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Small Town Museums: Vanishing?

Tillamook Forest Center, Tillamook, Ore., image
Photo caption
The Tillamook Forest Center, east of Tillamook, Ore.

If you happen to be driving through Independence, Calif., and you stop for lunch or gas or to admire the historic courthouse, you may get to wondering about this curious little town in the shadow of Mount Whitney at the southern end of the arid Owens Valley. Who lives here? Who founded this place? What, exactly, is the story? Your guidebook provides at most a sentence or two. But if you make your way to a compact cinder block building on North Grant Street, you will find answers—and almost certainly more than you bargained for.

You have probably been to a place very much like the Eastern California Museum. Maybe the one-room museum in Whitefish, Mont., home of the "fur fish" created by a whimsical taxidermist. Or the Benton County Historical Museum in Philomath, Ore., where you can step inside a WWII era phone booth. Or the Museum of Moab in Utah, with its 11-foot dinosaur skeleton replica, an Anasazi basket, and an incubator invented by a local doctor, among other items. The tiny, overstuffed museum with a quirky array of artifacts is a fixture in many small towns.

At the Eastern California Museum you might see a long, slender chuckwalla hook, once used by local Indians to pry lizards from rock crevices. A set of dentures fashioned from coyote teeth. A collection of birds' eggs nested in cotton. A portrait of a kimono-clad woman, painted on drywall at the nearby Manzanar internment camp and discovered decades later in a miner's shack. Oral histories typed on onionskin. A flapjack turner. A venerable "ear spoon and probe," the purpose of which you don' t want to spend much time thinking about.

The Eastern California Museum is idiosyncratic, richly evocative, and a bit of a mess. But places like this are among the grassroots glories of U.S. culture. Of our country's 16,000 museums, 75 percent are considered "small," meaning they operate with fewer than five paid staffers. "People think you have to have a big city, a big museum, to have anything worth going to," says Janice Klein, chairperson of the Small Museum Administrators' Committee of the American Association of Museums. "But small museums absolutely have the bulk of wonderful stuff and the stuff that is important locally. The biggest challenge is to help the public understand the incredible value of these places."

Which we don' t. We provide scant public funds, if any, to this patchwork of eccentric museums while relying on them to preserve our heritage; often, their doors are kept open by unpaid octogenarians, and their collections are at the mercy of the elements.

Perhaps the most daunting issue facing the average small museum today is the need to properly preserve its collections. In 2005, Heritage Preservation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, D.C., surveyed 30,000 libraries, archives, and museums holding everything from antique sound recordings to furniture. The findings were depressing: Fifty-nine percent of the collections had been damaged by light, 53 percent by moisture. Twenty-six percent of the institutions had no way to protect their artifacts from the depredations of temperature, humidity, and light.

At the Eastern California Museum, museum specialist Beth Porter stashes items in two empty old houses and in stacks around the museum. "The gal who does the safety evaluation every year comes in and about has a stroke," she says. " ‘At least can you get under your desk [if there's an earthquake]?'she asks. I say, ‘No, because there are artifact boxes down there.' " When the roof began to leak into a storage closet, Porter rigged up a makeshift drainage system. "I' m up on a ladder, wet to my shoulders," she recalls. "I have 19th-century Shoshone baskets, duplicates of our oral histories, you name it, stored back there, and water is pouring in."

Many of the irreplaceable photographs on display—a vintage close-up of an Indian woman lunching on piñons; a long-ago Paiute wash-day—were taped or tacked to poster boards in the 1970s. Are the materials archival quality? "You don' t want to know," says Porter. "We' re dealing with displays that are antiques themselves."

