Behind the Scenes at Boonshoft Museum of Discovery

May 19, 2017

The Boonshoft Museum of Discovery, nestled in a beautiful stretch of public parks that mark the confluence of the Stillwater and Great Miami Rivers, is a popular destination for families to learn about science and the natural world. But many Miami Valley residents are unaware that behind the scenes, the museum has an extensive collection of artifacts from around the world. Community Voices producer Renee Wilde takes us there.

It’s 10 am on a Friday morning and the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery is jumping. Over a dozen school buses are lined up outside the building and the parking lot is already filling up with cars full of families here to view the exhibits.

But I'm here for a special behind the scenes tour of the Boonshoft's collections.  The Museum is home to around 1.7 million artifacts, most of which are in storage.  I walk down a long hallway with Liz Fisher, the museum registrar who also works in collections management.  

"We are officially behind the scenes," she says.  

Liz has led me into the heart of the Museum where Curator of Anthropology, Bill Kennedy, explains that stored within these rooms are the origins of the museum.

Traditional garments are included in the Boonshoft's collection like this ghost dancing dress from the U.S. Plains
Credit Renee Wilde / WYSO

"All these collections that we’re seeing today started in 1893," he says.  "We were part of the public library and there was a room on the second floor where people were donating natural and cultural items."

The items were a representation of the travels and tastes of Dayton’s prominent citizens. As Dayton grew, so did the collections, and eventually it became too big for the library to house.

This was something that was about to be lost. And it galvanized community leaders to say this is worth doing," says Bill.

In 1952 the community got together and formed the Dayton Society of Natural History and eventually a permanent home for the collection was built on Ridge Avenue in 1958. Next year the Museum will be celebrating the 125th anniversary of the collections with a special exhibit that highlights five major geographic regions and the donors who collected in those regions.

"Most of our Egyptian came from a single donor," says Bill. "His name was J. Morton Howell. A name that would have been well know in Dayton at the turn of the Century. He also happened to be a friend with President Harding. So Howell was sent to Egypt as our first Ambassador."

The museum collections are kept in climate controlled rooms to preserve the artifacts. There are long rows of vaults that open up to reveal sliding drawers filled with individual artifacts wrapped in archival paper.

Mummified remains are carefully stored behind the scenes at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery
Credit Renee Wilde / WYSO

"So what you’re seeing is some of the items from our small Egyptian collection," says Bill opening one of the drawers. "Which come from ancient Egypt and the drawer we’re looking at has two mummy hands. There’s also some animal mummies in here. This is the mummy of a cat. This is the foot of a mummy."

Bill explains how the Museum’s collection is a microcosm of Dayton’s community, "It’s a cultural institution the community has been involved in since its founding. It’s a collection that really reflects the ethnicity and interests of the community into which it’s embedded."

"Lieutenant Colonel George Gunkel, he collected primarily in the Philippines in the early 1900’s," says Liz Fisher. "He was stationed over there as a dental surgeon post Spanish American war, him and his wife, and while they were over there they collected hundreds of pieces from that culture." 

Pieces like this suit of samurai armor can't be displayed often because exposure to air and light can cause them to degrade.
Credit Renee Wilde / WYSO

Bill shows me a set of samurai armor, "That was donated to us in 1946. So we have the sleeve which is probably one of my favorite parts of the armor just because it’s so intricate. And it has the chain-mail on it with the gold colored hand as well as the different motifs on it. It’s just beautiful I think. It’s just really intricate work."

Bill guesses that less than 5% of the Museum’s collections are currently on display.

"Some objects have never been exhibited, or rarely, like the Samurai Armor because it is very fragile," he says. "Every time you’re putting something on display you’re damaging it. Every minute it’s exposed to UV light, every change in humidity, every change in temperature, is at a very tiny, microscopic level changing the status of that object. So it is not a good idea to keep them on continuous display. Somethings end up that way, like our mummy."

Next year’s Explorers and Egyptian exhibits will bring about 400 objects out of storage and into the public, some for the first time. But the museum also offers private tours of the collections.

"People can reserve through our website, something we charge for of course," says Bill. "But it’s something we customize to the interests of people as best we can. If someone says ‘I want to see what you have from France’, well we have zero from France, and that’s not part of our collecting scope, so that’s going to be a very short tour. [laughs] But I have other things that might be of equal or greater interest."

Culture Couch is made possible through a generous grant from the Ohio Arts Council.