Responsibilities, realities and ranking: How a collections tiering policy aids conservators in ethical decision making and judicious resource allocation at the Henry Ford Museum and Deerfield Village

Mary Fahey and Clara Deck


Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village is an indoor/outdoor museum complex that was founded by Henry Ford in 1929. The 78 historic structures and 13-acre museum house collections that highlight American innovations, inventors and the ordinary people whose daily lives were affected by new technologies. Henry Ford established the Museum and Village on the educational principal of “learning by doing”. The collections, which consist of an estimated 26 million archival documents and 1,000,000 objects include; furniture, paintings, decorative arts, home arts, industrial equipment, automobiles, airplanes, locomotives and agricultural equipment.

Increasingly, the trend at Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village is to produce a greater number of yearly exhibits with smaller budgets and stream lined planning. Interactive exhibits that look towards entertainment venues like Disney as a role model for capturing the attention of visitors are gaining popularity. Living history programs that use historical artifacts provide some of the museum’s most powerful and memorable experiences. They also challenge staff conservators in terms of defining what constitutes appropriate care and reasonable utilization of historical collections. Conservators have found themselves looking for ways to balance the museum’s ethical responsibility to preserve collections, with the desire to use and exhibit collections with limited resources. To meet the increased demand conservators needed a mechanism for determining the best use of their time, money and expertise.

In 1993 the museums registrars, curators and conservators drafted a formal policy that tiered collections from rare, ranked “1”, to common, ranked “4”. Ranked 1 artifacts would include “Lincoln’s Chair” (in which he was assassinated). Ranked 4 artifacts were first identified as the things that might be damaged while in use such as tools, kitchen utensils and machines. It took the next seven years to finalize the policy.

During this time various interpretations of the policy were tested in new exhibits and existing programs. Museum staff engaged in intense discussions about the practical application of the policy. Some of the questions that posed the greatest obstacles to ratification of the policy included: Should rank be based on an artifact’s historical rarity, its monetary value or on its “preservation sensitivity”? How can rank be tied to appropriate levels of care? Would rank dictate who can handle or operate artifacts? Could a policy be developed that aided conservators in caring for the collections as a whole by limiting time spent on individual treatments? Who should determine which artifacts could be operated as part of a program or exhibition? Should all historical artifacts be viewed as irreplaceable? Could a ranking policy allow us to serve programmatic needs and still adhere to the AIC Code of Ethics?

The ranking policy that was recently adopted by Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village attempts to address these questions by providing a framework for ethical and practical decision making. The policy effectively serves both the obligation to preserve collections, and the desire to utilize collections creatively in exhibitions and programs.

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2001 | Dallas | Volume 8