In most countries, museums are founded, funded, and operated by the government. Not so in the United States, where museums, especially small ones, have typically been launched by individuals or civic organizations and sustained by the donations—of cash, artifacts, and time—of ordinary citizens. This model has given rise to a wealth of exuberant aggregations of miscellany that reflect the people who put them together. "All the thoughts come from within," says H. Ray Harrington, a longtime volunteer at the Gold Nugget Museum in Paradise, Calif. "We have no pressure from the state, and that's great. When we have an idea, we can act on it." Every April the museum puts on its Gold Nugget Days, featuring a parade, the crowning of the Gold Nugget Queen, a best-dressed dog contest, and a donkey derby, among other events.

The flip side of this freedom, however, is a never-ending cash crunch that threatens the core mission of many small museums: to preserve and present local history. The Eastern California Museum receives funding from fiscally challenged Inyo County; but in the 1980s, the museum was temporarily shuttered. "We sweat bullets every year at budget time," says Porter.

Other institutions, such as the Kalispell, Mont., Museum at Central School, run by the Northwest Montana Historical Society, get no tax money at all; they rely on donations and gift shop sales. Grants are hard to come by. "They tend to go to the big guys," says Director Gil Jordan, who applied for a state grant to build a natural history exhibition last year but was passed over. "The two biggest museums in Montana got $150,000 apiece in the last grant cycle. They got all of it. There are over 200 museums in Montana, and the rest of us got nothing."

As with many small museums, the engine that keeps Central School running is its volunteer corps: forty men and women, most retired, who would cost the museum $100,000 a year if they were paid employees.

Heroic though this may be, it leaves the museums vulnerable. "Volunteers are wonderful, and we couldn' t work without them," says Janet Petersen, director of the Emery County Pioneer Museum in Castle Dale, Utah. "But if they don' t want to come in, they just don' t show up." Petersen had to close the museum last year because no one came to staff it. The county now funds one part-time employee.

One solution for overextended small museums may simply be to start saying no. Many of these institutions feel obligated to keep every item that comes through their doors and to display it, if possible, however helter-skelter the results. "We' re buckling under the weight of our collections," says Salt Lake City small-museum specialist Brian Crockett. "Putting things together in a way that gets others to see the point of the collections, that's where the meaning is derived. Maybe you' ve seen one china set from a Mormon pioneer on display: How are you served by seeing 30?"

He might be talking about central Utah's Fairview Museum, run almost exclusively by volunteers in their 70s and 80s who can frequently be found in the museum's foyer piecing quilts that they sell to raise money. The museum opened in 1966 after two local men bought the town's abandoned schoolhouse and put on display some of their more intriguing—and less intriguing—possessions. "Then," says docent Maridean Johanson, "they told everyone in the valley they' d be glad to get their things."

Clearly they meant it, for the museum now displays, among thousands of apparently unedited odds and ends, a Maori apron, a half-dozen vintage sewing machines, three spinning wheels, a loom, braided rugs, flour boxes, quilts, butter churns, a massive wooden bed once "owned by Heber and Florence Jensen," a boulder signed by Kit Carson, a Dutch cup and saucer "brought across the plains by Sarah Jones," crocheted bedspreads and bolsters, handmade luncheon cloths, scarves, card-table covers, collars, doilies, jabots, a tattered silk floral dress "said to have belonged to one of Brigham Young's wives," baby bonnets, gray enamelware pots, rolling pins, a pink alabaster model of the Taj Mahal, and a bowl of homemade soaps "perfectly preserved for 40 years by Abbie Clement Taylor."

From the sheer mass of artifacts you get a feel for the material culture and values of Fairview's pioneers and equally for the descendants who have proudly preserved that homemade soap. On the other hand, you could leave this astonishing warehouse of a museum with only the vaguest sense of why and how Fairview was founded—a fascinating story, if you can somehow piece it together.

Compare the jumble at Fairview to the more selective approach the Homesteader Museum in Powell, Wyo., has taken. In 2002, after a local man donated the "genie-style" nightgown his wife had worn on their 1940s honeymoon, Director Rowene Weems gathered undergarments from the museum's collection, put out a call to borrow any antique corsets and nightgowns that might be hiding in nearby attics, and staged the popular Undressing the West exhibit. The museum has since put together shows on shoes, hats, weddings, and the 1950s. Focused exhibits like these tell a story that the average visitor can readily digest. And, by taking artifacts on temporary loan, says Weems, the museum isn' t responsible for storing and preserving them until the end of time. When the show is over, they go back to their owners.

