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Curators & Collectors: A Discussion
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January 1, 2021 - 9:52 pm
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Ian McCollum over at Forgotten Weapons released a video about museums and collectors, and I thought it was a great piece of content to do a reaction video to it given my background in museums. He talks about whether or not an artifact belongs in a museum and even cautions about offending curators. Watch to find out my thoughts, and I’m curious as to yours. What’s the overlap? Where’s the line? Is there any of either?

Here’s the video link:

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January 1, 2021 - 11:03 pm
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Have no experience with any firearms museum, but plenty as a volunteer in history museums–the kinds to which folks donate their ancestor’s “old stuff” when they don’t know what else to do with it.  I met many different curators in several museums not one of whom appeared to have had ANY particular interest in antiques before getting their museum jobs.  In general, I knew far more about the objects in their collections than they did, & also, in general, they regarded the objects in their collections not very much differently than the way a store clerk regards the store’s inventory–something valuable, that it’s their responsibility to care for, but as for personal feeling (the kind I had developed for guns, old cars, antiques in general while still in HS), there was none I could detect.  Presumably, they had an intellectual interest in history, but that’s very different from having any kind of personal bond with the objects in the collections.

The point I’m driving at is this:  the people who donate their beloved collection, whatever it is, to a museum are greatly deceived if they believe it’s going to mean the same thing to the museum & its staff as it did to them; in most cases, it will merely be “stock.”  Firearms museums, due to their more specialized nature, may be different.

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January 1, 2021 - 11:35 pm
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Good to see young(er) people passionate about collectible firearms and history in general. My favorite comment to curious people at the range is “we robbed a museum on the way out here, you want to shoot it?”. Not every great example belongs in a museum, most are in private collections and are enjoyed by their custodians and their friends & family. I personally don’t feel like I truly understand a firearm until I’ve fired it. In many cases I’ve also dismantled/reassembled it, loaded ammunition and in many cases cast bullets for it. I love museums but to date none have offered me that level of experience. 

 

Mike

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January 1, 2021 - 11:51 pm
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Hi Logan-

Thank you for posting this link. Laugh As someone with a few “it belongs in a museum” type artifacts, the discussion of pros versus cons of museum donation versus private preservation was quite interesting.  Kudos to both you and Ian for a mature (and polite) exchange on a topic of interest to many collectors (whether of butterflys or firearms).

A few random comments (I assume you want audience reaction)…

I believe that the focus of museums HAS “evolved” rather dramatically over the past several decades, as Ian proposes, whether it’s due to the internet or the need to keep the turnstyles moving.  Anecdotally… In my lifetime the content of museum “display collections” has changed from “all out” repositories (forgive the psychology babble) of all manner of cool stuff into “educational displays” catering to the lowest common denominator.  The Smithsonian is an example.  So is the British Museum…  I happened to have visited London in 1980 and again some 30+ years later…  In 1980 there were galleries stuffed full of ancient Greek pottery, Egyptian mummies, etc., with everything out there and no particular comment on what it was.  Later, the content of the gallery halls had changed to “interactive displays” (this has been most dramatic at the Smithsonian).  I may be in the minority, but I don’t go to a museum to see shallow treatments of stuff I can see “on-line”.  The only “cool” thing left at the British Museum was a reconstruction in the new entry galley of Prince Albert’s library, consisting of all the original cabinetry/bookshelves and all the really cool things (books/fossils/butterflies) he used to be able to check out every day.  Of course to get to it I had to walk past mannikins wearing costumes from the latest Brad Pitt movie…

I do not believe that the Internet has yet come close to replacing museums as repositories of knowledge.  MAYBE some day, if museums were to diligently curate their ENTIRE content and make it available electronically (maybe the NEA ought to fund that instead of some other stuff).  But surely we’re not there today.  Most internet content is NOT systematic, NOT referenced, NOT curated (lacking YOUR expertise), NOT accurate, and therefore NOT useful to the interested specialist.  Anecdotally, I have trolled the CFM McCracken library contents ad nauseum and (while finding a few interesting documents) am constantly hampered by inconsistent indexing, incomplete catalogs, and files that are not yet scanned.  I would certainly pay money for access to a well-curated compilation of a museum collection, but we ain’t there by a long stretch (forgive the vernacular)…

