What Do We Keep?
“This thing belongs in the Smithsonian!” How many times have you heard somebody say that? Yet the nation’s attic can accept only a small fraction of what it is offered. Two curators explain how they decide what’s worth preserving.
As curators of industrial history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), we get offered lots of old stuff. “I’m cleaning out my mother’s house, and I found. … ” Or: “We’re closing down our factory and thought you might like. … ” Or even: “How do we get our invention into the Smithsonian hall of fame?”
People think it might be worth saving, they can’t bear to throw it away, they think it might get good publicity being at the Smithsonian. That’s fine. We have almost no budget to acquire artifacts, so we depend on donations.
But we take very little of what we are offered. Why? We don’t have room, for one thing. And acquiring items is expensive even if they’re free. Everything we accept has significant costs associated with it. We have to move it to Washington, figure out what it is, do the paperwork to make it officially ours, catalogue it, and store it. Every time we say yes to a donation, we are spending the taxpayers’ money.
How do we decide what to turn down, what to accept, and what to actively seek out? What might be useful for exhibition, either now or sometime in the future? What might never be displayed yet prove useful to future historians? Since we can’t save everything, what aspects of the past should we focus on?
These questions have confronted Smithsonian curators for more than a century. The institution started seriously acquiring artifacts of technological history in the 188Os, when J. Elfreth Watkins, a disabled Pennsylvania Railroad engineer, was hired to collect early transportation relics. (One of his acquisitions was the 1831 John Bull locomotive, presented to the museum in 1885.) Technological artifacts also figured in the then-popular notion of “synoptic series,” collections that showed the progression of mankind from primitive to civilized. Later, in the first half of the twentieth century, the Smithsoman saw itself as a site for contemporary industrial displays. It collected and exhibited coal-mining equipment, photographic devices, and other current technologies.
In the 1950s engineering groups lobbied the Smithsonian for a separate museum to show off their successes. They won, but only by compromising to include in the same building the “national history” collections, including political, military, and “ethnographic” collections that didn’t fit at the National Museum of Natural History. That’s why the same showplace contains both the John Bull and the dresses of First Ladies. The name of the new museum, opened in 1964, reflected the compromise: National Museum of History and Technology. The relationship between the technological collections and the other ones was a matter of debate. Should they be separate, or were they all parts of the bigger story of history, to be exhibited side by side? The answer has been, and we imagine will continue to be: some of each. As a symbol of this dilemma, a 1957 plan for the museum’s exterior employed a classical female figure representing History and a classical male figure representing Technology. On one side of the building they were shown proudly separate; on the other side they embraced.
The prospect of the new museum led to substantial new collecting of historical artifacts. In some fields—for example, iron, steel, and petroleum—the curators thought it appropriate to display models of contemporary industrial plants, contrasting them with earlier technologies. Curators responsible for railroad and bridge history hired craftsmen to create models of the most significant engineering breakthroughs and displayed them in time lines of technological advance. In some fields, such as mining, curators turned to collectors, companies, and universities for material. Lafayette College, for example, donated several hundred miner’s lamps, and agents were hired to visit old mines and factories in search of old machines.
Because one curator had a background in the Connecticut brass industry, several dozen early machines in that area were acquired. The machine-tool industry was a key to American industrial growth, so curators searched for early lathes, milling machines, and planers. Items associated with famous names in the history of technology were considered important; so were technological breakthroughs, and the older the better.
The decisions made by curators in the 1950s and 1960s reflect, of course, notions of history and historical importance at the time. History meant, for the most part, the nineteenth century, and technology meant machines, not the bigger industrial systems that machines were part of. These standards worked well enough and resulted in some of our most cherished acquisitions, but they embodied a very limited notion of industrial history—one that we have begun to change.
When we collect something, we’re making a statement that it should be preserved, that it tells a story worth remembering. More concretely, we’re expressing our belief that researchers will study it, curators will exhibit it, and someone will learn something from it. There’s no point in owning something that will simply sit in storage until it rusts away.
