Archive for April, 2009

Give me that old-time stimulus

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

With all the talk in the news about the economic crisis, stimulus proposals, and plans to create more jobs, I can’t help but be reminded of a similar situation that happened sixty years ago: The Great Depression and the creation of the Works Progress (later Projects) Administration, or WPA.

The WPA was a New Deal program that focused on providing jobs for the unemployed by funding a variety of public projects, including constructing buildings and roads and funding the arts. From 1936-1939, almost $7 billion was spent on WPA projects, and almost 8 million jobs were created. The WPA continued until 1943 when the onset of WWII provided employment in war production.

The Fort Collins Museum has special ties to the WPA: through it, $18,881 was allocated to help fund the construction of our precursor, the Pioneer Museum, which stood at the east end of Library Park from 1941-1977. Back then the Carnegie Library (the current home of the Fort Collins Museum) was located on the west end of Library Park, so the current locations of the museum and library are opposite of where they started out.

The Pioneer Museum, Fort Collins

The Pioneer Museum, Fort Collins

In 1976 a new library was built in a U-shape around the Pioneer Museum, the Carnegie Library was turned into the Fort Collins Museum, and in 1977 the Pioneer Museum was demolished (apparently it had to be done in that order because the books from the old library had to be moved into the new library before the artifacts from the old museum could go into the new museum, which had been the old library).

The Pioneer Museum and and the new library

The Pioneer Museum and and the new library

The sandstone lintel inscribed with “PIONEER MUSEUM” over the door of the Pioneer Museum was supposed to be saved and moved to the new museum, but the “PIONEER” part was shattered during the demolition. “MUSEUM” and the corner stone inscribed “Works Projects Administration 1940,” were saved and can still be seen in the planter in front of the museum’s west steps. Neat side story: the wedding suit of the man who cut and hauled the stone the cornerstone was shaped from was just donated to the Museum’s collections.

Original WPA cornerstone

Original WPA cornerstone

Other WPA projects in Fort Collins include the City Park Nine Golf Course and the Municipal Power Plant on North College Avenue. Both the plant’s retaining wall along the south bank of the Cache la Poudre River and the fountain on its grounds were WPA projects that are now local historic landmarks. You can read more about the fountain at the “Lost Fort Collins” blog. 

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New museum news

The Loveland Reporter-Herald published a great story about the new museum yesterday:

http://www.reporterherald.com/news_story.asp?ID=22820

It’s going to be an exciting summer as the Fort Collins Museum and the Discovery Science Center start operating under one roof — a big step towards realizing the vision of our new museum. Stay tuned — and come see us often!

Stories from the Fort Collins Memory Project

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

We recently held our first workshop session for the Fort Collins Memory Project (see the post from April 1st for more information about the project). On April 18th, we spent all day with six different people from the community who came in to share their stories of immigration. Participants brought in photos, documents, and objects which we photographed and scanned; we recorded audio snippets from each participant explaining the various elements of their story; and then combined everything into an interactive slideshow using Memory Miner. All in an hour and a half to create each story! Each workshop participant left with a CD of their slideshow, which will also become part of the Museum’s Local History Archive.

We are also publishing these stories on our website, one story at a time, over the next few weeks. The first story is from Kirsten Hovorka, who traces her family back to Denmark and England. You can see her slideshow here. Click any of the thumbnail images to see a larger photo. Many of the slides have audio, too; in the blue box to the right, click the underlined link to listen to Kirsten’s recollections. 

The workshop was a great experience — it’s always a gift when someone shares their story with you. Our stories are all so various, and yet we hear in each of them something that resonates with our own. Because we only had an hour and a half to put together each story, we had to put limits on the process, which created another interesting dimension — to see what people chose to show and talk about, given that they had to “edit” their story into a small space. Rather than a comprehensive family story, what we created together were very personal windows into people’s lives. Because history is more than dates and names; everyone’s history has a heart.

Museums, Philosophy, and Gilligan

by Toby J. Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Over time, bits and pieces of popular culture take on a life of their own. Comic books and television shows, designed to entertain briefly, work their way into the collective consciousness.

Phrases like “Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Channel!” may resonate with someone who has no earthly idea who Adam West is, or that the Batusi was a real dance created by choreographer and dance school entrepreneur, Arthur Murray.

Likewise, “Beam me up, Scotty.” has probably been uttered into the freshly flipped cell phones of a large number of people that would never identify themselves as “Trekkers.”

Then, there are people like me that recall obscure details like the full names of the characters on Gilligan’s Island.

Okay, you’re curious now, so we’ll start with the easy ones:

The Millionaire – Thurston Howell the Third

The Movie Star – Ginger Grant

Yes, they were mentioned several times throughout the series. How about the other characters?

