Toledo’s Attic grew out of a desire to have an online museum dedicated to the history of Toledo and Northwest Ohio in the twentieth century, particularly the area’s rich industrial history. While the Maumee Valley Historical Society is recognized as the premier source for information on the eighteenth and nineteenth century history of the region, it was felt little had been done to promote the history of the recent past.
The project began in 1995 with the creation of a steering committee dedicated to promoting recent local history. This committee, through a series of discussions with local history and archival specialists, came to the conclusion that a free standing museum dedicated to Toledo’s industrial, social, governmental, and cultural history was beyond the realm of possibility given funding limitations. Instead, the steering committee centered its efforts on creating a virtual museum that would feature exhibits made available via the then-new medium of the World Wide Web.
Dr. Timothy Messer-Kruse, then of the University of Toledo Department of History, began the task of developing the web site with funding provided by the Ohio Humanities Council, the Miniger Foundation, and the Stranahan Foundation. The site was envisioned as a way to display historical photographs, documents, and artifacts with text that would link the items together as full-fledged topical exhibits. The site was officially launched in 1999, and was hosted by the University of Toledo Department of History through funding provided by the university and grants administered by the Maumee Valley Historical Society and the Miniger Foundation. During its existence, the site has been the subject of television and print news coverage due to the unique nature of its exhibits and delivery medium.
By 2003, Dr. Messer-Kruse was no longer able to supervise the web site and the steering committee began looking for alternatives to host the site and manage the context. In 2004, WGTE-TV generously agreed to develop and support a new site for Toledo’s Attic, with the staff of the University of Toledo’s Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections assuming the role of managing the content.
Today, Toledo’s Attic continues to build upon past successes. Thanks to the dedication of the staff who operate it, Toledo’s Attic has become a useful and necessary tool for educating citizens about Toledo's and Northwest Ohio’s rich twentieth-century history in the twenty-first century.
Toledo’s Attic: The Beginnings
Timothy Messer-Kruse, Summer 2022
Toledo’s Attic Virtual Museum sprung from discussions among leaders of Lucas County’s historical preservation community in the mid-1990s. In 1995, Lucas-County Maumee Valley Historical Society, whose uncatalogued collections of local industrial artifacts filled several rooms of a vacant office building downtown, organized a committee to explore establishing a museum of Toledo’s modern history.
Leaders of this early effort included John Squire, president of the LCMVHS, Ernest Weaver, Jr., an emeritus professor engineering at the University of Toledo, Roger Ray, at UT professor of history, Jim Marshall and Irene Martin of the Toledo Public Library, George Jones of the Miniger Foundation, Dale Fallat of the Andersons, and local attorney Carl White. Their vision at the outset was of constructing a Toledo industrial museum in the old steam plant on the Maumee riverfront. Soon the Toledo Blade was pushing the idea from its editorial pages calling on the city to remember “the glory days of our city’s industrial heritage” and describing it as a “thrilling prospect.” (Blade Dec. 28, 1995, p. 14). Mrs. Henry Dodge, whose husband served as CEO of Libbey-Owens-Ford for many years, offered to donate her 1913 Ohio Electric automobile, the only surviving example of a Toledo-built car from that early era, for the museum.
Quickly, the daunting costs of securing a permanent location and a permanent staff were apparent and project organizers realized that the fundraising alone would take the better part of a decade. The idea of displaying some of the historical society’s artifacts and presenting some of Toledo's rich industrial history online was originally thought of as a temporary alternative to a traditional museum, not a replacement of it. However, as the potential of a “virtual museum” came into focus, it began to be thought of as an alternative model for the entire project. Perhaps, most powerful in driving enthusiasm for a virtual museum was the realization that the artifacts and exhibits being planned for the internet (as it was commonly referred to then) could be publicly and physically displayed in temporary locations as well.
Compared to the soaring ambitions to construct a riverfront museum that first brought the project together and for a moment attracted the interest of local corporations and foundations, the funding the materialized was rather modest. The Clement O. Miniger Foundation contributed $14,000 and the Ohio Humanities Council provided a grant of $3,000. UT provided a summer stipend for the project organizer and funds for a graduate assistant to help with digitizing collections.
Toledo’s Attic’s original concept of being a hybrid between virtual and physical spaces when its first exhibit opened in the SeaGate Convention Centre in downtown Toledo in August of 1999. (Blade, June 11, 1999). Subsequent plans for a series of “registration days” when the public would be invited to bring their own historical treasures and have them photographed and cataloged for the website never materialized.
There were many other digital history projects and online museums sprouting up in those days, but few others attempted to combine the virtual and the physical in the way Toledo’s Attic’s organizers did. It soon drew attention from neighboring state historical organizations and from the professional museology and local history associations. Interest in this model of historical preservation probably peaked when the Chicago Tribune sent a staff writer to Toledo to write a feature about it. Noting that the internet was causing a “revolution” in the museum community, the Tribune proclaimed, “In an unlikely setting–the gritty, Rust Belt city of Toledo…one of the major new ‘shots’ in this revolution has been fired.” (Mike Conklin, “Nothing But Net: Museum’s Virtual Reality May Just Be a Life Without Walls,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 13, 2000). Soon after this the Ohio Senate awarded Toledo’s Attic the state’s Ohio Historic Preservation Award.