My last comment on your video is the scariest to me…  I would have thought that the best way to “preserve” an artifact that was worthy of “being in a museum” would have been to place it in one.  If it’s really “museum-worthy” it will be on display, as you pointed out.  If not, then a well curated museum should be able to maintain a current catalog of museum holdings, such that the artifact in question could be accessed on application.  But as Ian commented, museums are subject to the whim of Governmental decree.  If a future administration get’s a law passed that an artifact, like a firearm, needs to be welded shut to be possessed, the museum has no option but to comply.  So rather than being a “safe haven” for artifacts, we’re into smashing religious statues b/c they were created by an “out of favor” regime/religion.  Seen any of that last year?

End of the day…  Let’s assume (hypothetically) that I have some things that even a bona fide Curator (such as yourself) thinks “belong in a museum”.  If I were to call you up, what would you recommend?

Happy New Year and Stay Safe!!!

Lou

P.S.  I didn’t appreciate you “dig” that no museum needs seventy-five M70 Winchesters… You cannot have a truly meaningful collection of fewer… Wink

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January 2, 2021 - 12:18 am
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I have to admit that I did not watch most of the video.  I have heard as many horror stories about museums as gun dealers.  I’m sure many are on the up and up.

When a lot of museums get a gun they basically do what they want with it.  Show it or not, sell it or not and in some cases the guns go out the back door.

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January 2, 2021 - 12:39 am
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Folks,

  A most enlightening and informative discussion here.  I won’t go the long story route, but will say I have been and am back to being both a private collector and on the board of our local history museum (which includes some firearms.  Guns come on wheels).  Museums live on the numbers that visit the museum.  They have evolved in recent years to appeal to folks on a new level as has been stated.  It has helped the numbers of visitors.  Artifacts that are submitted for the museum are voted on by the board as to whether they add to the understanding of the PEOPLE of the local area in past eras.  Some old items are rejected, others are accepted in anticipation of placing them for sale to raise money.  Of the firearms we have, some were loaned by Rock Island Arsenal and last I knew were supposed to have the breaches welded even though they are bolt actions, etc, that were demilitarized by the Arsenal prior to loan.  I will quit before this devolves into a rant.  If you want to pass time this coming July at Cody, see me and bring up this subject, or send me a PM and we can connect for more indepth comments.  I get emotional over some of this stuff.  Suffice to say, I will not now nor ever donate my carefully collected Winchesters to any museum.  Tim

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January 2, 2021 - 1:12 am
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Louis Luttrell said
In my lifetime the content of museum “display collections” has changed from “all out” repositories (forgive the psychology babble) of all manner of cool stuff into “educational displays” catering to the lowest common denominator.   

One of the most fascinating regional history museums in this country used to be the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mt. Lake, NY.  I was spellbound, mesmerized, the first time I visited it, & many subsequent times, because so much of the content pertained to hunting, fishing, guns, canoes & small boats.  Then the professional historian who had for many yrs directed it, a man, was replaced by a woman who made it her mission to “make it more accessible” to the average mindless tourist–that’s when the dumbing-down began in earnest, stupid interactive displays, & the like.  Finally, because the very word “museum” was felt to be off-putting to the average mindless tourist, the decision was made to change the name; it’s now called the “Adirondack Experience.”

Would it be irrelevant to note that about 3l4s of the staff are women, as seems to be the case in so many museums? 

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January 2, 2021 - 1:28 am
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I would also question the contention that most major museums have always catered to the “lowest common denominator,” though some like the Smithsonian (what a joke!) undoubtedly have; I’ve spent too many hours & days reading (with sore feet & aching back) the fine print in large collections such as the those in the British Museum to which Lou referred.  That was many decades in the past, so those I’m referring to may now have joined the rush to intellectual mediocrity.