But can even clever displays of objects compete for attention in today's culture of iPods, video games, and high-definition television? On a December morning, a volunteer at Kalispell's Central School sounds the massive bell that used to hang in the local firehouse, for the benefit of a group of middle school students. They are whispering, jabbing at each other, giggling—doing everything but paying attention. "A lot of these buildings are still here," the docent says as they approach a series of spectacular photographs of Kalispell's streets and storefronts back in the era of enormous cars and men in hats. Each crack and fissure in the macadam is starkly visible; the smudgy clouds are palpable, revealing a Kalispell that is both recognizable and utterly irretrievable.

This young audience couldn' t care less. Well, kids will be kids. But don' t we all increasingly expect our museums to entertain us? Just to look at pictures, or at an invitation to Kalispell's last public hanging, can seem flat without prompts—an audio clip, a film, a dramatic bit of writing—telling us how to feel.

Deep-pocketed new museums offer just that. Take the brilliant, year-old Tillamook Forest Center east of Tillamook, Ore., owned by the Oregon Department of Forestry, which features state-of-the-art exhibits on woodland history and a film about wildfires during which the scent of smoke wafts through the theater. You don' t have to work very hard to extract the meaning from the experience.

The same is true at the interpretive center of the Manzanar National Historic Site just south of Independence, Calif., dedicated to illuminating the lives of Japanese Americans detained here during World War II. After beginning your visit with a 22-minute movie that puts the collection in context, you wander through a museum in which photographs are blown up to cinematic proportions, potent quotations are displayed for maximum impact, and 1940s radio clips play in the background for atmosphere.

We can' t expect this from most small museums. But do we even want it? Can such a tightly controlled experience—history filtered and artfully dramatized—properly tell the messy, populist story of a vital, ongoing community? Many small museums could use some editing and polish, true; almost all need a generous infusion of cash. But their eclecticism and inclusiveness, the chance they offer visitors to make their own discoveries and find their own meanings, are worth protecting.

At the Eastern California Museum, you might, after several hours of poking around, unearth this reminiscence by Blanche Van Norman, written in the 1940s: "Have you noticed the shade trees on either side of the road where Georges Creek crosses Highway 395, halfway between Lone Pine and Independence: This place will soon be bypassed by the new cut-off between the Alabama Hills and Manzanar, so while there is still time perhaps you will stop your car and explore this historic spot. You may find some ancient apple trees among the locusts and willows which still bear a crop of fruit each year. These are the Maiden Blush variety which prove their antiquity as that name has disappeared from the nursery catalogs these many years."

This sweet, inconsequential tale, this tiny, luminous sliver of regional history, will never find a home anywhere else.

With hundreds of local museums to discover throughout the West, surprises lie around every corner. Here's a sampling of what you might find.

All Things Great and Small

Drums, pipes, buttons, and a chamber pot from Fort Hoskins, the first fort built in Oregon. 1101 Main St., Philomath, Ore.,(541) 929-6230.

Exit 497 off I-90, Hardin, Mont., (406) 665-1671, A complex of original buildings from the early 1900s, including a church, a slaughterhouse, and a gas station. Also, antique tractors and automobiles and a rare Fort Custer mud coach.

Approximately 6,000 political campaign buttons, the largest collection outside the Smithsonian. 218 N. Main St., Hailey, Idaho, (208) 788-1801.

A steel-barred drunk tank salvaged from the City Hall in 1910, a collection of ornate shaving accessories, and about 70 mustache cups, teacups with ledges that prevented steam and liquid from disturbing Victorian men's waxed and dyed whiskers. 1200 Front St., Nampa, Idaho, (208) 467-7611.

