Kalamazoo history museum puts collection online

Linda S. Mah
Kalamazoo Gazette

Kalamazoo — The Kalamazoo Valley Museum is a treasure trove of Kalamazoo history. There you can find toys, clothing, art, household objects and political memorabilia. Each object capturing a particular moment in time in Kalamazoo.

But, while the museum has more than 57,000 items in its collection, at any one time only a small fraction of those items are on display for visitors.

Now, through a new online database project, the museum is creating a system that will allow the public access to its collection.

“We’re finding with the Internet, we have a worldwide audience now,” museum director Bill McElhone said. “Part of the reason we wanted to get the information online is to become a 24/7 resource. The nature of museums is such that our role in the community is changing. We want to be a service to our local audiences but also to the worldwide audience.”

The museum received its first collection of artifacts in 1881, many of which can be seen in the museum’s first floor display cases. Horace Peck made a gift of material such as shells, costumes and items he collected on his world tours, McElhone said.

As was popular at the time, Peck displayed the items at his home, sometimes allowing people access to view them, and eventually donated them to the Kalamazoo Public Schools Board in 1881, hoping they might serve as the basis of a museum someday.

Others added to the collection, such as A.M. Todd and Donald O. Boudeman, who gave the museum its most famous artifact — the mummy.

In 1927, the school board established a museum, which eventually became part of the Kalamazoo Public Library, when it became independent from the schools.

In 1991, the museum became part of Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and in 1996, it moved into its current location on KVCC’s Arcadia Commons Campus.

The database project began two years ago as the museum launched a comprehensive survey of its collection.

Periodic reviews of a collection are common in the museum world. At their most basic, reviews involve the staff sampling records to ensure exhibits are where they are supposed to be. On a deeper level, museums physically will examine objects to ensure they are not deteriorating and update any information and records related to the item.

As part of the latest survey, the Kalamazoo Valley Museum is updating photos of the items and digitizing records — which often still were housed in card catalogs — and creating files that can be used for online viewing. More than 20,000 items are in the database. It will take another three to four years to complete the project.

Patrons using the online database will be able to see photos of objects, view historical information, learn the object’s provenance and any historical connections to other objects or historical figures. Those who want more detailed information can call the museum and speak to the staff.

The move toward creating an online resource is in line with many museums’ missions of creating interactive experiences in recent years. We know now that “90 percent of learning is through participation,” McElhone said.

The Detroit Institute of Arts redesigned its exhibitions of objects, such as fine china, making them more engaging and providing cultural and historical context. The Cleveland Art Museum took its digitized collections and created a 50-foot long, 4-foot-high interactive wall panel.

“We need to ask what is our purpose? Why are we here? What should our collection be?” McElhone said. “We want to be very intentional about the stories we tell. We have to think about how we can be more relevant to the entire population.”