Museums struggling to protect artifacts
Nevada’s museums are out of space and overflowing with artifacts.
On top of that, some of the larger artifacts — such as the historic two-ton freight wagon that once hauled supplies between Dayton and Virginia City — are sitting in an NDOT warehouse.
Museums and History Administrator Peter Barton and Museums Director Jim Barmore readily admit the situation is far from adequate. But they also admit with the other critical needs — such as K-12 education — faced by the state, they understand why museums haven’t risen to the top of the funding priorities for the Legislature.
“We’re the ultimate attic for Nevada history,” said Barton. “And most of that never sees the light of day.”
He said collections grow and grow over time. The result is that not only Nevada but every museum in the country has more “stuff” than they know what to do with.
While the NDOT warehouse isn’t ideal, Barton said it’s a lot better than the old NDOT facility on Stewart Street they had to quickly move out of in the 1990s after it flooded.
In Nevada, Barton said, “it’s a crisis.”
“All of our museums are lacking space to store our collections,” Barton said. “For six (budget cycles) we have requested funds to construct additional facilities at Indian Hills. None has succeeded.”
Gov. Brian Sandoval, an avowed history buff, said the building has never been on the list of Capital Improvement Projects that reached his desk.
Because of the state’s money woes, that list has been pretty much limited to critical maintenance needs like roof repairs for at least eight years.
Barton and Barmore emphasized none of the museums’ “high value” artifacts and collections are in jeopardy.
A prime example would be the ornate and priceless silver service from the battleship U.S.S. Nevada.
They said the Marjorie Russell Textile Museum on Arrowhead is good as is the museum itself, the Nevada Historical Society in Reno and the Railroad Museum at Carson’s south end.
But all are out of storage space.
That situation has forced them to get creative as well as pragmatic.
Barton said a committee appointed by the 11-member museums board is looking at potential public-private partnerships to help out. Since the state system also stores archaeological artifacts for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies, they are also looking at “public-public” partnerships.
“It’s certainly an option we’re going to have a dialog on,” he said.
BLM has already contributed the 10-acre site at Indian Hills where significant collections are stored.
But they are not just looking at finding more space. They are seriously looking at what they have and whether all of it is needed.
During a Thursday tour of the NDOT warehouse, Barmore and facilities manager Rich Parker pointed to the old carpet removed from the Mint building saying things like that should go.
Barmore said there’s a lot of stuff stored there that really isn’t historic.
“We have to go through and see if they’re relevant to the collection; should they still be in the state’s custody and care,” he said.
Barton said the plan goes beyond disposing of things that aren’t historic artifacts.
“Do we really need 26 Singer sewing machines or will five or six do?”
He said the museums also “tend to have an abundance of pianos” contributed by families.
And they are seriously looking at what they will accept as donations in the future.
“For the last couple of decades, the museum has been very selective about what we will accept,” said Barmore.
Barton said the museum never wants to be in a position where it can’t accept a valuable historic artifact or collection.
A great example is the Folies Bergere, which closed after 50 years at the Tropicana in Las Vegas. Barton said the operators saved everything including all the costumes, posters, advertisements, archives, sheet music — everything. Moving it to the museum in Overton consumed 5,000 square feet of space but he said it’s a valuable piece of Nevada history.
Another example, he said, is the Bill Raggio collection recently unveiled in Carson City that includes photos, clothing and other items from throughout the late Senator’s life.
“We’re interested in those kinds of collections,” he said. “The question we have to ask is does it help tell a story about a particular Nevadan.”
“Museums have changed in the last 50 years,” he said. “We were object based. Lots of cases, shelves with objects.”
He said that shifted after the 1976 Bicentennial to “story based.”
“We are really about stories. We can make connections with other human beings through stories.”
“What that translates to for us is more stuff in the attic, less stuff on display,” he said.
At the end of this month, Barmore said the museums will begin a major project. First, some extra space has been freed up in the old state museum in downtown Carson City. Some high-value items now at Indian Hills will be moved there and, for the first time in years, be on display for people to see. Space freed up at Indian Hills will become home for some of the more historic pieces including wagons and other vehicles now at the NDOT warehouse.
Other things including stone artifacts like the huge block of petrified wood at NDOT and the six-foot diameter iron water wheel from a mine power plant will be wrapped and put away since they will last for hundreds of years without special attention.
More valuable artifacts including wooden desks and the like will be cleaned and protected and a lot of the “props” and junk like the old carpeting at NDOT will be disposed of.
“Everything will be reviewed by the collections committee,” said Barmore.
But the ultimate answer, when the state’s finances are in better shape, is a proper storage building on land available in Indian Hills.