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The Problem with Old Photographs

I can’t begin to tell you how many photographs are in the typical museum collection. Any museum, if it is anything like ours, has buckets of images from any number of time periods.

We have some severe gaps in our collection, but that is a story for another post.

This post is about how hard it is to identify old images. To say it is really hard, perhaps, is an understatement. For example, a particular image that comes to mind:

Cabinet Card by Lock Whitfield (Reverse)

Photos of the Past Forgotten

Some time ago, we acquired the image of a Victorian gentleman, a cabinet card in fairly good condition: no fading, no foxing, pretty clean.

From his clothes and such, we could place the image between 1890 to 1910. A broad range, but styles didn’t change as rapidly in Brenham, Texas back then. However, it could have even be dated 1915 and not totally surprise me. He’s dressed WELL. He’s in a suit, with a cravat. His clothes are pressed, the sharp creases are visible. The shine on the fabric suggests it might even be a silk suit. His mustache shines, and is in great form. He’s got a very professional air about him, an almost military bearing. There’s also a huge cravat pin with a pearl that could be the size of a child’s head.

The photo was taken by a local photographer, so we know this Victorian gentleman is local. We are certain this is a guy of local prominence. He’s someone that would have been known. We have a list of these folks we think may apply, people we do not have an image of. It’s pretty futile, really. We have no idea who this guy is. We’ve shown it to dozens of people, people who you would think might have the best chance to recognize the guy or the photo itself. No luck at all. It is as if this guy didn’t exist, that the image of him doesn’t matter to anything anymore. It is pretty sad, frankly.

This is not surprising at all. It’s really common. We have many images like this, so many with people we cannot begin to put a name to. Some aren’t people, but buildings. Some are events. We can figure out many, but not even close to most of them. They remain anonymous.

Let’s Remember to Preserve Our Past

I have a solution, and maybe all three-hundred-million Americans will get behind it! Let’s just all agree to write whatever we know on the back of photographs! (If it’s a digital image, put that info in the meta-data). Ok, so we can’t get everyone to this, we know. Maybe we could take all the old family photographs to mom or dad or grandma, and see if they can shine some light on these things. THEN let us all pledge to write this info on the back! All future curators and collectors will praise your memory for doing this, I promise you!

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What is a museum?

It’s a bigger question than you realize. Still, we are a species that enjoys classifying things; putting things into cubbyholes. So let’s live up to our socio-biological programming, shall we?

Let’s define “MUSEUM”. What is this thing?

According to the International Council of Museums (ICOM), a museum is…

a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

A mouthful. According to ICOM, a museum must do ALL of these things to be a museum. There are for-profit museums out there, and ICOM won’t call them museums. Those are galleries, perhaps. Seems to me, they might be museums, regardless of what ICOM says.

Wait, there’s another definition!

The American Alliance of Museums says museums make a…

unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world.

Well, every museum is different.

They all operate differently, under varying missions and objectives. Vastly differently, in some cases. They often have to do things a bit differently than their peers. We will list them here, as many as makes sense. We will place them all into broader categories.

Museums in General
  • A baseline to make a basic determination

A museum must collect stuff, and at least try to keep it safe. The stuff has to be accessible to the public (all the public). I do not think a museum needs to display the stuff. As long as the people can get to it, and can get something out of it, a display/exhibition/etc isn’t necessary. I think the purpose of museums should be in preservation, research, and education (and purpose is important). I do not think a museum must be non-profit, though it would be a far cry better if it was.

For this baseline to work, we must define the term Stuff .

“Stuff” is culturally interesting:

  • Maybe you can touch it.
  • If you cannot see it, then it should impact another of your senses.
  • Maybe you can hear it, of feel it. Or taste it! (I’d totally go to a museum of tastes!)
  • It can be two-dimensional or three-dimensional.
  • Stuff can be so small you need special technology to realize it is there.
  • Stuff can be large enough to… to… I dunno, it could be really VERY big indeed. I can’t think of an upper limit there.

A museum needs to be a place you can go to. Can that be a virtual place? Sure it can! It’s the 21st Century. If I can’t have a flying car or a jetpack, then I get to have museums that only exist in the aether of webbyspace. If a museum doesn’t have “stuff” of its own to collect or protect, then it isn’t a museum. If you only display the stuff of other museums or of private collectors (and don’t actually have your own collection), you are just a gallery. Sorry.

Topical History Museums

These things relegate themselves and their mission to one topic or group of topics. The Print Museum in Houston, or the Magic Lantern Museum in San Antonio are good examples. Museums dedicated to a particular war might be in here. So are museums about individuals or specific events. The planned Maifest Museum, here in Brenham, would be a Topical Museum.

