What became of Traverse City’s 10,000-item historical collection?

For nearly a decade, the Con Foster Collection — the 10,000-item collection of objects from Traverse City’s history — has been locked behind the closed doors of a handful of storage rooms in the area. And two and a half years after officials last said they were determined to settle the collection’s future or possibly find a permanent home for it, are we any closer to that reality?

The collection was founded in the mid-1930s by Con Foster, a Traverse City resident who traveled the Midwest acquiring items focusing on Native American and pioneer relics. Foster commissioned the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to build a museum in Clinch Park to display the items (this building is now the Bijou by the Bay Theater).

The original collection began with Foster’s artifacts and was said to have been inspired by Foster’s association with PT Barnum in the 1910s. But over the years, it continued to grow as bits and pieces of Traverse City’s history accumulated around the original items. City founder Perry Hannah’s stovepipe hat, a variety of antique firearms, and an old WTCM neon sign are often cited as some of the most well-known items in the collection, but they haven’t been seen in years since the History Center closed its premises in the Carnegie Building in the Year 2014.

Penny Hill assumed her role as Assistant City Manager in 2014 and has been the contact for the collection for about as long as she has been homeless.

“It’s in a good area for storage — it’s secure, there’s fire suppression and environmental controls and everything,” she says. Even though it’s under lock and key, don’t think you can ask nicely and take a peek at the collection. “Every now and then we get a request, but we haven’t allowed anyone access.”

The first step in bringing the collection back to the public began with making sure some of the items were returned to where they really belonged: members of Native American tribes across the country.

As part of the process of complying with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a website for the collection “was set up for the purpose of expediting consultation with the Native American tribes,” Hill says, which she says has been in place for about four years years. It is a private, invitation-only site and represents only the Native American portion of the collection.

“If various tribal representatives wanted to see Native American items that may be subject to NAGPRA, they contact me and I will give them access to a collection and then they can comment on the items,” according to a 2015 report by consultants for the city, contained “human remains representing two persons” at the time.

When the site launched, Hill said it reached all tribes in the US through the mail, and while this version of the online collection hasn’t seen much use lately, there was a lot of interest initially. “In the beginning we had quite a lot [requests to view]and I’d say I’ve only had one request in the last two years,” says Hill.

A new contractor was recently hired by the city to complete a full inventory and condition assessment of all items in the collection. This project has just begun, which Hill says will be “a process that will take at least two years,” after which the City Commission will decide what next steps to take.

“It’s a long process. Every article has to be looked at, all the documentation found, entered into the database, photos taken and so on,” says Hill. This detailed process is why requests to view the collection are now denied: to ensure that no part of the collection is moved or disorganized during inventory.

As for a future virtual or physical museum, “that will probably be much further in the future. It will be part of a larger discussion once the inventory project is complete. The city commission will have [to have] a discussion about the future of the museum: whether or not there should be a physical museum, whether or not there should be a virtual museum,” says Hill.

“But until the inventory project is complete, it is difficult to have this discussion as our database is only partially complete. So we want to make sure that the city government knows exactly what is there.” And whenever this discussion takes place, the collection needs to be brought into line with existing policy and the mission statement of the museum, which was founded in 1984.