Toledo’s Attic never quite had the resources to realize its full vision of a hybrid institution, one that combines the virtual with temporary physical exhibits. Nevertheless, such a possibility materialized spectacularly in the spring of 2002 when the Toledo’s Attic project teamed with the Toledo Museum of Art to produce the landmark exhibit, Toledo Designs: The Alliance of Art and Industry for a Modern America. Organized largely by Davira Taragin, a curator at the TMA at the time, Toledo Designs brought together the top specialists in industrial history and design from around the nation to uncover and celebrate Toledo’s central role in shaping the aesthetic of postwar American consumer goods. TMA’s exhibit was praised by critics and proved popular with the public.
Well before Web 2.0 made social media interactivity the standard of online sites, Toledo’s Attic experimented with incorporating public posts into its content, though the technology for doing so quickly exceeded what could be accomplished by a single server in an office of Tucker Hall. For the most part, Toledo’s Attic remained an exhibit platform rather than an interactive one. Through the early 2000s, a stream of new exhibits continued to be debuted, including the first-ever public release of the FBI file of Toledo’s longtime labor boss, Richard Gosser. But by 2005, interest in the website and the project waned as the plan for periodically holding temporary physical exhibitions did not materialize and many of the organizers moved on to other projects. The server itself and all its content moved first from the UT History Department to WGTE and then to the UT Library under the direction of Barbara Floyd where it has been well maintained ever since.
Timothy Messer-Kruse, July 14, 2022
Early History of Toledo's Attic
by Dr. Timothy Messer-Kruse, 1997
What do glass bottles, graffiti, and the jazz pianist Art Tatum all have in common? All were products of Twentieth-Century Toledo.* This autumn, the Lucas County-Maumee Valley Historical Society will launch the first phase of its project to document and exhibit the history of Twentieth-Century Toledo. Going by the name of "Toledo's Attic Virtual Museum," this project focuses on the development of industry, technology, labor, and culture in the city of Toledo. Drawing upon an extensive base of historical information and imagery, drawn from the local history collections of the Toledo Lucas County Library, the University of Toledo Carlson Library, as well as other regional museums and archives, the Toledo's Attic Virtual Museum aims to present a detailed historical portrait of Toledo's modern era through the interactive technology of the World Wide Web.
Such "virtual" museums are becoming more common. Most museums now advertise themselves by placing a selection of their exhibits "on line." These virtual museum sites range from the simple display of hours, fees, and holdings information to vast repositories of historical photographs, galleries, and interpretive exhibits (such as the National Museum of History's site at http://www.si.edu/organiza/museums/nmah/nmah.htm). Some museums have gone beyond merely being repositories to creatively simulating the museum experience itself. New York's Lower East Side Tenement Museum begins with a picture of a tenement and upon "clicking" on a window, the viewer is shown a picture and the story of one of the many families that lived in that room. (http://www.wnet.org/tenement/). The potential of such virtual museums lies in their modularity and their interactivity. They can begin modestly and expand with the collection and historical scope of the exhibits. They also allow for the submission and display of letters, primary historical documents, photographs, oral interviews, and interpretations from the public.
Over the past several months the Toledo's Attic Virtual Museum has received sufficient grants from the Ohio Humanities Council, the C.O. Miniger Foundation, and the University of Toledo to begin initial research and programming this summer. Beginning in June a team of researchers from the University of Toledo's History Department will begin sifting through local archival collections and selecting those images, documents, and artifacts that best represent various landmarks in the city's history. These sources will then be digitized, arranged, and captioned, and loaded onto a computer server that will display them on demand to anyone in the world connected to the internet. Because the internet allows for two-way communication, the Toledo's Attic Virtual Museum will invite its viewers to contribute their suggestions for exhibits, and will incorporate the suggestions and criticisms of the public into its structure over time.
Once its graphical architecture is in place and the initial historical collecting and digitizing has been done, the virtual museum's exhibit and content base will gradually grow with the input and participation of the public. Hopefully, private hobbyists and collectors will be encouraged to share their cherished items electronically in a revolving "exhibit of the month" feature.
Toledo's Attic Virtual Museum will include the following "exhibit halls":
1. A Chronology of Toledo's Industrial Past : An interpretive narrative of Toledo's development as an industrial city and its role in the wider development of specific technologies and productive innovations. This narrative will be illustrated with historical photographs, patent drawings, newspaper clippings, and other primary documents.
2. Today in Toledo's History. Every day a few interesting local events from that day in the past will be recounted. In this way the viewing audience will see something new every time they visit the museum through their computer.
3. Toledo's Attic: An inventory, complete with photographs, of physical artifacts in storage at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library, the Maumee Valley Historical Society, and other archives that may someday become the core of an actual "Museum of Industrial Toledo." Interactive means for the submission of proposed additions to this collection will be provided and the public will be appealed to for the donation of artifacts relevant to this future museum collection.
4. Toledo History Roundtable: An interactive and ongoing discussion open to the entire public (though moderated by scholars) that attempts to answer vexing questions and create a fuller picture of various historical episodes in Toledo's past.
5. Toledo History Links: A directory of listings of other electronic internet resources relevant to Toledo's past.
6. Bibliography of Toledo Industrial History: A listing of resources relating to Toledo's industrial history, including many full text documents and manuscripts.
These are just a few of the features planned for Toledo's Attic Virtual Museum. We are kicking around other ideas, such as a "Then and Now" exhibit that will present a photograph of some local landmark in the past that will slowly dissolve into a recent photograph of the same site from the same angle. We hope to involve local schools in the museum by providing a forum for the display of student work on local historical topics, from essays to, perhaps, oral interviews with their elders. Hopefully, the seed planted this summer will continue to grow with public input and become a useful community resource.
After Labor Day, 1997, point your browser to http://www.history.utoledo.edu/attic to check out our museum.