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Kimberly Hoffman - Fort Stanwix Internship Blog

Reflecting on the Secret Lives of Objects

I recently learned of an idea in Japanese folklore that objects can take on a life of their own once they reach 100 years of age. As Michael Dylan Foster, professor of folklore at Indiana University Bloomington, writes, “The premise is that, when any normal entity–a person, animal, or object–exists for long enough, a spirit takes up residence within the form” (7). These spirits are known as tsukumogami.

Preservation, Access, and Storytelling

Artifacts found during archeological excavations at Fort Stanwix
Artifacts found during archeological excavations at Fort Stanwix include ceramics, glass, brick, charcoal, and animal bones. (National Park Service photo)

I don’t have any previous knowledge of Japanese folklore. From what I’ve read, I get the impression that the tsukumogami might have a whiff of menace about them. Still, I am drawn to the idea of the secret inner lives of historic objects. As someone studying museums and libraries, I spend a lot of time thinking about objects of one sort or another: how to organize them, how to care for them, how to describe them. The products of our material culture do have a very real power: they tell the stories of our past.

At Fort Stanwix, we work to ensure that the artifacts in our care retain that power of storytelling. We document the archaeological context of the objects. We store the artifacts responsibly and control the environment to maintain their condition. But this preservation is coupled with access. We find new ways to accommodate researchers, such as new organization methods. Social media posts and behind-the-scenes tours reach out to the public. We use the collections to tell the story of Fort Stanwix.

Making the Most of Your Internship

The best thing about being an intern is the freedom to learn. While you are expected to bring your own skills to the table, you are also expected to learn as much as possible during your limited employment. This is your chance to ask all of your questions–not just about your internship, but also about your field and even your colleagues, if they are willing. How did they come to work for this institution? What is their background? I’ve learned so much about the park service, archaeological collections, and the small world of museum workers. This kind of supplemental information is definitely a valuable part of your internship experience.

At the same time, it’s helpful to talk about your own academic and professional goals if you can. Interns often help where needed, which can lead to a certain fluidity in your day-to-day tasks. If your supervisor is aware of your interests, he or she might be able to choose projects that align with them.

What’s Next

Now that my internship is winding down, I would like to compare my experience to how other museum professionals approach their collections. Conferences serve as a concentrated dose of new perspectives, and I hope to attend several in the coming year. I would also like to explore how a library setting impacts historic collection management. I will be taking Management of Special Collections this fall through the iSchool, where I hope to learn more.

During my internship, I have come to learn about how the National Park Service views places and artifacts. The NPS has a strong ethos of stewardship: the resources at any one site belong to the public and to future generations. I’m not sure yet what my next professional move will be. I may work with another archaeological collection, with books, or with something else entirely. No matter what, working in museum and libraries will always require that balance of preservation and access. We choose to maintain objects so that they can continue to tell their stories for years to come. Wherever I go from here, I know that I will carry the ethos of stewardship with me. 

Works Cited

Foster, Michael Dylan. Pandemonium and parade: Japanese monsters and the culture of Yōkai. Berkeley : University of California Press, 2009.

Kim Hoffman

Kim Hoffman

Kim is entering her second year as a Library and Information Science student at the iSchool and Museum Studies M.A. student at VPA. She is also pursuing a Certificate of Advanced Study in Cultural Heritage Preservation. Kim works in the preservation lab at Bird Library and is interested in book and paper conservation. When she’s not in the basement at Bird, you can find her walking her dogs, rock climbing, or crafting.

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