoula’s county museum would love to add them to its collection, but not this summer.

The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula said this week it’s putting a (here’s hoping) temporary halt on donations to its permanent collection, which has grown by nearly 7,000 artifacts since January 2017.

Like most other things in this topsy-turvy world, COVID-19 is to blame, at least in part.

“It’s sort of a perfect storm with the pandemic, the germs, the lack of volunteers and interns, combined with the lack of space,” Ted Hughes, curator of collections said Wednesday. “If we can just take a little breather for a month or three …”

The museum’s doors are wide open to the public, with proper distancing and sanitizing in place.

But there’s no sense courting disaster with COVID-19 case numbers in Missoula County and Montana skyrocketing.

“We get a lot of pop-ins throughout the year,” Hughes said Wednesday. “People will just pop in and say, ‘I was cleaning out the attic and found this. Are you interested?’ So for people dropping stuff off, we want to limit that interaction.”

In normal times, three older volunteers would be inventorying the massive collection of, in museological terms, “stuff” that’s piled in the bowels of the main museum and in a collection storage barn across the grounds.

Another set of volunteers would be scanning the photo archives and photographing the others.

And there’d be a University of Montana summer intern and a couple each in the spring and fall, working on cataloguing artifacts on computers and helping research, put up and take down exhibits.

The coronavirus crisis hit during spring break at UM. The spring interns were away and couldn't come back. They were on the verge of wrapping up research for an upcoming exhibit.

“They finished that remotely, thank God,” Hughes said.

People are increasingly generous. Last year the museum collected an average of 175 artifacts a month if you factor in large gifts that can include hundreds of individual items. Estimates vary, but there are between 40,000 to 50,000 artifacts at the museum, many of them waiting to be catalogued and stored properly.

“It becomes harder and harder to say yes, since we’re running out of space," Hughes said. "So we have to be more discerning about what we accept. We cut out anything that’s larger. We don’t have room for that.”

Compounding the problem is the challenge of storing things so they’re not stacked, they're not housed acidic plain cardboard boxes, bottles aren’t clinking together when you pull open a cabinet drawer, and framed plaques and photos aren’t stored in bubble wrap.

There’s a ton of work to be done, and for now only the bare-bones museum staff to do it: executive director Matt Lautzenheiser, assistant director Carolyn Thompson, Hughes as curator, education director Kristjana Eyjolfsson, development and communications director Jessie Rogers; do-everything museum aide Anne Smyrl and Eric Ives, the maintenance man. The museum doesn’t have a collections registrar as many its size do.

Smyrl has made a start at reorganizing some of the cabinets.

“That’s one of the things. If we could hit pause, we can focus on repackaging this stuff more safely,” Hughes said.

He’s looking forward to a planned but not yet scheduled summer visit from assessors of the American Association of Museums. “The assessment will really help because the two people coming are museum professionals. They’ll write up all the recommendations and the analysis and help us come up with a plan to where we go from here, to prioritize,” he said.

If they find budget-related shortcomings, their input could carry weight with Missoula County commissioners, who control the museum’s purse strings beyond the 2-mill levy voters passed in 2002.

The suspension of collections at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula is indefinite. The situation will be re-evaluated in September.

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Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian

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