There are plenty of reasons we decline a proffered donation: Identical or similar items are available elsewhere; assessing its significance would require too much time or expense; the artifacts are in poor condition or would cost too much to preserve or organize; no historians are likely to use them; the donation’s physical size makes it unwieldy; it would not make a good exhibit; it lacks supporting documentation; or, in the grand scheme of things, it is simply not all that important or interesting.
All these objections can be overridden by a curator’s deciding that an item is valuable, but there are many meanings for valuable . Sometimes we select something on purely technological grounds if it shows great skill in design or manufacture, or was exciting to engineers or inventors in its day, or seems to be a precursor of what’s important today, or came from a famous inventor, or was a great commercial success.
Many of our donors like to think that just as an art museum may collect only the best art, so the Smithsonian should collect only the best technology. Often when we accept a donation of some recent technology, the donors will want to put out a press release announcing that it’s in the Smithsonian hall of fame (which of course does not exist). They want to believe that in accepting their gift, we have somehow declared it the best of its kind or a technological breakthrough or worthy of national recognition.
Because of that, we demand the right to preapprove press releases. We want to make it clear that we do not judge inventions the way sportswriters judge football players. Best, breakthrough , and even important are the wrong words; sometimes we collect an artifact for contrary reasons, because it’s typical or amusing or peculiar, or because it represents a path not taken— because it’s not important to technological “advance.” In this respect we are different from, say, the design collection at the Museum of Modern Art, which explicitly sets out to showcase outstanding examples of industrial design.
Consider the Teeter-Pong. The call from the museum information desk did not sound promising. “There’s a visitor here,” said the volunteer, “who says her son has invented a new kind of mousetrap that should be in the Smithsonian.” I went down to say thanks but no thanks and then found the story too good to pass up. Here was the fabled better mousetrap. I accepted it, a very small and clever device, and called the inventor. He offered to send copies of the notebook pages in which he had thought the thing through, some early marketing materials, and, best of all, the prototype, pieced together from plumbing parts. It was a fine case study of invention, and it may be ideal someday for research or an exhibit on building a better mousetrap, or on the process of invention, or even on why clever technology doesn’t always lead to success in the marketplace.
It’s hard to argue that the Teeter-Pong is important, but it does tell a good story that documents a typical sequence of invention, innovation, and marketing. We get offered people’s gadgets all the time, and we almost always turn them down. This one, though, was unusually intriguing and well documented, and it had the potential to make a compact display that will attract people’s attention and be easily grasped. The inventor did not strike it rich, but he did strike our fancy—something that can be even harder.
Another collection of artifacts, from the Porter Cable Company, also tells an interesting story about invention—and not just “important” invention. We first heard from that company when, as part of its ninetieth-anniversary celebration, in 1996, it made us an offer of an early portable belt sander. We were interested, but only if we could build a collection that would show more about the company. We wanted to understand the place of innovations in a classic American business story of an inventor, a manager, a series of mergers and acquisitions, and successful and unsuccessful campaigns. Along with marketing and labor materials, we selected a variety of tools to illustrate some of the forces that drove technological change in its industry.
The 1926 “Take-About” electric belt sander was a novel and popular item that launched Porter Cable into the portable hand-tool market. The 1970s Model 4007 electric drill, on the other hand, was the nadir of the product line, developed to compete with very cheap tools. It embodied a falloff in quality that followed Porter’s 1960 merger with Rockwell Manufacturing Co. One tool was an important innovation; the other was close to junk. To tell the whole Porter Cable story, we needed both.
Our Teeter-Pong and Porter Cable acquisitions say a lot about invention and innovation, but both are fairly contained and only tangentially reflect the interactions of technology, society, and culture. To tell such broader stories, we must look for artifacts that affected society in their day or reflect social or cultural changes. To do that, we must move beyond invention to technology and industry more generally.
