Museum affairs: what’s in the vault? | news


When I was in college, I woke up every Saturday morning (early) and drove 100 miles to my internship in downtown Chicago. I had a pretty good system: a full tank, quarter rolls for tolls (electronic tolling wasn’t really widespread yet), a parking permit for the garage, and my shiny new Field Museum of Natural History intern badge for taking me to the office area.

My internship that semester consisted of taking color photos of the Field Museum’s collection of Japanese swords (a web search for “tsuba” will take you to these highly ornate objects). But before I was taken to my photo box in a high-security storage area, I was invited with a behind-the-scenes look at the general camp – huge catacombs with flat files, storage shelves, and cabinets that house anthropological artifacts and objects from around the world. Many of the antique wooden shelves that housed these delicate treasures looked like they were as old as the Field Museum itself!

Fun fact: Curious amounts of artifacts were bagged and labeled “ARSENIC” in large, bold letters. The staff explained to me that in the early 20th century, many organic items such as textiles, baskets, and wood carvings were once treated with arsenic to repel insects and pests. This offered protection to the property but was clearly a poor choice for human health. It was then that I realized that I still had a lot to learn about collection management and preservation.

All of this means that hundreds of thousands of objects were obviously not on display in the field’s huge exhibition halls. As in most museums, getting 3-5 percent of the entire collection on display at any given time is a fairly common metric. And like most museums, Dennos is certainly not alone with this average.

So what about the remaining works of art, artifacts, and masterpieces that remain hidden from the public? Accessing collections online can help fill the void and provide better access for students, researchers, curators and the general public. At Dennos, these efforts are already well underway thanks to a brand new online database system launched last summer. We hope that you will soon try it out and explore the nearly 800 Inuit works on paper available in our collections. You can access the online system by visiting:

On behalf of all of us at the Dennos Museum Center, thank you for your continued membership and support. We pride ourselves on managing a high quality art collection that directly supports our mission: “Build community, inspire conversation, and inspire change.”

With best wishes for a happy and healthy autumn 2021.

Craig Hadley is the executive director and chief curator of the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City.


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