Department of Natural Resources cares for Michigan's cultural resources

Most of the DNR’s cultural resources are managed and stored at facilities in Lansing, including the Michigan Library and Historical Center building that also houses the Michigan History Museum and Archives of Michigan.

(Left) Reorganization has many benefits. In this aisle, staff can easily locate pink dresses for a springtime exhibit change; (Center) Every tenth unit in the shelving is static, meaning it doesn’t move along the track. This allows storage of more fragile items which may rattle when moved, like historic radio speakers and radio tubes; (Right) Adjustable shelving allows for perfect customization in storage. While top hats can be safely stored in larger boxes, delicate straw hats are best stored on open shelves customized to their needed height and protected from dust with a muslin cloth cover.
(Photos courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

By Heather Locke

Michigan Department of Natural Resources

With summer here, many Michiganders are enjoying being outside in the warm weather.

Camping, fishing, gardening, swimming – no matter your weekend adventure style, things likely come to mind immediately to help prepare you for what you might need to do those things you love.

What do you need for that July picnic? A picnic basket, of course. A blanket to sit on. Your grandma’s famous macaroni salad (you still have her handwritten recipe card to whip that up). What else?

The things you added to your list, from the recipe card to the clothes you wear, are all part of what historians refer to as “material culture.”

Material culture is the tangible remains of the past, the “stuff” of history. These objects, when combined with other source materials like documents and photos, help historians piece together moments in time and learn about the people who lived them.

Cultural resources go hand-in-hand with their environment to paint a more complete picture of the past.

Because of the importance of this interwoven relationship, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources protects and preserves cultural resources and the environment they exist within.

Our mission at the DNR is to conserve, protect, manage, use and enjoy the state's natural and cultural resources for current and future generations.

—How is it done?

The Michigan History Center is responsible for the care of the state’s cultural resources.

Archivists diligently preserve records and documentation from counties around the state, and museum historians and curators develop exhibits and programs at each of our 12 Michigan History Museum sites to share our state’s rich history and culture with the public.

Behind the scenes, the museum’s collections team preserves and protects roughly 130,000 artifacts on behalf of the people of Michigan.

We are entrusted to preserve those pieces of tangible history using museum industry best practices, which includes labelling and cataloging their location and condition and maintaining the proper environment to limit damage and deterioration.

We also manage the artifacts on display in historic buildings at a few DNR parks, including Fort Wilkins Historic State Park in Copper Harbor in Keweenaw County and Fayette Historic State Park on the Garden Peninsula in Delta County.

Since few of the buildings have heat or air conditioning, and we are unable to control temperature and humidity fluctuations, museum staffers remove artifacts over the winter to avoid damage from rapid environmental changes or pest infestations. Artifacts are returned each spring before the buildings open for the season.

In addition, we deep clean all exhibits seasonally and document artifact conditions to track any changes. In many places, including the Michigan History Museum in Lansing, we monitor artifacts for light damage and any unauthorized handling.

But like any museum, only a portion of our collections can be exhibited at a given time. Until then, artifacts are safely tucked away in storage until they can tell their stories in future exhibits.

—Where does it all go?

Michigan is a big state with 83 counties and over 96,000 square miles – that’s a lot of space for a lot of history! However, our storage space at the Michigan History Center is limited, requiring some imaginative ingenuity to safely store our state’s artifacts.

In 2019, the center received federal grant funding to upgrade our shelving in our Lansing storage facility.

Over the years, staff added storage space to the facility by cleverly adapting shelving from several sources. Old library shelving was used to house boxes of shoes and hats or modified to hold hanging clothes. Supermarket gondola shelving was used for agricultural tools and long saws. Over time, these shelves became overcrowded as our collection grew.

Grant funding enabled us to replace shelving in a space 24 feet wide by 220 feet long with SpaceSaver high-density mobile shelving. Often called “compactor storage,” the SpaceSaver system utilizes a track along the floor that the shelving can glide along, allowing aisles to “open” to provide access to different rows while maximizing the space.

My collections colleagues and I spent 2019 relocating approximately 8,000 artifacts to temporary storage. In early 2020, the mismatched shelving was removed, and the new product was being delivered.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, temporarily halting the project.

In early 2021, contractors were able to complete installation of the new system. Where once stood 21 rows of 6-foot-tall shelves now stand 89 rows of 12-foot-tall mobile shelving.

The system allows for easily adjustable shelves, making it easier to accommodate various-sized pieces and boxes. The new shelves are also twice the height of the former ones.

As a result, the artifacts that had filled the previous shelves to capacity now take up only one-quarter of the new shelving.

—What does this mean?

The first artifacts relocated to the new system were those in our historic clothing collection. This involved carefully moving and inventorying each item. We also reorganized the storage system to house clothing by decade.

This reorganization allows us to see what items we have and identify what is missing. For example, we now can see that we have more than 70 white blouses from 1900 to 1919 but the museum is missing a wide variety of skirts from the same period. Identifying areas of excess – and lack – allows us to better curate what we accept into the collection.

In addition to the clothing collection, which includes hanging pieces and boxed pieces that may be too heavy or delicate to hang, this new shelving will soon be home to many other collections.

Historic radios, computers, televisions, typewriters and office supplies are currently being relocated, reorganized and photographed. Housewares will follow next, as will musical instruments, holiday decorations, souvenirs, packaging and public safety items.

By relocating each of these collections, we will be able to reorganize and decompress the currently crowded shelves and better care for individual items. It will also leave space for new additions to the collection.

The DNR’s Michigan History Center collects, preserves and protects Michigan’s cultural resources – including the material culture artifacts that tell our state’s stories.

If you have an item to donate that tells your Michigan story, visit our Michigan History Center website to learn more or email the collections team at
Heather Locke is the Collections Curator at the Michigan History Center.