Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 12, 2014

Some History Center artifacts preserve far-away histories



TRAVERSE CITY — Maddie Buteyn struggled to find space to step inside a storage unit between gigantic Lego blocks and a dilapidated horse-drawn wagon.

She then stood back near the open door on the face of a block of storage units situated along Cass Street and gazed at the packed space. It wasn’t a collection of personal treasures she’s squirreled away — it’s the next big problem facing the History Center of Traverse City.

The curator for the museum Wednesday perused some of the dozens of large artifacts the organization has preserved during the decades. Some may have historical significance in other regions and the center may have to get rid of them in one way or another.

And all of the items represent two important questions facing both the museum and Traverse City officials.

How does a city rescue, maintain and sustain large historical artifacts like architecturally significant buildings including the City Opera House and the Carnegie Library Building that houses the center?

And how important are culture and history to the region’s economy, its tourism, businesses and citizens?

“It’s a challenge,” city commissioner Jim Carruthers said. “The city commission has handed over many of our properties to the nonprofits and said, ‘Here you can have them, but then they’re stuck with the maintenance.’ In a perfect world, it would be wonderful if the city could continue maintaining the buildings.”

Carruthers said he thinks historically and architecturally significant buildings, tree-lined historic neighborhoods and unique owner-operated downtown businesses all play into why people come to Traverse City. They help preserve its “small-town character.”

The History Center’s mission is to “preserve, protect and present the historical record of Traverse City and the Grand Traverse region.” For now, however, the History Center has to focus on its budget and its next steps.

The center’s board chose to eliminate the position of it’s most recent director, Bill Kennis, saving a little more than $50,000.

The city owns the the 110-year-old Carnegie Library building and leases it to the History Center for $1.

This week’s decision helped the board deal with its immediate $50,000 deficit. Now the board’s task is to whittle the center’s $300,000 budget down to less than $200,000. It must also decide whether parts of the Con Foster Collection that have nothing to do with the region’s history should be deaccessioned, said board chairman Steve Harold.

Deaccessioning is the process of documenting and selling artifacts owned by a museum.

Con Foster was a former city parks commissioner who created Clinch Park and believed museums were important tourist attractions. In 1934, he traveled thousands of miles through the Midwest buying Native American and pioneer artifacts to display in Clinch Park’s Con Foster Museum. The collection has grown during seven decades to more than 10,000 artifacts.

The city owns the Con Foster Collection, which the History Center manages along with its own collection of historical records, documents, photographs and digitized photo collections.

Deaccession is not as simple as cleaning the attic, though. It’s an often lengthy legally-required process that can involve: finding an item’s original donor and returning the artifact, transferring it to another appropriate institution, or selling the item.

“Selling is a last choice,” Harold said. “We are legally and morally obligated to look for the original owners and give back the item. The state requires 10 days of advertising. Deaccessioning an item can sometimes take 5-10 hours.”

The archival documents and photo collections are “tight” and do not need to be winnowed, he added.

The History Center already has taken some steps toward increasing revenues. Rental fees from partner organizations that use the building will bring in a total $400 more. Partner groups include the Grand Traverse Area Rock & Mineral Club, Women’s History Project of Northwest Michigan, American Association of University Women and the Railroad Historical Society of Northwest Michigan.

The History Center also now charges a research entrance fee: $2 a day for center members and $5 for non-members. Telephone and email requests by researchers who cannot visit the archives in person will continue to be addressed by archival volunteers at a cost of $10 per hour. The History Center has about 60 volunteers who help with operations and events.

The three paid staff members are curator Maddie Buteyn, who works full time; part-timers archivist Peg Siciliano and Laura Wilcox Olson.

Exhibits booked by former director Kennis for 2014 will continue, Harold said. They include a prehistoric dinosaur display in the spring that will feature a full-sized T-Rex dinosaur, as well as a triceratops skull. The summer Lego exhibit will feature Great Lakes pirates and shipwrecks.

The current Guardians of the Great Lakes History of the United States Coast Guard will be on display till Sept. 1.

The 2014 Winter Grand Traverse Legends exhibit opens Jan. 22 and runs through March. It features Father Fred (Edwin Fredrick), founder of the Father Fred Foundation, and Roy and Ellen Brigman, founders of Camp Roy-El, which was a retreat for special needs children from 1952 to 1991.

The two-week Festival of Trains is again slated for December.

The Magical Mystery Tour, a 90-minute, nine-mile bus tour of historical Traverse City will continue in the spring and summer, with some schedule adjustments yet to be determined.