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January 2, 2021 - 3:13 am
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I recall museums being packed to the gills with so many amazing artifacts, and I would agree this would have been before the days of the internet.  Many unique items from which one could gain a wealth of knowledge from just in an afternoon visit.

Now, you have a few objects highlighted due to the absence of much of anything else.  How museums used to be, well, a great example of this would be Sir John Soane’s House in London.  I don’t think how that collection is presented can be altered:  https://www.soane.org/  I have been there many times, although not fairly recently, and I doubt anything has been changed.  I think that unless one visits these small museums, mostly a house such as this one, one is subjected to these dumbed down museums, which is why I have not visited many recently.

The problem is twofold.  One is trying to appeal to the masses, the masses being a group of individuals now who have never known a time before the internet for many of them, or if having existed before the days of the internet, certainly not before the days of television.  Their attention span is little more than that of a television commercial.  To appeal to those, one must have lots of open space–nothingness–featuring a few select objects.  I recall in a short stint creating advertisements for a local newspaper nearly 30 years ago now that I initially crated advertisements cramming as much in as possible.  The general public cannot handle that.  What often is more effective is limited type, limited graphics, with lots of white space.  Check out advertisements in periodicals or newspapers catering to higher end clientele and you will see what I mean.  That same mentality is necessary to cater to a larger number of the general public in order to fund their operating expenses through admissions fees.  Yes, a select number of individuals will desire a more in depth experience, but that is the rarity and not the norm.  This was discussed in the video to some extent.

The other problem is that those running museums today likely have a Master’s Degree this being in a field that traditionally does not pay all that well.  I took some art history classes in college and would have had an interest in doing this as a career, but I wised up REAL quickly.  I did not possess the means to exist on a meagre salary, if not for many years while pursuing my degrees and gaining experience, then possibly for a lifetime.  I simply could not go that route as I did not have the means to do so.  Having said that, with my newly minted college degree, I did submit my resume to Sotheby’s in New York City and did not hear anything back which, in hindsight, is not surprising.  Also, I think individuals pursuing this route generally, although not always, need a degree from a more prestigious school, as the individuals they will be working with, if not the staff of these museums, then the wealthy donors, will have attended these schools.  I did not attend the type of school that would allow me access to these inner circles.  I’m certain it exists, as there is a sort of snobbery, subconscious or otherwise.  So, these individuals eventually hired with their Master’s Degree at the museum level will have likely attended these exclusive liberal arts universities, institutions that by their very nature tend to be liberal and anti-2A by their very nature.  There’s a good chance individuals pursuing this route come from means and, in my experience, having worked for some families over the years with old money, they tend to be quite liberal.  This seems contrary to what one would think, but it is usually a product of their educational institutions, such as Yale or Harvard, if they are anything other than extremely elderly these days.  If one has attended University since the 1960’s, which makes only those at least approaching 80 these days somewhat immune, one would have been enmeshed in a liberal cesspool that allowed for little diversity beyond liberal “ideals” and “institutions”.  Interestingly, earlier generations of old money, some of whom I worked for as well, these individuals having been born as early as the late 19th Century, were more fiscally minded and, therefore, more conservative. 

These individuals running museums, coming from wealth, perhaps, but most likely from a very liberal liberal arts background, it’s no wonder that museums have been dumbed down and that displays that do not promote liberal ideals are likely doomed to failure.  Without sounding too radical, one thing I have noticed about extremely liberal individuals over the years is that they want open mindedness and pretend to be open to everything, until your views do not mesh with theirs and then they don’t want to hear anything you say.  Counterintuitive…but very true in today’s society.  A GREAT example is the recent destruction of Confederate statues, and other statues, that do not agree with their views.  Very sad…

Also, through independent research I have identified some individuals from high profile families who sit on the boards of some of these museums, and seem like nobodies, but they come from old wealth and it is obscured due to marriage or from maternal descent which obscures the family that provided them unlimited wealth.

