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Many historical organizations have architectural remnants in collections: cornerstones, stain glass windows, courthouse banisters, steeples, brackets, doors, decorative plaster and terra cotta to begin a possibly endless list of salvaged icons from buildings of a lost cultural landscape. All of these pieces of history are challenging to interpret as they are out of context in the sense that the building to which they had belonged is gone. Perhaps readers can respond to the following two questions:

  • Under what circumstances should an organization accept an architectural remnant?
  • If there is an architectural remnant in your collection now, how do you evaluate whether or not to retain it as part of the permanent collection? How might you use the object to tell the story of your community?
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4 Responses to Pieces of History

  1. Deborah Morse-Kahn says:

    This is such a great question! I have worked all around the Upper Midwest with small and large HS’s and the most successful displays I have seen using architectural remnants are those where a large photo image is at the background, and various elements of the building’s life are displayed in front and around it.

    Many years ago in Chicago I saw an exhibit where an entire wall in the gallery was covered with an image of an historic hotel, and in the foreground were the hotel register, elements of original wallpaper, postcards and menus, letters from yearly returnees, proprietary china and napkins with the hotel name on them, photographs of the kitchen and housekeeping staff from the turn-of-the-century, railroad timetables of the nearest stop and, best of all, stained glass panels, window frames with original glass panes, lanterns from the front porche and, in front–where one walks through into the exhibit–the original doorway with its carved impedimenta and pillars.

    Absolutely fabulous! It left a lasting impression on me of a real place and real people, in real time.

    Deborah Morse-Kahn
    Regional Research Associates, Minneapolis


  2. Kathy says:

    Architectural items enhance exhibits and education in a way that photographs just can’t. Their texture and solidity evokes a feeling of presence that can’t be duplicated. Deborah explained clearly the impact an architectural piece can have. Also, these items are useful in demonstrating the effects of weather, and construction techniques. While we struggle for collection space, we are creative in carving out space to hold these pieces (I try to limit them to smaller architecturally significant pieces – or those that can be stored easily, such as wood planks – stacking or hanging them from the rafters – and bricks, moulding, banisters, coving, doors…). We limit taking in items to those that fit our collection criteria. While the buildings may be gone, and the context could be fuzzy, the way you interpret the items makes all the difference.

    I encountered this recently. We were contacted by the City of Savage and invited to document a farm site that they would be demolishing. Naturally we said YES, then followed up by asking if we could salvage some of the building materials for the Society. The City agreed and we planned the process. Our curator spent an afternoon with a camera documenting the site from all angles, inside and out before demo. Later I went to the site with the understanding that bricks and significant architectural items would be set aside for us.

    Unfortunately, the demo crew wasn’t informed, and I was loaned a crowbar and screwdriver, and had to remove the items myself. If you plan on salvaging materials, I urge you to be clear who is doing the salvaging. If it’s you, be prepared, wear work clothes and bring along leather gloves, your own tools (a pry bar works great!), and a pick-up to haul away the treasures. The items we salvaged will be used in exhibits and education. Some of the wooden wall boards may be used as a backdrop for exhibits – or used to recreate a house exterior. Finials from the porch roof may be used to interpret exterior house decoration , metalurgy, paint, effects of weather on outside metal pieces, construction methods (there are hinges on the finials), bricks may be reset to form a wall or window opening… Interpretation is the key.

    If you are interested in acquiring pieces, it helps to be on good terms with city officials, who will keep you informed of development and demolition. Trying to find architectural pieces for use in exhibits/education is difficult and if you think you might purchase some, the cost is prohibitive. While we would all like to preserve buildings, sometimes that just isn’t possible.


  3. Suzanne Fischer says:

    Our museum is filled with parts and pieces of the old Minneapolis General Hospital–bricks, pieces of marble, segments of the decorative stonework, the metal "G" from the hospital facade–that physically evoke the original luxury and later dilapidation of the hospital.

    I would say our most successful use of architectural remnants in an exhibit regards the flooring. When the old General was marked for demolition in 1976, our volunteers gathered up as many artifacts as possible to save them from the wrecking ball. One nurse came to the construction site late at night and pried up all the marble tiles from the nursery floor. The tiles currently floor a section of our exhibit space where we have a sample patient bed demonstrating medical procedures circa 1960. The story of the tiles’ rescue also illstrates the great love and loyalty employees had for the old General. The physical remnants help tell the story.


  4. […] of architectural remnants in the collections of my old museum. And that quote in turn is from a blog comment from last August. I’m certainly glad that they could use the information, and I sound pretty eloquent, but […]

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