Here we really get into judgment calls. In 1980 the name of the museum was changed from the National Museum of History and Technology to the National Museum of American History, reflecting an increasing desire to see technology as part of, not separate from, history. Most Smithsonian curators are trained as historians, not as engineers. We’re comfortable making decisions based on historical significance. But historical significance can mean many different things. Did an invention start a new industry? Does a machine set a new style of work? Is it a typical machine, one used in many factories, or an unusual machine that highlights a key social or technological change? These can be tough questions.
The history of work and workers is one of our main interests. We can’t show skills or long hours or heat and smoke and dust; instead we must find artifacts that convey them.
The management and control of workers has been one of our lines of study, with special attention to the rise of scientific management, the de-skilling of workers, and the redesign of machinery to enforce managerial demands. And the relationship between the factory floor and the rest of a company has been a key new focus for understanding technology.
Tools can help us understand these stories. An individual tool tells us something about its user; a chest full of tools tells us more. That’s why we jumped at the offer of a tool chest that had been owned by Walter Danow, a machinist at the Bronx, New York, printing-press manufacturer R. Hoe. Danow started at Hoe in 1904 after a five-year apprenticeship and worked there until the mid-1920s, when he left during a major strike. His tool chest was an unusual find for us because it was absolutely complete. No tools appear to have been “borrowed”; even six R. Hoe tool checks remain neatly tucked in a drawer. To make the chest even more valuable, the family was able to provide a rich history of Walter Danow complete with citizenship and apprenticeship papers, union card, and photographs of him at work and play. We’d like more tool chests like this.
Women’s work is another topic of increasing interest. One of our best finds in this area is a collection that came to us from Augusta Clawson, a Vassar graduate who was hired by the United States Office of Education during World War II and assigned to work as a welder at Kaiser’s Swan Island yard in Portland, Oregon, with instructions to find out firsthand the difficulties that women workers faced.
Clawson went through the company’s crash training course in welding and worked in the shipyard for six weeks. She experienced difficulty finding work clothes, rudeness from male workers, and the challenge of laboring 50 feet in the air. She wrote several pamphlets that were distributed to women workers. To illustrate her story, we collected her welding helmet, her worker identification and union cards, copies of pamphlets she wrote, and photographs of her on the job.
Items from individual workers, like Danow’s tool chest or Clawson’s welder’s mask, help tell stories on a personal level. Capturing a bigger picture requires more context. Many management ideas can be collected on paper, of course. We have a fine collection of the posters that managers have been putting up in factories since at least World War I, and we’re eager to acquire more. In the early days such posters typically carried messages like “Loyalty always inspires confidence; confidence is the foundation of business,” “The Teamworker!,” “Better Workers Always Get Better Jobs,” and “Think American.” Nowadays they urge employees to think about foreign competition, corporate downsizing, quality, and racial and gender issues. Many posters now are directed toward managers themselves, not their hourly workers; this is especially true of a new kind of work-incentive poster, the mission statement, which reminds employees of the goals and values of their corporate culture. But posters, useful as they are, necessarily present an idealized world. It’s harder to capture what managers actually do or their interactions with workers.
We had a good opportunity to do just that a few years ago, when a history-minded engineer called to see if the Smithsonian would like an entire steel mill. We were dubious but told her we’d like more information. What we discovered was a fascinating story of an immigrant inventor, a company that had staked its future on that inventor’s unproven technology, consumer demand encouraging technological change, and its skilled workers playing a critical role in perfecting the new invention. The offer, we found, was not a 100-acre complex but the first Sendzimir mill to roll stainless steel, which was about the size of a small apartment. The mill itself was too big and heavy to save all of, but we had to collect something because the story was too good to pass up.
In 1939 Tadeusz Sendzimir, a Polish émigré inventor, came to the United States to work in the steel industry. At Armco Steel, in Middletown, Ohio, he developed his idea for a new kind of rolling mill, called the Z mill, that used a clustered nest of rolls to allow very close control of the rolling process. (See “My Father the Inventor,” by Vanda Sendzimir, Fall 1995 issue.) Tecumseh Sherman Fitch, an entrepreneur who saw in operation the first Z mill Armco sold, became convinced that the new technology was perfect for producing the increasingly popular (and difficult to roll) stainless steel. In 1946 he raised capital to open a finishing mill. He located his new company, Washington Steel, just outside Pittsburgh, the heart of steel country, where it could benefit from an experienced work force. That was a key factor in its success, for a Z mill is very difficult to operate and depends completely on the skill of its maintenance staff and operator.