Well, Mrs. Howell was often called “Lovey” by her millionaire husband. It turns out that wasn’t just a nickname that Thurston had bestowed upon her, as her full name is listed as Eunice “Lovey” Howell.

What about Mary Ann? The farm girl with the sunny disposition answered to the appropriate last name of Summers.

Two of the characters on the island were most often referred to simply by their job descriptions. The Professor, who was a high school science teacher with several advanced degrees, was named Roy Hinkley; and the Skipper was christened Jonas Grumby.

As far as the titular character goes, he was only ever identified as Gilligan throughout the three seasons that the show aired; however, according to the series creator Sherwood Schwartz, Gilligan’s first name was Willy.

Yes, even simple diversions can lead into deeper layers of information and minutia. They can also lead to deeper questions of a philosophic nature, for example the long standing debate that the characters trapped on the island represent the Seven Deadly Sins of mankind:

 Lust – Ginger (she did come on pretty strong in quite a few episodes)

Envy – Mary Ann (always in Ginger’s shadow)

Pride – The Professor (you don’t invent that many things using coconut shells without getting a little cocky.)

Sloth – Mrs. Howell (how often did you see her lift a finger on that island?)

Greed – Thurston Howell the III (who brings a trunk full of money on a three-hour cruise?)

Gluttony – the Skipper (he was a tad on the hefty side.)

Anger – the Skipper, again. (okay, he pulls double duty, but he did yell an awful lot.)

 Punishing all of these sinners was none other than Gilligan himself in the role of Satan. Let’s face it, it was his island, he constantly thwarted the others from escaping, and he did wear that red shirt all of the time.

If you’ve read this far, you’re most likely wondering what all of this has to do with the new museum? It stems from a conversation I had with a visitor about the idea of combining the two missions of the Fort Collins Museum and the Discovery Science Center into one. He was under the impression that science and history would be difficult to combine, and that one would have to take precedence over the other.

It reminded me of that great Gilligan’s Island debate, “Who do you prefer, Ginger or Mary Ann?” My answer was always the same, “Why do I have to choose?”

Perhaps not surprising, that’s the same way that I feel about the museum. The idea of being able to explore the history of science, and the science of history, is for me the best of both worlds. Instead of limiting myself to one area, the combination of information allows me to more fully explore a topic, moving from assorted facts towards knowledge and understanding.

It’s this approach that helps create those “Ah – Ha!” moments that make my job as a museum educator so rewarding. When I see the light bulbs going on over the heads of students on a field trip, I know that I’ve earned my pay. If I’ve challenged someone to look at an object in a whole new way – that’s a good day at the office. When I hear someone share information that I told them earlier, the circle is complete.

Teaching moments are all around us, in science, nature, history and even pop culture. Take the time to explore all of the possibilities.

Oh, and one more thing on the subject of late 60’s sit-coms. Did you know that you could sing the hymn “Amazing Grace” to the tune of the theme song from Gilligan’s Island?

Go on, try it.

You know you want to.

Early Childhood Education at the Museum

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education, Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center

How can we improve the museum experience for some of our very youngest visitors? For five years, I lived in Chicago and worked at the Notebaert Nature Museum, part of the Chicago Academy of Science. While at that museum, I had interns from the Erikson Institute, a specialized graduate school offering masters and doctoral degrees in early childhood development. Lucky for me, while I taught my interns about museum programming, they taught me about the unique needs of children younger than 7 years of age. I’m now applying that knowledge to our educational services at the Fort Collins Museum and Discovery Science Center.

The first thing I learned is that young children THINK differently than adults. They lack the physical development in the brain to understand some phenomena. For example, if you pour all of the water from a tall, skinny glass into a short fat glass and ask a 3-year-old if the amount of water in the second glass is the same as the amount that was in the first glass, they will say no, there is less water. They cannot comprehend that the volume of water is the same because the water level in the second glass is lower. It doesn’t matter how many times or ways you try to explain this concept, they lack the physical connections in the brain to understand. Ask the same child the same question in a few years, and your answer will change to the correct one because the child’s brain has further developed.

The next thing I learned is that young children FEEL the same as adults. We tend to think of children has having a different set of emotions from us because they express those emotions in much different ways. In reality, the feeling and intensity of emotion are alike in children and adults, but adults have mastered socially accepted ways of expressing (or repressing) those emotions. My Erikson Institute interns often stress to me that adults tend to think the reverse of this because adults don’t (or at least, shouldn’t) have tantrums over the types of things children do, making us think that the children feel differently than we do.

