I had the chance to sit down with Shalla Wilson Ashworth, director of operations, the other day and talk about collections at the Old Capitol Museum. One of the things I have learned in my introduction to museum studies course is the central role collections play to a museum. But what happens when the museum itself is, essentially, the collection?
That’s what Shalla and I discussed! While the museum does have a small collection of “old cap” memorabilia and items historically accurate to this building’s time as the house for state governance, the museum would not be considered a “collection” museum. Instead, the museum itself is the collection, representing Iowa City role as the first place for state governance, the place where the first constitution was written, the place where class were first held at the University of Iowa and, now, a place for students to come and experience government. The museum has made the conscience decision to use historically accurate replicas of desks and chairs in the House Chamber for the purpose of letting young people sit in the chairs and work at the desks without fear of breaking delicate objects. In many ways, this makes the Old Capitol Museum a “living” museum where people are encouraged to touch, sit and put themselves in the shoes of people from the past. Having ample space but limited items giving the Old Capitol Museum the opportunity to have traveling exhibits like the Maize Exhibit and temporary exhibits like the Life on the Prairie Photography exhibits, not to mention the ability to have regular speakers, class and concerts up in the Senate Chamber.
But what happens with the items they do have, can’t display, but don’t have room to store. They use it, of course! As Shalla and I talked in her office, she directed me to the fact that her desk was, in fact the president’s desk! Rather than putting it in storage, it seemed more fitting to use it for it’s original purpose. This raises the questions: why don’t we continue to use functionally collected items? Function, it seems, to be in the eye of the collector!