Regional History Museums

They cover the general history of a geographical area. City museums, county museums, local museums, most rural museums… I call these Regional Offices For Local Material Acquisition of Objects (ROFLMAO), or LMAO for short. An alternative, less controversial label is a Regional Repository for Cultural Heritage (RRCH), we call them a “rich”. These things hold most of the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of our country. That’s right, the tiny museum in Somerville, Texas is really important. It is the only RRCH storing the regional history of Somerville.

Historic Site Museums

This type of museum is not a conventional museum that just happens to be on or in an historic site. These museums are all about the site itself, and don’t stray much from the history of the building or place. Could be a park, a building, a house, a dry-docked ship, anything like that. It still has to collect and keep it safe.

The Alamo is a great example. It’s a shrine to that battle site. All the content is connected to the Alamo itself. The Giddings Stone Mansion in Brenham is also a good example. The building itself was collected, and they protect it at great expense. They’ve got furniture too. The public can get tours. It hits all the buttons. One could argue that Emancipation Park in Houston is a museum, in that it protects the park itself. I’d have to think about that. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it’s just an historic park.

The Brenham Heritage Museum is not an Historic Site Museum. We are in an historic site, but our content goes far beyond the history of our building. We are a Regional History Museum (RRCH).

Big History Museums

Scottish National Gallery, one of the Big Guys

These are the big, well-funded (relatively well-funded) museums. The Smithsonian. State Museums (not Texas though… The Bullock isn’t a museum, it’s a gallery. They only borrow their collections, they don’t have one of their own). Big University systems like the Briscoe CAH count. The National WWII Museum in NOLA is one. The system of US Army Museums counts as one huge museum, in my opinion. The Witte in San Antonio is big, and well-funded. It counts.

There’s a reason the big guys get their own category. They have their own world. They operate much, much differently. For those of you who haven’t worked at one of the “Big Guns”, you’ll just have to trust me.

They have different priorities. They have measurable marketing budgets. They have the political freedom to ignore their museum’s mission to bring huge, loaned exhibitions into their spaces for the sake of visitor revenue. Smaller museums aren’t able to hide new agendas behind the compartmentalization of a big museum. Their board can be removed from the conversation entirely… they might not even be in the same state!

These places have loyal patrons numbering in the thousands. They have awesome museum shops, stocked to the ceiling. They have major REVENUE STREAMS. Smaller museums struggle to operate in their shadow, frankly. It is a big image to live up to. Some of us do “OK”, and relish the challenge. Others maybe not.

Art Museums

Interior: British Museum, with historic art on display

Just as broad, really. But only Art: Sculpture, Painting, Pottery, Fashion, Architecture, etc… big spread. Unfortunately, art crosses paths with history so often, and in so many ways, it can be tough to pry them apart. I mean, honestly… is Da Vinci art or history? You can’t even call it “Art History” without some people arguing with you. It’s the same for architectural history, or the history of design… it’s all inextricably linked.

A museum about New York had best have some art content in it. A museum here in little ol’ Brenham, Texas had best mention Johnny Swearingen and Frank Malina. It’s the same for most museums. Conversely, an art museum exhibiting the works of the same people would be negligent not to mention Malina’s past with NASA and the JPL, his pioneering work in Paris, and his work in art publishing.

Even new art becomes art history pretty quick. Just understand that some art museums have more history on the wall than others. Design museums, architecture museums, and places like that often have tons of history on the wall. They really need to. Pure art museums tend to let the art do all the talking, and don’t put the history up at all. Perhaps maybe a blurb at the entry to the exhibition hall, if that.

To that end, I won’t create a long taxonomic list of types of art museums. You’ll know ’em when you see ’em.

Natural History Museums

Science museums, covering seemingly every subject in the scientific world, are in most cities. Unfortunately, they are not always museums. Just because it is called a museum, doesn’t mean it is one.

San Diego Zoo, and it’s a museum

If a natural science museum has a collection of some kind, then it is probably a museum… if that collection is accessible to the public in some way. Geologic specimens, taxidermy collections, insect collections, core samples, leaves, or whatever science-y bits you can think of can be part of a collection.

By far the most common type of science museum is a zoological museum… or just a Zoo for short. Yeah, zoos are museums, their collections just happen to be alive.

What isn’t a Museum?

There are some things called museums that are not museums. I think museums should be grounded in demonstrable, repeatable evidence. For science museums, this is through the scientific method. For history museums, it means a bibliography of some sort for everything you put up on that gallery wall. For art museums, the art is looking you right in the face most of the time.

Art has nothing to prove! so says every artist ever.

Even museums of more nebulous subjects can fall back on something concrete: Recordings, Manuscripts, Video, something real.

If a museum is predicated on a very specific belief structure designed to eliminate other belief structures, then it isn’t a museum. Are you trying to make me believe something I don’t? Maybe it’s an educational center or something. It’s not a museum.

Children’s museums are not necessarily museums. I’m certain they don’t usually have collections. I think they’re learning centers, or children’s activity centers, or something. I think they are GREAT, and they serve a very useful purpose. That said, I think many museums would love to capture more of that children’s interactive “kung fu” for their own galleries.