Because of this great wealth of information and experience I gained from my Erikson interns, I’m planning an early childhood program at the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center that will debut this summer. Children 3 to 5 years of age, along with a caregiver, will meet at the Museum on Tuesday mornings from 10 to 10:45am, beginning in July, for activities and experiments created just for them, in consideration of how they THINK and FEEL. Keep an eye on our blog for more information!

Lie to me: Abraham Lincoln’s hat at the Fort Collins Museum

by Linda Moore, Curator of Collections, Fort Collins Museum

I’m pretty sure that, just like parents with their children, collections curators are not supposed to have favorites among the artifacts in their care. But, though I’m careful to fulfill my professional obligation to treat each object entrusted to the Fort Collins Museum with the best possible methods to ensure its perpetual survival, I have to admit that at certain times particular objects will evoke something special for me. This has been true of an ancient Folsom projectile point shaped with such skill out of a honey colored stone that seems to warm the light that glows through its delicate edges; of a baby’s bib with the adage “Waste Not, Want Not” stitched among the food stains that cover it; and of Fort Collins resident May Wilkins’ giant blue bear with a photo of itself and its owner safety-pinned to its chest (see photo below).

Recently my attention has been caught by an old “stovepipe” style top hat, made of grayish-black felt with a brittle cardboard backing. Its high narrow crown is slightly crushed to the left, there is a strange metal gasket at its top, and a label on its pink silk lining reads “The Hatter, Clayton, Denver Col.”  (see photos below). The most recent documentation for this hat identifies it as “One hat –stove pipe style 1860 – said to have been owned by Abraham Lincoln.” An older label, which arrived with the hat when it was donated to the Museum in 1963, is much less circumspect, reading “Abraham Lincoln’s dinner hat. Captured by Lt. Gary Griffiths at The Battle of Bull Run. Lt. Gary Griffiths was killed seven days later. (Signed by) Markus Venictius. Battle dates 1861-1862.”

For me this is a capital “A” artifact: evoking wonder, skepticism, and a demanding din of clamoring questions all at once. The hat elicits basic historic questions, such as: who was Markus Venictius? Was Lincoln was present at the Battle of Bull Run, and if so, would he really have visited a battleground in formal wear? It also begs the practical questions of why and how this most iconic of American artifacts would have traveled so far west to rest in the collection of the Fort Collins Museum. Finally, it raises the fundamental question of authenticity and its meaning: am I really holding (in my white-gloved hands, of course) the very hat that once encircled the passionate brow of President Lincoln, or just a very old hat that is a whole lot like a hat Lincoln could have worn, and in the end what difference does it make?

So far, my attempts to answer most of these questions have proved inconclusive. The hat, along with several other objects dating from the late 1800s, was donated to the Museum by a member of the Tedmon family, whose ancestors Mr. and Mrs. Bolivar S. Tedmon arrived in Fort Collins in 1878. The Tedmons opened the Tedmon House hotel in 1880, and Mrs. Tedmon ran a millinery shop trimming hats and bonnets in the latest styles. Nothing in this information disproves the hat’s claimed pedigree: the dates fit and Mrs. Tedmon was in the business of hats. The age attributed to the hat, and its source, bear up to scrutiny. Though the wave of popularity for beaver felt top hats crested prior to the Civil War era, “stove pipes” were still common on American streets. By this time beavers, the industrious but hapless source of hat felt, had long been cleared from their European environments and from their homes in the eastern United States. Though they were quickly disappearing from the territory of Colorado too, there were still enough beavers found here in 1860 for John Stetson to shape their fur into a wider, lower crowned hat (meant, originally, to protect the faces of gold seekers from the intense western sun) that would come to define Western style for decades. Though I’ve yet to find an opening date for “The Hatter, Clayton” of Denver, a photograph of Clayton’s Hat Store in Denver dated 1869 shows a Lincoln-like figure in a stately stovepipe standing outside the shop which still offered “Hats, Caps, And Furs.” So, though the hat’s trip from Denver east to Lincoln’s wardrobe and then back to Fort Collins, while certainly circuitous, is not completely unfeasible.

In the unfamiliar-to-me field of Civil War research I have a long way to go before I can categorically confirm or refute any of the historic particulars noted in the hat’s original donation document. Though I haven’t found any reference to the President’s presence there, I have been surprised to learn that various members of Congress traveled from Washington to the Bull Run site as witnesses throughout the battle. I have been surprised to discover historical photographs of Lincoln in formal frockcoat and top hat visiting with commanders in their field headquarters at various Civil War battle sites. I have yet to find Lt. Gary Griffiths in any account of the battles, and still have no idea about “Markus Venictius.” The Lincoln authorities I fired off emails to have yet to respond to my questions (in Lincoln’s bicentennial year I imagine they are plenty busy). I have made my own comparison of the Fort Collins Museum Lincoln hat to verified Lincoln hats, such as the one worn by the President on the night he was shot, and held by the Smithsonian since 1867. The Smithsonian’s hat is described as “cheaply made of cardboard with beaver fur glued on it” and is visually very similar to the Museum’s hat. But in the end this simply confirms that these are very similar hats, made at about the same time.

