So why is the MHS photo purge a story?
It is history in its own right.
It is also emblematic of how history is made.
Third, you voted it so. My Execution Artifacts Report, “A Veiled Cabinet of Curiosities: A preliminary report on Minnesota’s 1862 gallows artifacts,” is one of the most-visited sources on this site. In less than ten months, it has been cited in five print and media articles and one forthcoming book.
The turning point in that story was an Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) employee, Ben Gessner’s, discovery of a photo that MHS believed was lost in the photo purge. Tim Krohn of the Mankato Free Press summarized in a February 10, 2013 article:
“Early last year, Potter [Director of the Blue Earth County Historical Society] said the timber in her collection could not be from the gallows and instead was likely a beam from a military bridge. She said the timber was not the same one that had been held for years by the University of Minnesota.
But in April of last year Potter confirmed the timber was in fact the same one that had been at the university. The turnaround came after a photograph taken of the timber at the university — thought lost — was found in files at the Minnesota Historical Society. The timber in the photo matches the one now in Mankato.”
How Did MHS Lose the Photo?
The email explaining the MHS photo purge came to my attention in August, 2012 about four months after I published my report. Watch what happens when I lay the chronology in the email on top of the story of the missing photo.
Roll back the clock one year to One Noose, Two Beams: Same Story. On February 10, 2012, the Blue Earth County Historical Society in Mankato, Minnesota, went public with a startling revelation: the huge timber in their storeroom they had previously exhibited as a beam from the 1862 scaffold, and, acting on the advice of the Minnesota Historical Society, were sheltering from non-Dakota researchers as a NAGPRA-protected native funerary object, was not a beam from the gallows after all.
The turn-around did not seem logical to me. In my files I had a copy of a 2004 letter from James Lundgren, then-Director of the Blue Earth County Historical Society, addressed to historian Walt Bachman affirming that the beam in storage at BECHS matched a photo of the beam in the Minnesota Historical Society Visual Resources Database (VRD). Bachman had also given me a copy of the beam image printed off the MHS site bearing a VRD copyright date of 1999.
But the photo of the beam vanished from the VRD sometime after James Lundgren viewed it in August 2004. When had MHS removed the image? Why?
On March 28, 2012, I met with Ben Gessner, MHS Collections Assistant and NAGPRA compliance officer, and mentioned that I had a photo I wanted to show him. We opened our files. I had something he’d never seen: the 1999 VRD image of the beam. And he had something I’d never seen: this photo, from which the VRD image had been cropped:
I asked: Why isn’t the photo currently in the VRD?
Gessner said he didn’t know. He found his copy in MHS’s research file on a related 1862 artifact, the Arnold noose. Then Gessner made an educated guess: Maybe as a copy, the photo had been removed when MHS weeded its photo collection?
His hypothesis was consistent with my understanding of the photo purge and I included that idea in my report.
Next, Bruce White shared the 2001 MHS email dating the initial photo weeding-discussions to 1997, a process that was referred to in the past tense by the time the memo was written in 2001. That made sense given MHS’s stated purpose: to clean up its photo collection prior to the launch of the on-line VRD.
So the new twist in the story of the lost photo of the beam is that the image actually survived the infamous photo purge, and had been included in the 1999 edition of the VRD. The image was available on line for viewing on the MHS website at least until August 2004.
Then what happened? Ben’s uncropped photo contained two clues: a reference to the University of Minnesota and another to the Stearns County History Museum. Was there any chance MHS, sometime after 2004, had returned the photo to it’s source? I checked. Neither institution has a copy of the photo.
So what happened to the MHS image of the beam labeled as being from the 1862 scaffold–an identity BECHS now proposes is a century-old hoax?
A paper copy of a photo might go missing if it was misfiled. But I think the only way a digital image vanishes is when someone who has access to the system pushes a delete button, then executes a second command confirming the decision to delete.
To whose benefit?