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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