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Collector versus curator, or why museums don’t always want automotive donations

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Photos by Mark McCourt

Collector: A person who accumulates a number of similar or related objects, particularly for a hobby or recreation.

Curator: A person who manages, administers, or organizes a collection, either independently, or employed by a museum, library, archive, or zoo.

Above are two 1933 Ford station wagons. Which would you say is the “museum quality” car? Would you be surprised to learn that it is more likely to be the one on the right?

A little over a year ago, we encountered a 1940 Ford cutaway chassis that was featured on The Jalopy Journal blog. Beautifully refinished, it was later displayed at the 2015 Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, California. The known history of the cutaway goes back to the mid-1950s, but nobody knew definitively who created it or why. Many of the comments to the blog post expressed surprise and frustration that it took a private collector to acquire and display such a neat item, as nationally renowned museum The Henry Ford declined the opportunity to own it.

We turned to Derek E. Moore, curator of transportation at the Frederick C. and Kathleen S. Crawford Auto Aviation Museum at the Western Reserve Historical Society, to see why. Keep in mind that Derek can only speak for himself, and not for The Henry Ford, or other prominent institutions like the AACA Museum, or the Mullin Museum, or the Petersen, each of which may have a significantly different take on the reasons for accessioning a new piece.

Derek was quick to note that the Ford cutaway “is a cool piece,” but he couldn’t make a case for including it in his museum “without knowing what it is.” He went on to identify three factors he considers when evaluating a potential acquisition: compatibility with the museum’s mission, historical provenance and originality.

1940 Ford chassis

Photo by Tom Davison, courtesy The Jalopy Journal

“If that chassis were presented to me, I would have to evaluate if it fit the mission of the museum,” Derek said. “In a museum, we collect artifacts that are relevant to the mission and aid in telling the stories that fit that mission.”

The Crawford, which was created by the donation of the Thompson Auto Album to the Western Reserve Historical Society, has dual missions stemming from that parentage. From the Thompson Auto Album comes a mission to document the technological development of the auto and aviation industries as a whole. From the Western Reserve Historical Society comes the goal of telling the story of Northeast Ohio.

While obviously the Michigan-based Ford Motor Company doesn’t play to the Northeast Ohio connection, nor does the speculation that the cutaway was built for display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, there is a slight case for inclusion of a flathead V-8 in the museum’s collection.

Derek says that the Ford V-8 was a significant technological change in the auto industry, but that alone isn’t enough to make the case for the cutaway. This is where provenance comes in.

“I don’t think I could make a strong case for it to be in the collection without a strong history,” explains Derek, “What keeps someone from creating the same cutaway tomorrow and displaying it? A known history gives the artifact its meaning and its place in a story.”

Finally, the fact that the cutaway was restored actually detracts from its potential value to Derek.

“Anytime something is restored most, if not all, of the historic information is lost,” he says. “As a museum curator, I would prefer to have un-restored objects rather than carefully restored examples. The un-restored artifact tells the true, deeper story.”

Derek notes that his attitude reflects of a greater trend in transportation museums. “Can you tell I am trying to change the idea of auto museums in my career? Fortunately, many automotive museums are making the change of ideal from displaying over-restored vehicles to un-restored or more authentically restored examples. I have a huge problem when people advertise ‘museum-quality’ cars, because they are often over-restored cars that are not even close to what the cars were when they left the factory.

“As museums, we need to be displaying authentic artifacts, not modern interpretations of how cars looked 100 years ago. We need to be better stewards of history than that. [Even] ‘Concours’ often equates to over-restored high-value vehicles that use modern paints and finishes to win the trophies. ‘Museum-quality’ cars are often just over-restored everyday cars with modern paints and finishes, i.e., chrome instead of nickel, etc. Many of the current terms in the collector-car hobby/business need better definitions.”

So the next time you are inclined to be critical of a museum that declines to acquire a cool artifact, consider the three factors at play. If an item doesn’t fit with a museum’s mission, lacks a known history, or was significantly modified from its original state, it may still be worthy of collection and preservation, and is certainly to be cherished, but may not be a good candidate for museum display. After all, museums, especially those run not-for-profit, have only finite resources to expend on cataloging, storing, preserving and investigating their collections.