Mower County Historical Society to return exhibit

Published 12:33 pm Thursday, October 24, 2013

AUSTIN — The Mower County Historical Society is bidding farewell to one of its largest single donations.

After more than 40 years, the society will give the Herald J. Williams American Indian Collection back to Williams’ family as part of its deaccessioning process — an ongoing project to remove items from the society’s collection to free up space.

“We have come to a point where it just doesn’t fit our collecting focus any longer,” Executive Director Dustin Heckman told the county board Tuesday. “And we need to repurpose some space for collection storage.”

Email newsletter signup

The Williams exhibit was held on contract with the county, so the board had to approve its removal from the historical society, which it did with a unanimous vote Tuesday.

The collection was donated to Mower County in 1969 for an exhibit at the fairgrounds and consists of arrowheads and other American Indian artifacts, as well as an extensive rock and mineral collection. At Heckman’s estimate of 1,500 to 3,000 items, it’s one of the largest single collections ever donated to the historical society.

A building was erected to house the collection with the stipulation that the collection would be returned to the family if the county and historical society no longer wanted to display it, according to Williams’ contract with the county.

“We’re grateful to the family for allowing us to have this for over 40 years,” Heckman said.

Heckman said the decision to remove the items was not an easy one, but he added the society needs to focus more on Mower County items. Many of the items in the collection are not from Mower County, as they’re from all over the U.S., Mexico and even Asia, which is a key reason the items are being removed.

“We feel we should not continue to hold it in a place where we could put Mower County-related collection items,” Heckman said.

Heckman said most other artifacts the society is parting with will not be returned to their donor families.

A key reason for the deaccessioning is space, and historical society officials plan to remodel the building to create space for collections storage. The historical society doesn’t have enough space to store collections not on display, which has led to entire buildings being closed off to the public that would normally not be closed.

“In a perfect world, we’d love to build a new structure for collections storage, but right now that isn’t feasible, so we have to make the best of our current situations,” Heckman said in a press release.

At Tuesday’s county board meeting, Sue Miller was on hand to represent the Williams family, which is taking back the collection. However, Miller and the family does not have a timetable for removing the items, as she said it will be challenging as she’s the only family member still living in Austin — four live in Minnesota.

“It’s a lot of work, plus we have nine people that have to agree what we’re going to do with it,” Miller told the board. “It’s not going to be a couple of weeks.”

Commissioner Tim Gabrielson, who remembered seeing the exhibit when he was a Cub Scout, urged the county to be flexible in giving the family time to plan what to do with the collection.

“I appreciate having it for all those years,” he said.

Heckman offered assistance to the family to tell them how the items would best be preserved.

The historical society held meetings on the deaccessioning last fall, but few people attended. The process will continue for several years. Even with the deaccessioning, Heckman said the historical society is still accepting donations.

“We won’t stop collecting because history does not stop happening,” he said in a release. “We have a more scrutinized process for taking items than in the past because of the lack of space and the ability to take care of items.”