Featured Member: Ben Gessner from the Minnesota Historical Society

As members of the Connecting to Collections Online Community, we share a passion for protecting the objects that help tell the stories of our diverse culture. The Featured Members series calls upon you, the member, to share your own story as a collections professional or enthusiast. First up in this rotating series is Ben. 

Name: Ben Gessner (gessnerbs)
Title/Role: Collections Associate, American Indian and Fine Arts Collections
Institution: Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS)
Location: Saint Paul, Minnesota

In 2013, MNHS Collections staff accompanied about a dozen pieces of Dakota material culture to the Santee Sioux Reservation, home of the Santee Sioux Nation of Nebraska. In this photo, elder Melvin Houston is explaining archaeological and sacred sites at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers.

In 2013, MNHS Collections staff accompanied about a dozen pieces of Dakota material culture to the Santee Sioux Reservation, home of the Santee Sioux Nation of Nebraska. In this photo, elder Melvin Houston is explaining archaeological and sacred sites.

Can you please tell us a little about your institution (what is its mission, audience, staff size)?
My job is housed in a modest sized department in a very large organization. Our primary goal is to collect and document human life in Minnesota and make these materials easily accessible to our audiences here in Minnesota, and beyond.

How would you explain your collections to someone who has never seen them before?
The MNHS Collections are home to over 250,000 pieces of material culture in our historical artifact collection. Additionally, we have millions of pieces of archaeology, millions of photographs (including vast archives of newspaper negatives, historic daguerreotype, tintypes and carte-de-visits, and fine art prints). We also have immense newspaper, oral history, government records, and manuscript and library holdings.

I work most closely with our American Indian material culture (roughly 5,000 artifacts) and our Fine Art collections (roughly 6000 items).

In 2012, MNHS Collections staff hosted a digitization workshop at the Legacy of Survival event in Flandreau, SD. This event celebrated the strength and resilience of Dakota culture, and culminated in a march back into Minnesota, the ancestral homeland of Dakota people, who were removed by force after the US-Dakota War of 1862.

In 2012, MNHS Collections staff hosted a digitization workshop at the Legacy of Survival event in Flandreau, SD. This event celebrated the strength and resilience of Dakota culture, and culminated in a march back into Minnesota, the ancestral homeland of Dakota people, who were removed by force after the US-Dakota War of 1862.

Briefly describe the type of work you do at your institution and what aspect of your job you enjoy most.
My current areas of interest and passion are repatriation, collections digitization of American Indian material culture (to achieve better transparency with communities), and the development of culturally-specific care plans for these materials. Over the course of the last two years, I have initiated numerous collections-based outreach projects in Dakota communities in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, which have included bringing historical material culture to communities, as well as hosting workshops for community members to digitize family photographs and documents and conduct genealogical research.

What’s one of your favorite objects in the collections and why?
I’ll share two – the first is not an object, but one of my favorite tools in increasing the accessibility and the sharing of authority in the interpretation of our collections. Our online database utilizes a free tool called WOTR (Write On The Record), which lets researchers add comments to the online records. This interaction with knowledgeable community insiders only strengthens our understanding of these cultural items.

Quillwork cuff created in 2012 - 2013 by Dallas Goldtooth, a Dakota quillwork artist.

Quillwork cuff created in 2012-2013 by Dallas Goldtooth, a Dakota quillwork artist.

One of my favorite collections pieces is a (porcupine) quillwork cuff made by contemporary Dakota artist Dallas Goldtooth (image included). Unique to North America, porcupine quillwork is an art form used by Indigenous peoples that traditionally resided in the porcupine’s natural habitat—from coast to coast in the northern United States and Canada. Prior to the introduction of glass beads of European manufacture, quillwork was the primary decorative element on rawhide and tanned hide items—clothing and pipe bags, for example. In this piece, artist Dallas Goldtooth blends traditional techniques with a unique and contemporary personal style. The cuff consists of 7 horizontal bands of multicolored quills with white quills woven horizontally (a process known as “blind imbrication”) between the vertical colored quills.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in caring for your institution’s collections?
I think that as true stewards of collections, we need to understand that “care” should be defined in a number of ways. For many Native Americans, collections ‘objects’ are not simply objects—they are imbued with life and are oftentimes even considered ancestors themselves. The responsibility to facilitate culturally-specific care (the “feeding” of objects through the burning of plant materials and other offerings, the production of special coverings of items while not in use, handling restrictions placed on certain items, etc), is becoming better integrated with what we understand to be our professional standards and practices of care.

MNHS Collections staff member Ben Gessner viewing a doll made by Berniece Taylor, mother of Amanda Taylor (at center) and grandmother to Amanda’s daughter Dawn (at right). Berniece was a well-known doll maker in her community.

MNHS Collections staff member Ben Gessner viewing a doll made by Berniece Taylor, mother of Amanda Taylor (at center) and grandmother to Amanda’s daughter Dawn (at right). Berniece was a well-known doll maker in her community.

What’s something new you’ve learned or a tool or trick that has made your work more successful?
A Dakota friend of mine has used a phrase to describe working with people from various agencies, organizations, and museums: Noge sni means to have no ears (as in people who are unable to listen). Listening to what it is that communities are actually interested in has allowed for opportunities to align our institution’s goals with theirs. In the case of Dakota communities, it has not only opened up conversations about repatriation and culturally-specific care of objects considered to be sacred, but allowed for opportunities to hear criticisms and find out what it is that the community members value about what we do.

What resource (link, book, video, etc.) do you find yourself turning to over and over?

A few recent resources I’ve been using have been:

If you could add any one object—real or imagined—to your institution’s collections what would it be and why?
If I could find some connection between Minnesota and one of contemporary Diné (Navajo) weaver Melissa Cody’s pieces, it’d make my day. (One of our criteria for collecting of course being documenting life in Minnesota).

Thank you Ben for taking the time to share.
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