The Passion Profiles are explorations of passionate people and the work they love. Today I explore the world of Mark Tolonen, Museum Curator by spending a day with him and his co-workers.
It’s 6:30 a.m. and we have already started the hour-long commute up Highway 99W from Eugene to Philomath, Oregon. Sitting in the passenger seat of the small SUV, I look out the window. A dense fog envelops most of the farmland around us, but Mark could do this drive with his eyes closed. He has traveled this route every weekday for the past eight years.
Grateful Dead and Phish tunes play through the satellite radio as he describes the history behind what we are seeing –or aren’t seeing through the fog –and how he got interested in history in the first place.
“My dad was over-burdened by the stress of his work,” Mark says.
“My parents told me ‘do what you enjoy.’”
He takes a sip of coffee from his travel mug, and rubs his graying beard.
Mark credits a really good American History teacher in eleventh grade for sparking his interest in history. For a class project, he volunteered with the Darien (Connecticut) Historical Society, and has been with historical societies ever since.
The downside of working at his dream job? The commute. “I have two and half hours a day where I’m not supporting my family.” He notes that it is hard on his wife to always have to be the available parent during the morning and after-school times.
Yet, the commute is also something that has given him pleasure over the years. He’d much rather talk about it than himself. He points out a wildlife refuge as we drive alongside a marshy field, and tells me about the swans and white egrets he sees there during migration season.
He knows the history of this drive. He has a whole folder dedicated to it, the commute files, full of maps and photocopies. “It’s given [my family] a sense of place. It’s important to me.”
We continue down the country road that lines up almost perfectly with the original Oregon Trail. He shows me this on a map made by historian and journalist Mae Dasch, the trail drawn in black overlaid on the current routes in red.
“There was a little store here,” he says, gesturing to a stretch of greening farmland; the fog now lifting with the rising sun.
“The history of this spot is so great. It was bumper to bumper traffic from here to California, clouds of dust, desperate and dirty men going to find their fortunes.”
He tells me about the little store that was set up for travelers, and the owner that sold mostly alcohol. “He went up to Corvallis and paid thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents to run that store there in 1840-something.”
The hour passes quickly and we are soon in the quiet little town of Philomath, Oregon, parked in front of a storefront.
“We need donuts,” Mark says.
The Cold Hard Artifacts
We drive half a mile further up the road to the Benton County Historical Society, and head into the offices and storage facility, a large modern warehouse beside the museum. The museum itself is a stately brick building, built in 1867 as Philomath College.
We share the donuts and coffee with Mark’s co-worker, Mary Gallagher, Collections Manager, or as Mark describes it, “She puts the stuff away and I take it back out.” He later lets me in on just how much is involved in putting the stuff away.
Mark cuts the donuts into quarters and places them on a plate in the middle of the kitchen table. We munch and sip freshly brewed coffee as they discuss a recent discovery of Mary’s –a trunk that was said to have been from the Battle of Gettysburg. They hadn’t found any documentation to support this.
“Yesterday I noticed something I’d never seen before,” Mary says. “A faint penciled name on the inside cover, Harry Sargent.” She looked up the name and found an H. Sargent that did fight in the Battle of Gettysburg, a possible confirmation of the trunk’s origin.
I look at the almost invisible penciling of the name on the worn trunk, and wonder how she even noticed it. I can feel the thrill that the discovery must have brought.
After breakfast, it’s back to work. For Mary that means cataloguing and storing the artifacts. Most are donated by people from the surrounding towns. A large portion was donated in 2008 by Oregon State University in nearby Corvallis after its Horner Museum closed.
The process of packing up the Horner Collection was what first interested volunteer Martha Fraundorf in museum work. She is a retired economics professor.
“I learned that the Horner Museum, the year I was retiring, was looking for people to help pack up the collection,” she says. “I thought that sounded like something fun to do. I didn’t want to be bored sitting around the house.” Martha continued to work with the museum on the other end when the objects arrived, unpacking them.
Mary and other volunteers are still working on this process eight years later. Each of the 60,000 items must be unpacked, catalogued in the database, and properly repacked for storage.
Mark takes me into another room and shows me the shelves of packing supplies. There are rows of acid-free cardboard used to make custom boxes, and other bits of archival materials. Another shelf has what looks like a stack of tube socks –cheese cloth stuffed with ultra-soft insulation.
