History 294 at the Grand Rapids Public Museum

by Kate van Liere.
Group of students in the museum atrium next to a train car.
Students in the 2015 Interim class History 294 tour the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

This past January, the students in my History 294 class collaborated with the Grand Rapids Public Museum in its ongoing efforts to digitize its museum collection. It was a rewarding project for the Museum, for the students, and for me as a teacher. The GRPM’s digitization project reflects a worldwide trend that in the last decade has transformed the way museums educate the public. It was great fun to learn more about that transformation while helping students to make their own small contribution to it.

Museums began to digitize their collections in the 1990s. Larger museums pioneered these efforts, and still lead the way. Virtually every world-class museum now has a world-class website that allows visitors to browse, search, view, and read about its collections online. Most major museums now seem to profess the goal of complete and unrestricted electronic access to their collections. But providing that kind of access is a huge undertaking involving years of work, much of it still unfinished.

North America’s largest museum, the Smithsonian Institution (actually a museum network, with over 137 million objects in nineteen separate museums) has its own Digitization Program Office, whose full-time staff digitize thousands of items per day, using high-tech cameras that resemble airport scanners. Just last month, the Freer and Sackler Galleries became the first branches of the Smithsonian, and the first Asian art museums in the world, to offer their entire collections free to the public in digital form. But this represents only a small fraction of the Smithsonian’s entire holdings. The British Museum’s online collection now boasts about 3.5 million objects, somewhat less than half the 8 million in its London collection.

Cuneiform tablet with text introducing the CDLI.
Screenshot from the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative collection at Princeton.

Digitization projects often combine the traditional roles of museums and archives by making textual artifacts fully viewable, readable, and searchable online. They run the gamut from ancient to modern history, and often span the globe. The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (launched in 1998 from Oxford, Los Angeles, and Berlin) will eventually include some half a million clay tablets, including the 30,000 from Neo-Assyrian King Ashurbanipal’s library. In 2014 Britain’s National Archives and the Imperial War Museum jointly launched Operation War Diary to transcribe and publish millions of pages of soldiers’ reports from the western front of the Great War (1914-18). These projects, even with large teams of professional scholars and technical experts, will take years to complete.

Many museums have harnessed the power of volunteers in these large-scale digitization projects. Last summer the Smithsonian turned to crowdsourcing, launching a new Digital Transcription Center to seek help in transcribing thousands of newly scanned documents. Operation War Diary also solicits online volunteers to help tag and catalogue its war diaries. (If you are a history buff with time on your hands and an eye for details, take note: both projects still have plenty of work available.) Volunteers simply complete their transcription or tagging on the website anonymously, much like Wikipedia contributors. Multiple transcriptions of the same document help to minimize errors.

Umm el-Jimal Project graphic advertising virtual tour.
The Umm el-Jimal Project website offers a virtual museum of the site. Click the picture to explore.

Digital access brings different benefits to different institutions. A website can help a small museum or historical site in a remote location to reach audiences worldwide, like Prof. Bert De Vries’s superb Umm El-Jimal Project. Or it can provide greater visibility to objects in major museum collections that sit hidden in storage; a museum like the GRPM only has space to display about 10% of its collection at a time. Curators can also use websites to provide viewers with much richer contextual information for objects than what is normally displayed in a physical exhibit—not only details about an object’s origins and original use, but information about its cultural and historical significance.

The GRPM’s Collections database, created in 2007 and presently undergoing a major overhaul, aims to bring all three kinds of benefits to the museum: to expand its reputation beyond West Michigan; to showcase objects that cannot be displayed in the downtown museum; and to provide information about these objects that will be valuable to both amateur viewers and scholars. Our class’s work helped mainly to advance the third goal—to provide more historical context for the objects featured on the website, and give visitors a deeper appreciation for their historical and cultural significance.

The GRPM has the second-largest museum collection in Michigan, with roughly 200,000 objects. (Michigan’s largest museum, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, boasts 26 million objects.) As Michigan’s oldest museum, the GRPM also has a remarkably diverse collection. While it has many artifacts that illustrate city and regional history, it is not a civic history museum like those in Chicago and New York. Founded in 1854 as the Grand Rapids Lyceum of Natural History, it began, like the Smithsonian and most early museums, with a scientific focus. Its collection reflects both these roots and the eclectic interests of the many benefactors who have added to its holdings over 150 years. It now encompasses bones, fossils, art, textiles, furniture, technology, ethnography, and much more. (Its A-Z list of “Collections” has over 100 entries, from “Advertising” to “Zoology” via—inter alia—“Edged Weapons”, “Mining”, “Underwear”, “Unclassifiable”, “Timekeeping”, and “Sponges”.)