Also now that I think of it, museums, just to survive, are going to have to appeal to wealthy donors.  These individuals having become wealthy usually due to an inheritance or white collar existence, both of which involved a stint in a prestigious (meaning liberal) institution somewhere.  Their anti-2A sentiments run very deep.

Not particularly good anywhere, from what I can see, for most institutions wanting to feature firearms exhibits or for individuals wishing to donate firearms related artifacts to a museum.

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January 2, 2021 - 4:29 am
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mrcvs said 
A GREAT example is the recent destruction of Confederate statues, and other statues, that do not agree with their views.  Very sad…
  

Beyond sad…tragic.  When George Orwell published “1984” in 1949, his fictional prediction that a gov’t of the future might seek to erase the history that failed to conform with the ideology of the moment seemed too fantastic to be taken seriously; now (though Orwell misjudged the date) we see it happening

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January 2, 2021 - 1:34 pm
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Very interesting and informative discussion.  Personally, I have had no experience with museums.  However, I have known many collectors over the years who have had extensive experience with museums.  I know that every single one of them said they would never consider leaving their collections to a museum.  

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January 2, 2021 - 2:52 pm
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THANK YOU all for commenting here! And now, some feedback of my own to you all:

First off, if you have something in your collection that you think belongs in a museum, PLEASE reach out to me! My website is in my signature below. You can find my email and phone number there and I will be happy to help you find the best place for your item(s).

– As for the other point of museums deaccessioning/selling items: a prospective donor should always read the fine print of their donation contract. I know of NO museum that has a “no sale guarantee” clause. This is for many reasons: 1) unforseen circumstances come up. It’s not pleasant, but it happens. 2) A good museum will have a scope of collections and collection/accession plan, and the best deaccession plan is to have a good accession plan. Museums often rid themselves of duplicates or pieces that don’t fit their scope. If the item is a duplicate or didn’t fit the scope, then they shouldn’t have taken it in the first place.

– There’s only so much space in the back room and on display, and if part of that space is permanently occupied by something that can never change, it hurts the museum’s future potential to bring in new visitors. If exhibits never change, then there’s very little incentive for repeat visits, unless you’re one of the few who is very interested in the items on permanent display. I’ve been in many situations where collectors wanted their entire collection to come to a museum I’ve worked at, and want it to remain 100% intact and 100% on display for eternity. None of those situations came to fruition.

– The reason I mentioned the 75 Model 70s was because I saw it happen at a place I used to work. They came in long before I got there and were already back in storage. They remained in storage the entire time I was there and that is where they remain today, more than a decade after coming off display. The cold, hard truth is that your collection or my collection as a whole entity will NEVER be as important to ANYONE as it is/was to you or me. Certain pieces? Yes. But the whole thing? No. As such, I think it best to offer the most important pieces to institutions and put the rest back on the open market. After all, if everything goes into museums, we’ll have nothing left to collect!

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January 2, 2021 - 6:43 pm
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Hi Logan-

Thank you for the feedback. LaughI think it’s helpful for our members to get some insight into the “museum business” from a curator’s perspective.  The few artifacts to which I was alluding are each unique, historically significant (to WRACo), and have impeccable provenance.  There may be a “conversation” with a museum one day and we’ll see… 

I was KIDDING about it not being possible for a decent firearms museum to have <75 Winchester M70s.  Wink  IMHO you couldn’t have a decent “pre-64 M70 wing” of a museum that “told the story” with many less than that, but the same would be true of any Winchester Model (or any number of other firearm). 

Were you alluding to the M70s held by the NRA/Bass Pro Shops Sporting Rifle Museum?  Those I need to see…  You think they’d give me a tour of the back room?

