What Became Of Traverse City’s 10,000-Item Historical Collection?

What Became Of Traverse City’s 10,000-Item Historical Collection?

For nearly a decade, the Con Foster Collection — the 10,000-item collection of objects from Traverse City’s history — has been locked behind the closed doors of a handful of storage spaces around the area. And two-and-a-half years after officials last said they were determined to resolve the collection’s future or possibly find it a permanent home, are we any closer to that reality?

The collection was started in the mid-1930s by Con Foster, a Traverse City resident who traveled the Midwest to acquire items with a focus on Native American and pioneer relics. Foster commissioned the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to build a museum in Clinch Park to display the items (that building is now the Bijou at the Bay Theater.)

The original collection began with Foster’s artifacts, and is believed to have been inspired by Foster’s association with PT Barnum in the 1910s. But over the years, it continued to grow as pieces of Traverse City’s history piled up around the original items. City founder Perry Hannah’s stovepipe hat, an assortment of antique firearms and a vintage WTCM neon sign are often cited as some of the most high-profile items in the collection, but they haven’t been seen in years since the History Center closed its space. at the Carnegie Building in 2014.

Penny Hill assumed her role as Assistant City Manager in 2014 and has been the point person for the collection for about as long as it has been without a home.

“It’s in a good area for storage — it’s safe, there’s fire suppression and environmental controls and everything,” she says. Even though it’s under lock and key, don’t think you can ask nicely and get a glimpse of the collection. “We’ll get an occasional request, but we haven’t allowed anyone to access it.”

The first step in making the collection public again began by making sure some of the items went back to where they really belonged: members of Native American tribes across the country.

As part of the process to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a website for the collection was established with the goal of expediting consultation with the Native American tribes, said Hill, who according to hers has been in place for about four years. This is a private, invitation-only site, and represents only the Native American portion of the collection.

“If different tribal representatives wanted to view Native American objects that might be subject to NAGPRA, they contact me, I give them access to a collection and then they can comment” on the items, according to a 2015 report prepared by consultants for the city, at the time contained “human remains representing two individuals”.

When the site launched, Hill says they reached out to all the tribes in the U.S. by mail, and while this version of the online collection hasn’t been used much recently, there was a lot of interest at first. “At first we had quite a few [requests to view]and I’d say within the last two years I’ve only had one request,” says Hill.

Recently, a new contractor was engaged by the city to create a complete inventory and condition assessment of each item in the collection. That project is just getting underway, which Hill said will be “a process of at least two years, after which the City Commission will decide what next steps to take.”

“It is a long process. Every item has to be looked at, all the paperwork has to be found, everything has to be entered into the database, pictures have to be taken, that sort of thing,” says Hill. That detailed process is why requests to view the collection are now denied: to make sure no part of the collection is moved or disorganized during the inventory.

As for a future virtual or physical museum, “that’s going to be something that’s probably much further down the road. It will be part of a larger discussion once the inventory project is complete. The City Commission is going to have [to have] a discussion about the future of the museum: whether to be a physical museum, whether to have a virtual museum or not,” says Hill.

“But until the inventory project is finished, it is difficult to have that discussion because our database is only partially complete. We therefore want to make sure that the City Commission knows exactly what is there.” And whenever this discussion takes place, the collection must be aligned with the existing policy and mission statement of the Museum, which was established in 1984.

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