Preserving Our Cultural Heritage for the Future

Story by Amelia Chamberlain, Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar Director

One of the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar’s community roles is to receive and collect the material culture of Stillwater and to preserve it for the future. The family heirlooms and personal items that are collected are important because they preserve memories, tell the stories of families, and allow the passing on of cultural traditions to future generations. Each artifact that is collected has its own unique requirements for care. Without proper care, these irreplaceable items can be damaged by light, heat, humidity, pests, and improper handling. Museums like the Sheerar are committed to preserving their collections, but we all have a role in preserving the items that define us and represent our collective heritage.

Throughout 2020, the Stillwater History Museum will feature the traveling exhibit Caring for Family Treasures: Our Endangered Heritage. The exhibit provides a public service to help individuals learn practical ways to take care of their family heirlooms as well as raising public awareness of the collection care needs of organizations such as the Sheerar. National studies have found that our heritage is at risk and the irreplaceable items that define us are being lost or damaged because they are not receiving the proper care. The exhibit will be supplemented with collections care programming ranging from workshops to talks to object identification.

Designed by collections care professionals, the colorful exhibit consists of 12 sections, including specific information on best practices for caring for a wide variety of items. The traveling exhibit was offered through the Oklahoma Cultural Heritage Trust, an alliance between the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, the Oklahoma Historical Records Advisory Board, the Oklahoma Historical Society, the Oklahoma Museums Association, and others. A grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services funded the project. The exhibit is being made available to the Stillwater History Museum to help it fulfill one of its goals of providing preservation education to the community.

Each month throughout the year will have a focus on objects of a particular type so that families and collectors alike will be able to learn how to care for and preserve their paper treasures, books, moving images and sound recordings, paintings and works of art, textiles and cloth, ceramics and glass, scrapbooks, photographs and slides, decorative metals (silver, brass, and copper), natural materials, and clocks, watches, and jewelry. Items from the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar made from these very different materials will supplement each exhibit panel. 

The Sheerar family donated many objects to the Museum when it opened in 1974 including an extensive button collection.

Stillwater Collects, an exhibit that will rotate objects every 4-8 weeks, will feature the collections of various residents of Stillwater. We continue to look for those who have interesting collections to loan for display. The first in the series is “Christmas Past,” and it will run through January 25. So far we have been offered cookie jars, salt and pepper shakers, jewelry, match covers, miniatures, and more. If you have a collection you would like to share in this way, please contact Amelia Chamberlain, Museum Director, at 405-377-0359 or info@sheerarmuseum.org.

Visitors to the Stillwater History Museum in 2020 can expect to: 

• Have a better understanding of the common threats that harm their personal items. 

• Have a better understanding that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

• Learn how to properly display and store their personal items. 

• Learn how to properly clean and handle their personal items. 

• Learn what to avoid regarding caring for their items. 

• Receive information on resources they can use at home. 

• Better understand the needs of Oklahoma collecting institutions in regards to collections entrusted to their care. 

Why Do We Collect?

Why do people collect? What kinds of collections are there? How do people get started collecting? Once one has a collection, how can it be cared for and displayed? 

Collecting has been a “thing” since the beginning of time. The first collections were likely the things early humans needed to survive—from firewood to a certain kind of rock from which to make tools to animal skins for clothing. 

Over time, collecting became a practice of the very wealthy. In Mesopotamia, royalty had collections as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE. In Egypt, the Ptolemaic dynasty collected books from all over the world to be placed in the Library of Alexandria. And in Florence, during the Renaissance, the Medici family was the first to collect art by private patronage. This tradition continues today with private art collectors­­–– many of whom have donated their collections to well-known museums so that the art can be seen by the general public.

Today’s collecting hobby is a modern descendant of the “cabinet of curiosities” or cabinets of wonder. The term cabinet originally described a room rather than a piece of furniture. We likely would classify the objects found in these cabinets as artifacts of natural history (occasionally faked), geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art (including cabinet paintings), and antiquities. These collections were also the precursors to museums. 

Steiff Teddy Bear

A lifetime of collecting could be triggered by a simple gift of a Steiff teddy bear to a child on her first birthday. Or by a parent sharing his love of stamp collecting and providing the tools and techniques for his child. Or having a small collection of miniature figurines handed down from grandparent to grandchild who then expands the collection as she finds additional objects to add. There are as many different ways that collections get started as there are collections. And there are as many different reasons why people collect. 

Some of the more popular reasons for collecting include: gaining knowledge and learning about specific kinds of objects, relaxation and stress reduction, personal pleasure (including appreciation of beauty and pride of ownership), nostalgia and/or a connection to history, and social interaction with one’s peer collectors. Collecting allows some to bring order to their world—in a small or even large way. Collecting has become globalized as the internet is utilized as a tool to connect with other collectors and share interests and information. 

The hobby of collecting includes many different activities. Collectors seek, locate, acquire, organize, catalog, display, store, and maintain items that are of interest to them. Collections can be categorized by the type of objects collected. Most collections are manufactured, but natural objects can also be collected (butterflies, rocks, seashells). The reason for including an object in a collection might not be the type of object but perhaps who owned it or the object’s history or use.

Maintaining a collection can be a relaxing activity that counteracts the stress of life while providing a purposeful pursuit which prevents boredom. The hobby can lead to social connections between people with similar interests and the development of new friendships. Collecting can have educational benefits, and some collectors even become experts in their field.

Ten of the most popular collectibles today include antique furniture, vinyl records, comic books, coins and currency, classic cars, trading cards, dolls and toys, stamps, wine, and fine art and jewelry. If you have a collection, there are many reasons to take good care of the collection. It is important to take the time to learn the proper methods for collectible storage to keep your treasures in their best shape. Be sure to check the Calendar of Events on the sheerarmuseum.org website for several learning opportunities in caring for your collection throughout 2020!