Vermont Historical Society Facing a Space Crunch

Mar 21, 2016

Since 1838, the Vermont Historical Society has been collecting documents, paintings and other items important to the state’s history. And now it's running out of room.

Year after year, decade after decade, the collection has grown. And today it nearly fills the society’s Vermont History Center in Barre.  

Nearly every day, someone contacts the historical society with an offer to donate something to its collection, from art to clothing to everyday objects from the past.  

Today, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of documents in its care, the society has 30,000 objects in its collections.

Since history is happening at every moment, even contemporary items are fair game.

We’re trying to be ahead of the curve,” says Jackie Calder, who curates the society’s objects and paintings.

For example, the society is collecting examples of Vermont’s current boom in microbreweries.

“It’s an easy collect,” says Calder with a laugh. “We just ask the staff to bring in their beer bottles.”

Someday those bottles may tell a story about early 21-century Vermont, just as much older objects in the historical society’s collection say something about another time.

Today, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of documents in its care, the society has tens of thousands of objects in its collections.
Credit VPR/Steve Zind

In fact, without the story behind it, the thing itself may not tell us much.

“I could put something on a table and it doesn’t mean anything until I tell that story," Calder says. "So what we’re trying to do here is be as accurate as possible about that story. That’s really what our role is."

Which is why Calder's job involves a lot of research into the origins of a piece and its place in Vermont’s history.

Her job also involves maintaining the collection. Beer bottles may not need much TLC, but clothing, flags, paintings and other objects need to be carefully stored in a clean, climate-controlled space.

"Storage space is very expensive. One of our biggest bills is our utilities." - Jackie Calder, Vermont Historical Society curator

“Storage space is very expensive," says Calder. "One of our biggest bills is our utilities."

The historical society’s collections are downstairs in the Barre history center in a series of unadorned rooms with concrete floors full of shelves and racks on wheels.

Here the objects tell another story — one familiar to many other museums. Fifteen years after the collections were moved from Montpelier to Barre and to a space three times larger, the historical society is running out of room.

“It’s starting to be an issue. We’re not quite out of space yet,” Calder says.

In anticipation of the space crunch, she says the society is raising the bar on items that are already abundant in the collection. 

The society is raising the bar on items that are already abundant in the collection. It's also is also going through older objects that it wouldn't accept by today's standards in a process known as deaccessioning.
Credit VPR/Steve Zind

“We do have to be very careful about military uniforms and wedding dresses because everybody saves them. We get phone calls all the time and it’s very hard sometimes to say we can't take it,” she says.

Calder is also going through older objects that the society wouldn’t accept by today’s standards – for example, items that have only a tenuous connection to Vermont history.  

The process of removing objects like these from the collection is called "deaccessioning," and Calder acknowledges it’s a sensitive topic.

“The public gets very upset when you talk about deaccessioning. It usually doesn’t sound good that a museum is getting rid of something,” she says.

Every decision to get rid of an object is reviewed by a committee and ultimately requires the approval of the historical society's board of trustees.

Calder says she reassures people that items they’re donating today are being accepted by the museum because they have lasting historical value and its unlikely they’ll ever be sold. 

She stresses that every decision to get rid of an object is reviewed by a committee and ultimately requires the approval of the historical society’s board of trustees.

Calder says deaccessioning isn’t done often, and it’s just one way in which the society is dealing with the limited space remaining to store its collection.

Finding additional space and being more selective about what it accepts are also part of the solution.