Volunteer Marcia Sullivan got lucky in trying to pin down a museum identification for what turned out to be an Army Air Corps aviator helmet from World War II.
A visitor to the Hennepin History Museum with a military background helped her not only to identify its era but also some of its accessories. That saved her from having to rely solely on Google and fragmentary info on file at the museum.
Sullivan, who lives downtown, is one of 15–20 volunteers who are helping the 80-year-old museum in the Whittier neighborhood get a better handle on its collection of an estimated 25,000 three-dimensional items. The effort is a year old, and it’s about one-fourth of its way through the collection. A separate inventory of its additional thousands of two-dimensional items, such as letters and photos, is expected to get underway in the spring.
“We’re making an effort to gain control of our physical and inventory collection,” said Alyssa Thiede, the museum’s collections manager and curator. “Volunteers help us every step of the way.”
The museum’s collection grew without consistent documentation. An index card from the late 1930s might hold scant information. In the 1950s, the amount recorded grew to a manila folder with the donor’s name and more information — if known.
“For some parts of our history, things would get left on our doorstep,” Thiede said.
The volunteers currently are working their way through storage boxes of apparel that can range from fine gowns to military uniforms.
David Copperud of Golden Valley, a retired social studies teacher, felt a little out of place when he showed up and volunteers were working their way through cataloging women’s clothing. But he found his National Guard background helpful in assessing a Vietnam-era field jacket.
He hit the jackpot for more detailed identification when he found dog tags in a pocket, giving the name of Capt. William Mozey Jr. as the uniform’s owner. The jacket still held pocket-sized cards with information such as the Geneva Convention rules for handling prisoners.
Copperud’s connection to this artifact is more than academic. In 1960, he graduated from high school with a classmate who went off to West Point. He graduated a second lieutenant, shipped out to Vietnam and was dead in six weeks.
“That was really a powerful experience on my part,” Copperud said. Determined to avoid killing, he sought out a place in the guard Guard so he could serve in a medical unit.
The volunteers are a chatty bunch, working at broad tables, examining items, recording details and condition.
“A lot of people are nervous about this sort of thing because they don’t have experience, but I’m here to help them along the way,” Thiede said.
After volunteers inventory each item, it goes on to be photographed and returned to museum-quality storage boxes. The information is entered in a digital database. That will allow museum workers to search the collection more efficiently.
The process will also help Thiede to determine whether an item fits the mission of recording the history of Hennepin County or would more properly be offered to another museum.
Besides apparel, the volunteers will work their way through other categories of museum holdings: arts and crafts, recreation, tools and technology, personal artifacts, decorative and large artifacts.
The museum’s oldest item dates to 1727. That’s certain because the carved wooden clothing press has the date and a couple’s name carved on it. It’s from Scandinavia, a family hand-me-down that likely migrated to the county.
Such discoveries are why people like Sullivan volunteered to catalog the collection.
“I always wanted to know what went on in the backrooms of a museum, and I thought this was a chance,” she said.
The most unusual item that she’s handled was a fluting iron for pleating fabric.
Cheryl Owens of Uptown, a retired library technician, recalled another item — marionettes.
“They were actually kind of creepy,” she recalled. “As far as a hideous thing, the Ronald Reagan and Nancy slippers.”
In a collection that includes Tonka Trucks, a coffee roaster, oxen yoke, Nordic Ware bundt pan, streetcar sign, hobbyhorse, slot machine, phone switchboard, doorknob collection and hundreds of other items, it’s hard for individual pieces to stand out.
But Thiede’s nomination for the most unusual items derive from the 1894 murder of dressmaker Katherine “Kitty” Ging by socialite and gambler Harry Hayward, a crime that transfixed Minneapolis. The museum has a rocking chair he used, handcuffs he wore, the badge a deputy wore when Hayward was arrested — and a part of the rope that hanged him.
Some of the museum’s collection of items are rotating through an exhibit on its second floor that will continue as long as the cataloging project.
Thiede is welcoming additional volunteers who want to get their hands — or cotton gloves — on history.