Collecting and preserving Nevada’s past takes more than just a museum.

BY MEGG MUELLER

To unlock the story of the Nevada Historical Society in Reno seems a bit like unfolding an origami swan. The intricacies of the design, the numerous layers and folds, and the amount of effort involved in its creation are just a few of the similarities between that paper masterpiece and this fascinating treasure trove of Nevada’s past. To truly understand just how extensive the collection contained in this unassuming building really is, it’s time to start folding back the layers.

AGED TO PERFECTION

The Nevada Historical Society is the state’s oldest cultural institution. In 1904, Dr. Jeanne Elizabeth Wier almost singlehandedly created the society because she felt it was essential to start gathering Nevada’s relics and culture before they became lost. A history professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, Wier was the executive secretary— now known as the director—of the society until her death in 1950. The society became a state agency in 1907. Wier never received a paycheck for her work with the society, but she spent countless hours tracking down Nevada’s historic relics for preservation. Wier didn’t just collect things, however; she collected the stories of Nevada’s early pioneers and gathered very type of material she could find.

The collection Wier once stored in her Dr. Jeanne Elizabeth Wier home has been located on the university campus since 1911, and its current incarnation was built in 1968, and added to in 1981. Touring the resultant group of buildings is a bit like delving into Mary Poppins’ bag; the rooms seem endless and full of sweet surprises you’d never expect.

MORE THAN A MUSEUM

One of Nevada’s seven state museums, the Nevada Historical Society has amassed a collection of materials that includes more than 500,000 photographs, manuscripts, yearbooks, the state’s newspapers—including the only complete index of the Territorial Enterprise— museum artifacts, ephemera, and more. One room, of no particularly impressive size, contains more than 12,000 cataloged items. Everything from furniture to buttons finds a home at the society or one of its five remote storage locations.

 

Sheryln Hayes-Zorn is the acting director/curator of manuscripts for the society, and for 14 years she’s worked to conserve Nevada’s historical resources. Surpassing her title, her role is part mapmaker, part puzzle maker. The vast collection—much of which predates her employment by decades—has become disconnected. Through the years, groups were often separated and items were cataloged according to type: manuscript, artifact, etc.

“Our collections were disassociated; broken up into pieces,” Sheryln says. “As we reconnect them, we’re creating a map to our history.”

Sheryln’s unbridled zeal for history and the society’s role in curating and sharing it is beyond infectious; it’s inspiring. A tour of the permanent exhibit and sneak peak behind the scenes runs a little more than two hours but it feels like just minutes; around every corner there’s a story about where an artifact came from, or the plans for future exhibitions.

“Less than 2 percent of our collection is able to be displayed,” she says as she looks around the compact yet bountiful exhibits. “There’s so many galleries we could have.”

She estimates the society’s current location will work for the next 10-15 years, but eventually larger quarters will be required to house not only the collections, but also the research library, and of course, the permanent and changing exhibitions.

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NEVADA IN HIGHLIGHTS

For those more into the museum side of the Neva- da Historical Society, the ludicrously low admission of $5 provides a glimpse of Nevada’s American Indian culture—including 10 Datsolalee baskets—mining’s influence around the state, gambling, and how the federal government’s presence shaped the state. One of the newer permanent galleries is the Janice Pine Reno History Gallery, which provides a very intimate look at the Biggest Little City in the World through photographs, gaming instruments, and other artifacts from the area.

One of the museum’s most popular displays, at least with the many schoolchildren who visit, is a two-headed calf, but no less cool is a miner’s bathtub made in the 1870s in Candelaria; a wickiup—a willow-framed house—built by Wuzzie George, a famous Northern Pai- ute; a map of John C. Fremont’s 1842 expedition; a map of the Spanish coast from 1579, written in Latin; and a display of memorabilia from the family of Samuel Clemens.

Not yet in that display of the Clemens’ items is one of Sheryln’s favorite finds. While digging through the multitudinous materials in the society’s backroom, she came across a letter with some other Clemens’ family items. The letter was simply signed, “Mark.” After a lengthy verification process, the letter was determined to have, in fact, been written by Mr. Twain.

FOREVER UNFOLDING THE PAST

Discoveries like the Twain letter are bound to happen when you’re dealing with a 112-year-old collection. Christine Johnson is the curator of artifacts and education for the society, and her job, she says, is basically navigating uncharted territories.

“This field of preserving and documenting what’s historical, and what will be considered historical…this is a field that exists now, where it didn’t when it began,” she explains.

Making sense of the hidden prizes that exist in the society’s cache is something Sheryln and Christine take very seriously. They connect the dots from the artifacts, photos, and manuscripts so that the story of our state’s past is told in rich detail. But that doesn’t mean the job doesn’t come with a little fun, too.

Christine asks if I’d like to hear her favorite story about one the many surprises found in the collection. Her eyes are shining, and Sheryln’s grin tell me I’m in for a treat.

Recently, in the ongoing attempt to organize the room containing the 12,000 collected artifacts, Christine decided to start with what appeared to be a bunch of wooden slats, bundled together that had been around for much longer than anyone there remembers. As they were pieced together, it became clear they were the walls of some kind of bucket. In a nearby box, some metal bands were found that held the bucket together. Slowly, more pieces that belonged with the bucket were found, and in a masterful feat of puzzle making, Christine, the staff, and volunteers found themselves looking at a fully functional ice-cream maker, first built in 1889.

While it’s unlikely they will make dessert with the gorgeous relic, the sweet reward of piecing together history is enough of a treat.

Make Your Own Connections
Nevada Historical Society
1650 N. Virginia St.
Reno, NV 89503
museums.nevadaculture.org
775-688-1190

 

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