West central Minnesota county museums struggle with too much of a good thing

County museums are blessed with an abundance of donated items that tell the stories and preserve the history of their communities. Sometimes the cup of blessings overflows, creating challenges for museums tasked with maintaining and exhibiting the items. The Pope County Museum in Glenwood is going through a multi-year process of "deaccessioning" items from their collection and selling some items in an online auction that ends Monday.

Items fill three different storage rooms at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

GLENWOOD — County museums that house local treasures and historically significant documents can sometimes have too much of a good thing.

To be sure, having an expansive collection of artifacts, ranging from the exquisite to the odd, can preserve moments in time and help tell the story of a community’s past.

But at some point a museum curator has to ask if keeping 20 manual typewriters on shelves in precious storage and exhibit space makes sense.

After all, history marches on and more artifacts are collected every year, making storage and exhibit space even more precious.

It’s an issue that every museum that accepts donations faces, said Bayley Schluter, executive director of the Meeker County Museum in Litchfield. “It’s very common to have a lot of one thing,” she said.


It’s why county historical organizations with limited facilities and budgets are getting more selective about the items they accept.

“We’ve really had to learn the word ‘no,’” said Bob Larson, deputy director at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society Museum and Depot.

During a process called “accessioning” museums catalogue and number each item in great detail and commit to maintaining it into perpetuity.

Occasionally, museums go through the painful – and very precise – process of “deaccessioning” items from the collection.

Sometimes items have deteriorated beyond repair or may have no real connection to a county resident or have a local story. Often a museum has duplicates of items.

Deaccessioning typically involves committees determining which items should be purged, trying to locate the person who initially donated the item to see if they want it back or offering it to other museums or associations.

But when those avenues fail, another option is to sell selected items.

That’s what the Pope County Museum in Glenwood is currently doing with an online auction underway of more than 100 items. The auction closes Monday.


“It isn’t a fire sale,” said Ann Grandy, collection manager at the Pope County Museum, who is very aware that people may question selling “cool, old things” from the museum.

Grandy said the items being sold have gone through a long, thoughtful deaccessioning process, and some items on the sale bill were not part of the museum collection but were donated just for the auction.

Too much old stuff

Grandy said when the Pope County Museum opened nearly a century ago anything and everything that was donated was accepted, whether its origins were in Pope County or not.

“If it was old, we’d take it,” said Grandy.

During the county’s 100th anniversary in 1966, people donated even more stuff.

As a result, the collection included many duplicates of “pioneer stuff” and items that didn’t necessarily tell the story of the county.

It was difficult to find space to safely store all the items and display them, she said. “It’s actually a burden for our museum and museums around the state.”

The Meeker County Museum, for example, has more than enough wedding dresses and pens and calendars bearing the names of local businesses, said Schluter.


“For many years we wanted stuff and we were happy to take stuff,” said Schluter. But she said it’s expensive and time consuming to maintain a large collection.

“We love artifacts but we also need to do our best to take care of artifacts,” she said.

Since 2006 the Pope County Museum has been in the process of “refining” its collection by deaccessioning items, Grandy said.

That involved taking an inventory of what exactly they had.

Grandy said they discovered they had six or seven pump organs, five cradle scythes that are “big and dangerous” and about 20 typewriters, including some that had “great stories” and some that didn’t.

“Do we need all those typewriters to tell the story of Pope County?” she asked. “Probably not.”

It was decided the museum doesn’t need two threshing machines, so they’re selling one on the auction. They also have three buckboard buggies and are selling the one that has no known history, she said.

“We’re hoping these pieces will find homes where they'll be loved and cherished” rather than “in the way.”

The goal, said Grandy, is to have a collection with pieces “that really sing” and “tell the story of Pope County.”

Grandy said the museum is “not getting rid of all of their treasurers” but hopes that by thinning out the collection they’ll “do a better job” of preserving history and telling the county’s story. Revenue that’s generated will be used to maintain the remaining collection, she said.

Larson said Kandiyohi County has never auctioned items from their collection and that the laborious process of deaccessioning typically involves disposing of items, like moldy books, that can’t be restored.

Schluter said they also have a very extensive deaccessioning process but she’s not aware of the museum selling items.

Accepting donations

While they’re reducing their existing collection, Grandy said the Pope County Museum now has policies in place about accepting new items. “We’re more careful now,” she said.

The same is true at the Meeker County Museum. “We’ve become more strict with what we accept,” said Schluter. People offer donations “with the best of intentions” but realize that the museum can’t keep everything.

“We have really tough conversations with people every week,” said Merlin Peterson executive director of the Pope County Museum. Peterson said people come to the museum with donations and beg them to take it because their kids don’t want it.

“I don’t need anymore butter churns,” said Peterson. “But I could use ice harvesting equipment.”

Because of their limited space, Kandiyohi County is also cautious about accepting donations that may be a duplicate of what’s already in their collection. But Larson said people should call first before throwing anything away.

“We try to collect as much history as we can,” he said. “It’s pretty interesting what people do bring in.”

An item needs to have a “pretty tight connection with the county” to be accepted at the Kandiyohi County Museum. A typewriter, for example, would need to have been used by a “prominent person,” said Larson.

Because the museum was closed due to COVID-19, there haven’t been many donations lately, said Larson, adding that they are currently looking for more school yearbooks from area towns, like Spicer and New London. They have plenty from Willmar, he said.

With their exhibit more refined, the Pope County Museum is tentatively planning for a grand opening this spring of a new agriculture exhibit in a structure built in 2018.

Right now that new shed is crowded with excess items. After the auction there will be space to create a proper exhibit, Grandy said.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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