Why do collections need a manager?

Submitted by Ken Middlebrook, Collections Manager at History San Jose

Although I have been part of the HSJ staff for only a few months, I have been part of the HSJ family for nearly two decades. I often receive puzzled looks when I mention my new position as HSJ’s Collections Manager. The initial responses are “How can one be a manager with no direct reports?” or “Do you repossess cars?” or perhaps, “Do you call people at dinner time about overdue debts?” Although at one time I was a bar bouncer and played the tough guy role, a museum collections manager is entirely different.

Then, what is a museum collections manager? As a visitor to our website, you may already know — or not — that the HSJ collection comprises over 500,000 items spread between paper items to entire historic structures. Jim Reed, our Curator of Library and Archives, is responsible for our research library and archival materials, including our extensive collection of photographs; whereas my responsibility covers museum objects: the pet rock, the 1842 velocipede, the Andrew P. Hill paintings, the buildings, the vehicles, the branding irons, the canning equipment, the salt and pepper shakers, the clothing, etc, etc. What is on public view within both the history park and Peralta/Fallon sites is but a fraction of our overall collection.

HSJ is a custodian acting in the public trust; as a result, my primary task as collections manager is to provide oversight over our three-dimensional items ensuring that they will be available for future generations. While it would be simple to just close the closet door to meet this primary objective, there also has to be a balance toward sharing the collection with our current generation.

Several weeks ago, I was alone working in one of our historic homes in the park. A group of visitors came and asked about the structure. I retold the history of the building and explained the work I was undertaking toward preparation of a new display. As the group left, one woman remarked, “Thank you for preserving OUR history.”

While my role as collections manager at a museum may seem initially overwhelming, it is tremendously rewarding.