Time and the Tangible
This blog describes a display in the museum's former location. The Pliska doors are currently in the museum storage, awaiting placement in the permanent exhibit, which will be constructed as funding is available.
There is an old saying about museums that they are "places where things go to die." The statement refers to the fact that, once an object is placed in a museum, it ceases to do that for which it was created. That is true. Things there no longer do what they once did. But something else happens within the museum walls.
The Midland County Historical Museum, for example, has a display of branding irons. They are lined up beside the wooden door once attached to the blacksmith shop owned and operated by John Pliska. The door no longer functions to control access to a building long since demolished, Attached to the museum wall, it has lost that purpose and, in fact, one could argue it is actually no longer a door.
Even when it was a door, this artifact had another important purpose. It was also a large wooden canvas to exhibit the artistry of blacksmith John Pliska. Pliska would shape a few pieces of metal in his forge, producing a unique pattern that became a branding iron. When finished, he again heated the mental until it was red-hot. Then he quickly pressed it against the shop door, searing an imprint into the wood and giving the buyer an accurate look at how true the brand would appear when that same iron was applied to the hairy flank of his livestock.
Like the door against which they lean and which permanently bears the scars of their touch, these irons, now forever cold and inert, are no longer ranch tools.
A visitor wandering through the museum will discover artifact after artifact that no longer fulfills its original function. A wood-burning stove. A military uniform. A phone booth. A hotel key. A piano. And that visitor might reasonably conclude, "Yes, I guess these things have died."
But perhaps, that is not really the truth. Maybe this "stuff" hasn't died. Maybe it's become something else. These things have become storytellers.
The items in a museum are artifacts, meaning they were made or shaped by human craft and effort. In their original role, they were part of a specific culture and had specific jobs to perform. Culture includes the acts, the customs, the beliefs, the way of living of a particular society. Like the humans who produced them, these artifacts are a product of their culture. They are surviving fragments of that world.. They fit within it. They had a place. They had purpose.
And, now that particular culture is gone, the artifacts that remain each contain stories about that culture. Like the elderly in many societies, they are the guardians of the stories and wisdom of the past. And, like those reverend ancients, they enjoy sharing what they know.
If we are willing to listen.
Jim serves as the President of the Midland Historical Society.