Best,

Lou

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January 2, 2021 - 7:28 pm
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I will add that I am sure some of the collectors I know who would never donate any part of their collection, were not fully tuned into the financial realities of keeping a museum open.  Additionally, offering displays that people will purchase a ticket to see, is important as well.  As had been mentioned, the owners of most collections have great fondness for their collections.  That others (or a lot of others) will be as enamored, is unlikely.  I also very much agree that most of these collections need to be turned back into the collecting field, for other collectors to enjoy and cultivate their hobby and the collecting field to continue on.

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January 2, 2021 - 10:39 pm
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Louis Luttrell said
Hi Logan-

Thank you for the feedback. LaughI think it’s helpful for our members to get some insight into the “museum business” from a curator’s perspective.  The few artifacts to which I was alluding are each unique, historically significant (to WRACo), and have impeccable provenance.  There may be a “conversation” with a museum one day and we’ll see… 

I was KIDDING about it not being possible for a decent firearms museum to have <75 Winchester M70s.  Wink  IMHO you couldn’t have a decent “pre-64 M70 wing” of a museum that “told the story” with many less than that, but the same would be true of any Winchester Model (or any number of other firearm). 

Were you alluding to the M70s held by the NRA/Bass Pro Shops Sporting Rifle Museum?  Those I need to see…  You think they’d give me a tour of the back room?

Best,

Lou  

Hi Lou,

Yes, I am indeed referring to the ones now in storage at the NRA Museum in Fairfax, VA. When the Petersen Gallery went up in 2007, a lot of stuff came down to make way. Among those items was the large collection of M70s.

It might be possible to obtain a “sneak peek” as it were, but there’s a few speedbumps in place right now:

1) The director retired last March.
2) 95% of NRA staff has been laid off since April, including all but 1 museum staff member.
3) The guns are buried somewhere in storage, and are not likely all grouped in one place.

So, yes, eventually, you probably could arrange a visit, but it’s anyone’s guess as to when.

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January 2, 2021 - 11:07 pm
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LMetesh said

2) 95% of NRA staff has been laid off since April, including all but 1 museum staff member.
  

I’ll bet Wayne’s expense account hasn’t suffered.  But this sorry situation is ample reason for sending every one of those 70s to an auction house.  Excepting Lou for his very special purposes, who’d go into a museum to see guns as common as 70s, anyway?

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January 3, 2021 - 12:21 am
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I would love to see a display of a massive number of Model 70’s, so I would be one to advocate such.

However, I am in the minority.  In order to appeal to John Q Public, probably only one or two are necessary to display before he gets bored.

Maybe it is best to deacquisition them and sell them at auction to someone who might actually enjoy them?

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January 3, 2021 - 12:28 am
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mrcvs said
I would love to see a display of a massive number of Model 70’s, so I would be one to advocate such.

However, I am in the minority.  In order to appeal to John Q Public, probably only one or two are necessary to display before he gets bored.

Maybe it is best to deacquisition them and sell them at auction to someone who might actually enjoy them?  

I would think some very significant money could be raised from such a sale.

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January 3, 2021 - 2:27 am
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mrcvs said 
In order to appeal to John Q Public, probably only one or two are necessary to display before he gets bored. 

If John Q Public wants to see a M 70, he has only to visit a good gun shop, or gun show, where he can not only see, but handle, one…or several, probably  Though I love owning & shooting them, seeing a “massive number” of them on a wall, under glass, would be, to me, a total waste of time since in any good firearms museum, a visitor has only so much time to attempt to examine everything.  I visited the NRA museum about 40 yrs ago; if these 70s were on display then, I walked past them as fast as my feet would carry me.

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January 3, 2021 - 2:42 am
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steve004 said

I would think some very significant money could be raised from such a sale.  

The New York lawsuit NRA is bankrupting itself to fight is, essentially, an action against Wayne, not NRA.  If he would wrap himself in the NRA flag & jump off the top of the headquarters bldg., the case would be moot, staff could get their jobs back, & the 70s…they still ought to be “liberated.”

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