How to display the interlinked stories of an immigrant inventor, an important new product, a postwar start-up, and a skilled work force? We did the best we could by saving the mill’s operator’s pulpit, videotaping the mill in operation, interviewing a rolling crew, and collecting photographs and trade literature from the company.
The museum has always collected trade literature, the catalogues and circular letters that firms give to potential customers. They are a superb source of pictures and descriptions of machines, and they can tell something about the machines’ buyers and users. Our collection of trade literature is perhaps the best in the world, comprising more than 285,000 items from about 30,000 different companies. One recent addition to the collection came from the estate of a used-machinery dealer in California and completely filled a 45-foot tractor-trailer truck. We’ve also tried to document how technological artifacts are sold. The Porter Cable collection included a router-bit retail display cabinet and correspondence with salesmen. The Black & Decker and Washington Steel collections are rich in photographs of sales training, conventions, and picnics.
Collecting contemporary artifacts is increasingly important. Dramatic changes in the last 20 years have made it essential that we capture the industrial history of the late twentieth century. This isn’t a matter of waiting for phone calls; to tell these stories, we have to identify what we need and try to find it. Some things will disappear forever if we don’t grab them; others will become expensive and hard to get.
Labor issues continue to be of interest. When newspapers reported in 1991 that a fire in a Hamlet, North Carolina, chicken-processing plant had killed 25 workers who were trapped by locked doors, labor historians and others recalled the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City, in which 146 garment workers were killed. It was a tragedy that helped bring about modern worker-safety laws. We have very little that tells the Triangle story and didn’t want to leave the curators of the future with as little about Hamlet. And so a trip to Hamlet along with extensive negotiations with state and federal officials, secured a factory sign, one of the infamous locked doors, and other artifacts.
A 1995 raid on an illegal garment sweatshop in El Monte, California, offered us a similar opportunity. After the managers of the sweatshop pleaded guilty to conspiracy, involuntary servitude, and smuggling and harboring illegal immigrants, we contacted state officials and collected some of the equipment from the site: sewing machines, finished garments, even barbed wire that had been used to keep the immigrant workers from leaving.
Three interlinked revolutions have transformed manufacturing in the last 20 years: Japanese-style management, robotics, and “quality.” We’ve tried to document all of them. Faced with considerable foreign competition in the 1970s, American companies realized they needed to make major organizational changes. Japan had pioneered new management systems that emphasized quality control and flexible production; American firms began to copy them. To document this critical moment in industrial history, we decided to record the story of NUMMI, a joint Toyota-General Motors venture organized in 1982 that has made the best-known American use of Japanese management techniques.
We got hold of an andon board, a large display board with a number corresponding to each worker that shows the status of production. Any worker who spots a problem can stop the line, something unheard of in the American system; we collected several of the cords that workers pulled to stop or slow production. We also acquired a kanban card, used to indicate the need for more parts—the key to just-in-time inventory control; a company uniform, identical for production workers and management; and a worker’s hat with all the pins he had collected, each celebrating a milestone in his career or the factory’s history.
Robots have changed the factory floor in recent years, and innovative new models are introduced every year. We can’t collect them all, so we’ve decided to collect one from each generation. So far that’s worked out to about one industrial robot every 10 years.
Quality is another breaking story in American manufacturing and an exceptionally hard one to document. We’ve made a small collection of posters and banners and some of the typical materials produced during quality-management certification applications and reviews. We also look for the awards companies give their suppliers in recognition of quality work.