This brings me back to the question of authenticity and its meaning. My research makes me confident that this hat is an authentic representative of exactly the type of hat President Lincoln wore. As a historical object it relays the same information, in terms of style and substance, that such a hat would. Why is it then that, for many, these historical “knowns” hold far less power than the tenuous and unverified possibility of the hat’s connection to Lincoln?

Recently a friend told me the story of a woman who, returning to the Palace at Versailles after many years and retaking the Palace tour, was once again shown the table upon which the Treaty of Versailles had been signed. When she got home and compared photos she discovered that in the photo from her first tour this table was a long rectangle and in the photo from her second trip it was round. Clearly someone at Versailles had betrayed this woman’s trust, by telling her something that just was not true. But it wasn’t the tables.

Lie to me, it doesn’t matter anymore

It could never be what it was before

If I can’t hold on to you

leave me with somethin’ I can hold onto,

for just a little while won’t you let me be…*

In my role as a collections curator, it is upon this matter of trustworthiness that the importance of artifact authenticity rests. While I love the Museum’s unverified, untrustworthy Abraham Lincoln hat and have delighted in the explorations it has taken me on, I won’t lie to you. I can show you the hat; I can show you its record. Could this possibly be Abraham Lincoln’s hat, lost at the Battle of Bull Run, recovered by a lieutenant who is absent from the historical record, and donated to our little Colorado museum in the 1960s? If you want to know, I’ll let you figure it out for yourself. In the meantime, I’ve got a box marked “New Mexico souvenirs, Roswell” to unpack.

*Jonny Lang Lie To Me

May Wilkin's beloved blue stuffed bear

May Wilkin's beloved blue stuffed bear

The "Lincoln Hat," front view

The "Lincoln Hat," front view

Label from inside the "Lincoln hat"

Label from inside the "Lincoln hat"

The "Lincoln hat," side view

The "Lincoln hat," side view

Listening in museums

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation, Fort Collins Museum

I’ll let you in on a secret – sometimes I spy on you in the museum.

Not in a “Mission Impossible,” hanging from the ceiling sort of way (because I know I’d get tangled in the wires and end up dangling upside down by one foot in front of Frank Miller’s Mud Wagon), but do I like to watch and listen to you when you’re here. I care about what exhibits you visit, and what things you say when you’re visiting. It’s all part of what helps us create better experiences for all our visitors.

Normally, most of you do the same things in our exhibits. You stand in front of objects, you look at them, you open drawers, and you push buttons. You do exactly what we hoped you would in that exhibit. Everyone once in a while, though, one of you surprises me. I had one of my most interesting surprises last week.

Last Thursday I went down to our gallery and watched a little girl and boy and their grandmother. The grandmother stood in front of objects, looked at them, and opened drawers (expected), the brother ran around pretending he was a cowboy with a laser gun (also expected), but the little girl did something I had never seen before. She walked up to objects, leaned in closely, closed her eyes, and listened. She listened to baskets, coyotes, bison bones, and Folsom points. When her grandmother asked what she was listening to, the little girl replied, “Stories.”

The idea that objects are vehicles for stories is not a new one for museums. We know that the story of an object is often just as interesting as the object itself, and that those stories help situate “things” within the larger scope of human experience. However, as a museum, one of our jobs is to tell you those stories, because the objects aren’t supposed to speak for themselves. Or can they?

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work in preparation for the June 6th opening of Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, which includes the Lindenmeier Site, an archaeological site that reaches back 12,000 years. Several of the Native American tribal elders we’ve worked with to better understand the history of the area have talked about the spirits that objects have, and the stories you’ll hear if you know how to listen.

I don’t know what that little girl heard as she leaned close to our pine needle basket. Did she hear Helen Dickerson, the woman who wove it, and the adventures she and her sister Alice had living in a cabin in Buckhorn Canyon? Did she hear the pine tree whose needles were given to make that basket? Or does the basket have its own story, one that I don’t even know?

This morning our gallery is quiet, and as I walk through it I can easily believe that if I lean in close enough to that pine needle basket, it will tell me its secrets. Not too long from now our museum will become a lot noisier. When the Discovery Science Center moves its exhibits into the Fort Collins Museum, the gallery will be filled with the fantastic, excited noise of DSC’s devoted fan base of kids and their families. But if you listen closely, I wonder what else you might hear.

Could you hear the coyote's story?

Could you hear the coyote's story?


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