Storage cabinets with numerous antique carpet sweepers.
Carpet sweepers in storage at the GRPM, c. 2002 (Photo by Alex Forist)

At least 50,000 of the museum’s artifacts (a very rough estimate) have never been catalogued, either electronically or manually. Curator Alex Forist, who met my students in the first week of Interim and introduced them to the museum and its storage facility on State Street, explained that it is still hard to define the exact size of the collection: “We know for sure that we have 169,000 things, and probably more like 250,000 if we ever get everything cataloged.”

As of February 10, 2015, the online database contains 169,142 digital records, each with a brief description of the object and some basic information, such as the donor and place of origin, if known. But most of these catalogued objects have not yet been photographed. Thus only 38,000 of the digital records are yet accompanied by digital images, and less than half of these have complete records explaining fully what the objects are or offering historical or other contextual information.

Since only four full-time staff members are available to research, photograph, and catalog the collection, and they also have other responsibilities, the work progresses slowly. The help of unpaid interns and other volunteers is crucial. Many past Calvin students have joined in these efforts by serving as museum Collections Interns.

Kate van Liere
Kate van Liere (right) with her Interim 2015 HIST 294 students.

The three-week Interim term did not allow time for the kind of hands-on work that interns do, so our 294 students worked exclusively through the website. On the second day of Interim, we toured the storage archive on State Street, to get an inside view of the scope and diversity of the collection, and on the third morning we visited the museum itself on Pearl Street, to see how portions of the collection are now being displayed. We discussed how to use tangible artifacts to tell stories and ask questions. Then students embarked on two museum-related projects. (Since History 294 is not a museum course per se, but the required course in “history research methods”, students also had to complete more traditional academic assignments, such as a research prospectus and annotated bibliography. But these were all related to the subject matter of the museum project.)

For the first assignment, five teams of students each produced a proposal for a historical museum exhibit that would include at least eight objects from the GRPM’s collection. We returned to the museum to present these proposals to GRPM’s staff on the final day of the course. The students came up with five terrific concepts: elephants and their interaction with human beings around the world; changes in timekeeping technology; how southwestern Native American cultures used turquoise and horses; propaganda in the First World War; and Grand Rapids’s Ramona Park and twentieth-century public entertainment.

Student presenting in front of a screen showing artefact.
A student from the course presents his research to museum staff.

Both the quality of the students’ proposals and the museum’s enthusiastic reception were gratifying. While we don’t expect the museum to mount any of these exhibits per se, our audience of curators, vice presidents, and the museum’s CEO was clearly inspired by the creative ways that Calvin students found to use artifacts to ask big questions, connect the past with the present, and construct meaningful historical contexts.

The second assignment produced more tangible benefits for the museum. Each student chose two objects on the website that had been catalogued and photographed, but not yet substantially researched. They did their own research on these objects and wrote historical narratives that would help visitors appreciate their historical significance more fully. I submitted these to the museum at the end of Interim, and our students’ research has already been incorporated into these entries in GRPM’s online collection:

Elephants and their interaction with humans around the world

Timekeeping technology

  • Water clock, dated 1696.
  • Time candle, replica based on device used by English King Alfred the Great
  • Pocket watch featuring President Harrison and his cabinet
  • Banjo clock, a highly praised alternative to the grandfather clock
  • Clock radio that belonged to a Sudanese refugee when he came to Grand Rapids
  • Wrist watch featuring Dick Tracy, c. 1940

Uses of turquoise and horses in southwestern Native American cultures

Propaganda in the First World War

Grand Rapids’s Ramona Park & 20th-century public entertainment


Interested in working hands on at the GRPM or other local institutions? Talk to Professor Kate van Liere about the history department’s internship course.

Kate van Liere is a historian of early modern Europe, with particular interests in Spain, intellectual and religious history, and historiography. She has edited a collection of essays about Christian historical writing in Renaissance Europe. She also teaches in the Spanish and Dutch departments at Calvin and co-directs Calvin’s Rhetoric Across the Curriculum program.

2 thoughts on “History 294 at the Grand Rapids Public Museum

  1. Pingback: Historical Horizons: 2015 in Blog Posts | Historical Horizons

  2. Pingback: Going Public | Historical Horizons

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