He checks history, and then checks it again

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 29, 2012 - 8:48 AM

Collections manager Dan Cagley conducted an inventory of tobacco bags from the Indian collection in the three-dimensional archives storage area at the Minnesota History Center.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Special To The Star Tribune

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We come upon Dan Cagley perched on a rolling step ladder, peering into a huge, shallow drawer in which several beautifully beaded tobacco pouches lay. With gloved hands, Cagley deftly nudges each document tag to check that its number matches the printout held by a volunteer.

Then he’ll move on to the next drawer, and the next.

Cagley is collections manager at the Minnesota History Center, which means he’s in charge of the 3-D objects, or artifacts, not documents or paintings. Every 10 years, Cagley inventories each item in the collection which, given that there are about 250,000, pretty much means that once he’s done, “it’s time to start over.”

Cagley, who defines geniality, smiles as he says this.

The task, to which he devotes about a day a week, is less about determining whether anything is missing, than confirming that it’s still there. For, as Brian Szott, head of collections, said of the cavernous storage rooms within the center, “this is a very big haystack.”

Cagley has been with the state Historical Society for 14 years. As collections manager, he physically and technologically keeps track of artifacts that include Dakota arrowheads, explorer Ann Bancroft’s Thermos  from her South Pole expedition, a dress made of butter cartons, Civil War flags, Hmong quilts, and tools from the now-closed Ford Assembly Plant.

Say the governor’s office requests a particular historic chair for a function. Cagley locates it, signs it out (after determining security on site), then signs it back into the building.

The same process is used to track a threadbare flag that needs attention in the conservation department, or items assembled for an exhibit.

Far from the perception of the History Center as Minnesota’s attic, he said, “we’re very well documented.”

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