In Conclusion

So there is my personal definition of “MUSEUM”. I think I’ll have some disagreement from some of my peers. I hope to hear from them on the Facebook post associated with this blog entry.

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The Closed Museum Blues

Museum Are Closed

Closed: In Any Language

The Brenham Heritage Museum is closed.

21 inches of rain can flood a building and cause the business doors to be closed, its true. Flood a basement, destroy a bunch of drywall, ruin an otherwise useful space… until repaired, that is. The thing is, it isn’t as easy as all that. Insurance is there to help, but it doesn’t cover it all. After a certain point, after the restoration grows past a certain size or dollar amount, the law requires an architect. And an engineer. And ADA. More code issues pop up. It is a never-ending mess of costly hoops we are being forced to jump through.

Meanwhile, the Museum remains closed, with administrative business being conducted in the new exhibit space behind the Museum at the Brenham Bus Depot.

And the Museum doesn’t even own the building.

The City of Brenham owns it – conditionally. The building was given to the City of Brenham by the U.S. Federal Government. Of course, there is no such thing as a free lunch, so the Feds had conditions.

Anything done to the building has to be approved by the National Park Service.

If the use of the building changes, the National Parks Service also have to approve it. So, they get a say in the building’s future, but contribute no money toward that future. If they are denied a say in these things, they can take the building back. POOF – just like that.

The State of Texas has a say in the building as well.

Anything we do the building must pass muster with the Texas Historical Commission. If they don’t like it, the Museum can’t do it. They can say no to a color of paint, or a new wall or window addition. Anything in the building, really. They also have this say without having to contribute any money toward the building. I mean, this is Texas. The State Government spends practically nothing and anything related to history. Not going to get a dime out of them.

Of course, the City of Brenham also has a say.

The City of Brenham was given the building, so it belongs to them – conditionally. Of course, they have a say. We have to clear anything and everything with the city first, as it should be. Well, some things we don’t bother with. We fixed the water fountain, and didn’t ask the city’s permission or ask them to fix it. The interior lighting in the building was redesigned, and then installed. The Museum didn’t ask them for a dime. The money was raised and the job got done. We fixed the front doors without asking the city for help. Plumbers, electricians, locksmiths, and other service providers come through here all the time… and the Museum pays for it. It is important to this organization that we act in the best interest of our community, and therefore do not put unnecessary burden on the taxpayer.

What more can be said?

Now that we need to address the basic restoration of this building, post-natural disaster, there is some doubt as to whether the city can actually get it done. With the expenses Hurricane Harvey has  imposed upon the city, it becomes exceedingly unlikely. Under our existing lease much of the responsibility of maintaining the building is laid upon the museum. This lease, which is over twenty years old, absolves the city of responsibility. Of course, the city pledged to the Federal Government they would forever maintain the building. I am unsure which obligation is overridden by the other. Frankly, I believe both are intact. I’m also sure the city will do what they can… they have already begun to forever solve the drainage issues that caused the problem to begin with. Such is the nature of caring for large, antiquated buildings.

Wish us luck, reader… we will need it!

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Our Business Operations Have Moved.

** UPDATE **

We are maintaining business operations in our new exhibit space at the Brenham Bus Depot located behind the Brenham Heritage Museum at 313 East Alamo Street.

Our Administrative Office and the new exhibit space for the Brenham Heritage Museum is now located inside Brenham Bus Depot.

Office Hours
Monday – Friday
10:00 am to 4:00 pm

Main Phone

Physical Address
313 East Alamo Street
Brenham, Texas 77833
Driving Directions via Google Maps

Sorry, We’re Closed.

The Brenham Heritage Museum is currently recovering from flood damage and will be closed for renovations until further notice.

Check back soon for more details.


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Big News: Our New Website Is Here!

The new Brenham Heritage Museum website is up and running.

After months of planning and working with a dedicated group of creative individuals, our online site renovations are complete!

We are delighted to share with you our newly redesigned website, showcasing a bold new look and offering an enhanced navigation experience.

We have streamlined our content to give you quick access to the items you are looking for.

We have streamlined our content to give you quick access to the items you are looking for.

We have streamlined our content to give you quick access to the items you are looking for. We have combined information on the museum, its current exhibits, upcoming events and will soon offer an expanded database of all our historic collections. If you’re a partner of the museum, you will soon have access to your organization’s private museum portal.

We invite you to start exploring:

We will be rolling out new pages and functionality over the coming months and hope you will enjoy visiting our new website.

Moving forward, we are committed to expanding our online content and keeping you up-to-date with the latest information regarding the Brenham Heritage Museum. Check back often, subscribe to our RSS Feed or connect with us on your favorite social network.

Cheers and Happy Browsing!
Doug Price
Executive Director


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