Still, manufacturing is only a small part of the story—indeed, an increasingly small part as the work force shifts from factories to offices. It’s hard to collect materials representing office work and contemporary cube culture, though we’ve tried, with items from office machinery to the “Xerox art” that circulates in many offices. We’re still looking for a classic office water cooler.
Ultimately, whenever we think about whether or not to collect an artifact, we consider not simply its technical importance or social significance but also whether it is interesting. By interesting we mean that it allows us to tell a good story. To be able to tell a good story, we must collect not single artifacts but groups of artifacts with information to go along. If we think of each object not as a heroic figure, important in and of itself, but as one member of a larger cast, we can better understand it. For every object in a starring role, the supporting cast might include prototypes, trade literature, sketches and notes by the inventor, manufacturer, or user, or company records. We might also do oral or video history interviews if the inventors, makers, or users are still available. Video makes a record that no still pictures can—especially when it lets us see a machine run one last time.
Ideally objects brought to us are carefully researched. We save letters from donors; clippings from newspapers and journals; trade literature describing the artifact, its manufacturer, and other items like it in the manufacturer’s line; photographs showing it in use; curators’ notes describing why we accepted it; and interviews with the donor, manufacturer, or user. We want our collections to be as useful for researchers as for exhibit, to increase our understanding of the story of technology and history. We get not just the trophy but as much of its setting, its context, as we can.
Building a collection means moving objects from one environment to another, and we have to take into account not only their natural contexts but also their new context, the museum collection. If we already own a good bunch of a given sort of thing, we might not need to acquire one more. Not all curators or collectors think this way. One of the classic reasons for collecting is to fill in the gaps. If we have models 1 through 5 and 7 through 10, why not take model 6 when it’s offered? Stamp and coin collectors aim for completeness, and in a few areas of technology it is logical for museums to think this way. The changing design of guns made using interchangeable parts, for example, is nicely documented by showing each of the variations. Those small changes reflect the bureaucracy that produced them.
In a few areas the Smithsonian continues to collect simply because we have the best, or even the only, collection. We have almost 200 examples of pneumatic and electric controllers of the sort once used to run chemical plants. This is the definitive collection, and it is backed up by an extensive collection of trade literature and archival material. Everyone who has written on the subject—more precisely, both the historians who have written on the subject—has found the collection invaluable. No one else collects these things, so we will continue to, in moderation.
We think about potential acquisitions in more general terms too. We’re a national museum, but the overwhelming bulk of our holdings comes from the East Coast. Most of them date from 1840 to 1940. We need to try to collect the rest of the country and the rest of this century. Our collections generally represent the work of men, and even within that category, skilled men. We want to represent the technology and work of all Americans.
If a technology is popular with private collectors, we may feel less need to pursue it, but that’s not always true. Collectors’ interests tend to be quite different from those of museums. In an article called “Passionate Possessions,” the anthropologist Marjorie Akin lists six reasons why people collect: to satisfy personal aesthetics, to meet a desire for control, for a sense of completion, for connections with a personal past, for the thrill of the chase, or for profit. Museums have none of these compulsions; we have a more simply educational mission. Collectors collect for themselves; we collect for the public and for historians. There’s no reason why we should go after the same things or why there should even be much overlap between our interests.
Moreover, in some fields of collecting—automobiles, for example—standards of conservation vary widely. Owners of antique cars and automobile museums often restore them far beyond what most museum curators would consider appropriate. They want them in asnew condition; we want to keep intact the evidence of their use. Thus we want to know not just that there are similar things elsewhere but that they are properly preserved and will continue to be.
You can’t save everything. The time, effort, and money put into saving one object means that much less effort put into saving something else. The root of the word curator is “to care for.” But the modern curator does much more. We select, make sense of, and tell stories about our collections. When the phone rings, we have a pretty good idea of what we should say, but there are always surprises, and any effort to establish rules about what to collect would be bound to fail. In the end museum collecting is neither a science nor an art; it’s an ad hoc process that comes down to a series of gut decisions. There is always more out there, always a new old thing to collect. It’s a challenge—and an enormous amount of fun.