Packing an antique woman’s hat, for instance, involves placing one tube sock inside the hat, and another few curved around it, all in its own custom-made box. A photo of the hat is placed on the box, and it is entered into the database. The boxed hat then gets put onto a compact storage shelf in the warehouse, where it will sit until it is needed for an exhibit.
“Conservators are the real scientists,”Mark says.
“They dictate how we do things, how things are stored. When the train goes by, how its vibrations affect a porcelain cup. What things can’t be stored near each other because their materials cause chemical reactions.”
I meet one of these conservators, Tom Fuller contracted by the museum, in the afternoon. I pop my head into the taxidermy room to chat with him and peek at his latest restoration project. The room is lined with shelves of stuffed birds –owls, hawks, a large penguin. A cougar stalks the lower shelf beside a mammoth’s hip bone.
His current restoration project, Bruce the moose, takes up most of the room. Bruce stands back-to, with a spotlight illuminating worn patches of fur and places that need re-stitching. A mascot of sorts for the museum, he is at least a hundred years old. His restoration process will take several months. Tom has been working on the moose’s ear alone for weeks.
After leaving Bruce and Tom, I meet Jenna Proctor, an intern from OSU, back out in the main office that serves as the packing/unpacking area. She shares the story behind a Civil War sword that she is cataloguing. She carefully handles the sword, wearing the required white gloves so that the oils from her hands don’t cause damage, and describes the symbolism behind the intricate etchings on its blade. Her voice is animated as she points out the rare image of the double crossed swords at the blade’s base. She knows it was an officer who owned this type of sword. The officer died in battle, and a fellow soldier brought the sword back home to the fallen soldier’s family.
“Every artifact has a story to tell,” Jenna says. “It’s like a mystery.”
The Big Picture
As the exhibitions curator, it is Mark’s job to sort through the artifacts to shape a bigger story that will be the next exhibit.
He recruited Martha to help him with this. They hunt down items that fit an upcoming exhibit’s selected theme. This is done either by searching through the database, or going into the warehouse and browsing.
“Her and I call it going shopping,” Mark says. He takes me into the collections, stored in a temperature-controlled warehouse.
The first thing you see when you walk into the enormous room is what won’t fit on the shelves. There’s a 1914 Buick and 1936 Chevrolet, a few horse-drawn buggies, and a wooden canoe, carved from a single log of Douglas fir. Behind that are rows of shelves reaching almost to the ceiling.
Mark leaves me with the artifacts while he finishes up some work. I wander down the aisles, snapping photos of whatever interests me, Corvallis’s first ATM machine, a shelf of old typewriters, another with gas masks from one of the world wars. I notice some artful pairings of objects, like a green trunk stood up on its side, beside an old diving mask. A woven straw parasol leans up against them. I can see how easy it is to get lost in this room; all of the stories that sit on these shelves, just waiting to be told.
Something Kind of Magnificent
I ask Mark about the hard parts or the challenges of his job on our drive home, and he seems hard pressed to come up with any.
“Well, there are the fun challenges –an object I need to display to the best of museum standards and it won’t fit.” He stops to point out the snowy Sisters Mountains in the distance, and then he’s back on the things he finds interesting about his job.
“[The exhibitions] upstairs are always great, always something new. We do a lot of quilt shows. It’s such a great room, with great lighting that hits the stitching so you can really see it pop. Something as boring as a quilt, it can become something kind of magnificent.”
We stop at a farm to get some fresh eggs and chat with the farmer he is on a first-name basis with. When we get back in the car, the interview portion of our conversation winds down, but he adds one final thought:
“I think this whole business runs on passionate people” he says.
“It’s contagious. It’s the passion that gets all the volunteers to show up, give us their time, their money, their expertise, and they keep coming back year after year.”
Or as Martha simply puts it, “Good people, interesting people, what more could you ask for.”
Reflecting on my day with Mark, a theme emerges –constant curiosity. It is present from the time he leaves his house in the morning till he goes to bed at night. It is what keeps his long commute engaging year after year.
I see constant curiosity in Jenna, the intern, as she eagerly jumps into telling me the story of the Civil War sword. When I tell Mark about meeting her, he says, “She lit up, didn’t she?” Constant curiosity is a part of lunchtime conversation around the museum’s kitchen table, as volunteers and staff debate the differences between amoeba and bacteria, or share information about a campaign for bringing run-off voting to the state.
All of these people love to learn. Of course a museum is a place where people go to learn, but even behind the scenes, a sense of curiosity and discovery permeates the climate-controlled atmosphere. That’s what keeps them coming back day after day, year after year. That’s what is behind their passion.