223 Front St., Nome, Alaska,(907) 443-6630, A taxidermy mount of Fritz, the Siberian husky who led the 1925 Serum Run, which brought antitoxin to a town mired in a diphtheria epidemic.

A trunk that traveled around Cape Horn in 1706, an 1844 quilt, and the iron casting of a woman's face washed ashore with shipwreck debris. 15461 Museum Rd., Brookings, Ore., (541) 469-6651.

The steamroller used to build the local dam, a 1934 school bus, and a 1900s era blacksmith shop exhibit. 1050 S. Maine St., Fallon, Nev., (775) 423-3677.

The old Sumpter Valley Railway depot, with restored waiting room, station agent's office, and baggage room. Depot Park, Main and Bridge streets, Prairie City, Ore., (541) 820-3330.

Third St. and Chamberlain St., Eagle, Alaska, (907) 547-2325, dentures created by Erwin "Nimrod" Robertson in 1915 from a melted pot lid. Also, bear molars, caribou premolars, and sheep incisors.

Native American baskets, a pair of dentures made from coyote teeth, and a temporary exhibit on the Soviet gulag. 155 N. Grant St., Independence, Calif., (760) 878-0364.

A 100-year-old wedding dress, a 150-year-old beveled mirror, and a working organ. 61 East 100 North, Castle Dale, Utah, (435) 381-5154.

A sculpture of the Petersons, a local couple married for 82 years. 85 North 100 East, Fairview, Utah, (435) 427-9216.

Large collections of spark plugs, fishing tackle, and barbed wire. 3 Park St., Fortuna, Calif., (707) 725-7645.

The bicycle that belonged to Moses Alexander, the country's first Jewish governor. 501 E. First St., Emmett, Idaho, (208) 365-9530.

Recreations of a covered bridge, a miner's cabin, and a one-room schoolhouse. 502 Pearson Rd., Paradise, Calif., (530) 872-8722.

A stuffed two-headed calf and what are thought to be the skulls of the first two people hanged in Grant County. 101 S. Canyon City Blvd., Canyon City, Ore., (541) 575-0362.

324 E. First St., Powell, Wyo.,(307) 754-9481. A hand-pumped vacuum cleaner, handheld plows, a 100-year-old Victrola, and an old-fashioned commode.

American Indian artifacts and a set of snowshoes for horses. 115 N. Weatherlow St., Susanville, Calif., (530) 257-3292.

124 Second Ave. East, Kalispell, Mont., (406) 756-8381, A full-size sawmill saw, circa 1900, and the cross-section of an 800-year-old larch tree.

An 8 x 8 foot regional topographical map hand-carved from balsa wood by a park service employee. 118 E. Center St., Moab, Utah, (435) 259-7985.

700 E. Hennick St., Pinedale, Wyo., (877) 686-6266, A Shoshone sheephorn bow, the rifle of mountain man Jim Bridger, and a furnished buffalo-hide tepee.

Dioramas, a Victorian bedroom, and the last stagecoach to travel the route between Tillamook and McMinnville. 2106 Second St., Tillamook, Ore., (503) 842-4553.

A collection of wooden vegetable and fruit boxes, a pair of thumb cuffs for restraining scofflaws, and a 104-inch-diameter saw blade. 303 Gilman Ave, Weed, Calif.,(530) 938-0550,

More than 650 dolls, 300 rock and mineral samples, and the skeleton of a prehistoric cave bear. 2000 Aultman St., Ely, Nev., (775) 289-4710.

500 Depot St., #101, Whitefish, Mont., (406) 862-0067, A famous "fur fish" created by the town taxidermist around 1920.

296 Campbell Dr., Wrangell, Alaska, (907) 874-3770. Cedar bark and spruce root bas- kets, Tlingit house posts, and hundreds of photographs depicting Wrangell during its several gold rushes.

Photography courtesy Oregon Dept. of Forestry

This article was first published in September 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.