Visitors to our museums have the opportunity to see hundreds of historic objects that help tell hundreds of stories about Colorado’s past, present, and future. But how these objects get collected, organized, interpreted, and ultimately shared is a story that often goes untold.
This year, we posed the question to you: If you could ask a curator anything, what would you ask? What they do day-to-day? How they prepare objects for exhibit? Something else?
Now’s your chance to find out! We're excited to give you a peek at what goes on behind the scenes at our museums across the state.
Our Curator of Archives, Shaun Boyd, answers your questions below.
What did you collect as a child?
I collected books early, and got interested in genealogy (which could be considered collecting relatives in a way). I also had quite the set of stuffed animals.
What item do you value most in your current personal collection?
I have a page from a 1500s Bible in Latin that I found at Goodwill in 2012. It's one of the "begat" pages. “Adam begat Seth,” etc.
What it’s like to be a curator? What does your day-to-day work look like? What’s your favorite part of your job?
I'm fairly new here at History Colorado, so I’m still spending a lot of time learning about the collections. My responsibilities include the archives: books, manuscripts, recordings of oral histories, maps, architectural and technical drawings, and other paper-based stuff. I also research the collections, cataloging them and finding things that would be good for exhibits. My favorite parts of the job (too many to limit to just one!) are solving a mystery in the collections and getting to talk to people about their connections to history.
How does History Colorado assess the authenticity of an object?
Of course, it depends on the object. I have about twenty years of previous experience working with historical objects, especially with paper, so I can sometimes tell right away what the story of an object is. We also use web searches, books, and photographs that would help us determine the history and use of the object. It's important to note that we don't give financial appraisals; as a museum, we think all objects are invaluable.
How does History Colorado ensure items are protected for centuries?
The biggest enemies of our collections are temperature and humidity fluctuations, light damage, physical damage, dirt, dust, and mold. We definitely protect the collections from those. We also provide physical security, limiting access to the rooms where the materials are kept. As we saw with the recent fire at the museum in Brazil, there’s only so much that can be done, but making digital copies of items like photographs and other materials and storing them off site would help with the recovery of the information if the original was lost. It sounds basic, but microfilming and photocopying of the newspapers and manuscripts are also valuable preservation tools.
What’s your favorite object currently on exhibit?
For me personally, John Denver's guitar, which is in Zoom In: The Centennial State in 100 Objects at the History Colorado Center. The object is on loan from Rocky Mountain Merchandise. Growing up, I really loved his music, particularly when he was with the Muppets!
What’s your favorite object currently not on exhibit?
There are some amazing things in the collection that are not part of the current exhibits, some of them extremely important to Colorado history, such as original copies of the Hayden Expedition. The expedition is one of the first government surveys of the territory. I think my favorite so far would be the first set of laws of the Jefferson Territory, which was the first "government" of Colorado. Or the 10th Mountain Division's snow-tank. That one is also really cool.
What’s the strangest object in History Colorado’s collection?
One of my favorite and strangest in the archives collections would be the writings of Baby Doe Tabor in her later years when she was living alone in the Matchless mine. [Editor’s note: Tabor's late writings are the subject of Baby Doe Tabor: The Madwoman in the Cabin by Judy Nolte Temple (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007). They have also been referred to as the "tea leaf readings.”]
What’s the most controversial object in History Colorado’s collection?
We have a variety of uncomfortable items, such as racist depictions of different groups, Klan materials, anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish books. It's important to still keep these types of materials, as they demonstrate the thinking of the times when they were created.
If there was an unexpected catastrophe of some kind, and you could only save one to three items from History Colorado’s collection, what would it/they be?
That also implies that I can carry them. We have an original volume of the Colorado Constitution on display right now from the State Archives, but it's rather large. I would also try to save the flag from the Battle of Glorieta Pass, and the inkwell from the Treaty of Appomattox, which ended the Civil War.
How can someone best store their own family heirlooms?
Keep them dark, dry, cool, and safe from dust and damage—55 to 75 degrees is ideal for most materials, and less than 40% humidity. Make notes for family members about where you acquired the items, and take photos of your collections, storing them outside of your house, possibly with far-flung family members, so they’re safe in the event of an emergency.
What should I do if I have an item I'm interested in donating or selling?
If you’re interested in donating something, call or email the institution ahead of time rather than just showing up with it. They can often tell you right away if they’re interested. For selling, I’d think it would be a similar process—contacting potential buyers (if a storefront) and finding their policies ahead of time.
What's the best advice you'd give to someone aspiring to work as a curator one day?
Be interested in everything! I started working at my local historical society the summer after I graduated from high school, and I continued to piece together jobs for many years while I was in college and graduate school. Along the way, I got interested in women's history, music history, theater history, the history of science, genealogy, and a lot of other topics. Keeping your eyes open for a variety of opportunities is always a must!