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Historical group curator keeps hands on the past

By Ron Wilkins

Journal & Courier

Published: Thursday, Feb. 23 2012 7:46 a.m. MST

ADVANCE FOR SATURDAY FEB. 25 AND THEREAFTER - In a Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2011 photo, John Harris, former director of the Tippecanoe County Historical Association, shows a cannon ball thought to be from the Revolutionary War era at the Tippecanoe County Historical Association in Lafayette, Ind. (AP Photo/Journal & Courier, Michael Heinz)

The Journal & Courier, ) MANDATORY CREDIT; NO SALES, Associated Press

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LAFAYETTE, Ind. — John M. Harris spends each Tuesday and Wednesday quietly working in a small office surrounded by shelves stacked from floor to ceiling with boxes containing ... well, that's what Harris is finding out.

Outside his office, a much larger room is filled with stacks of boxes, filing cabinets and a conference table for sorting. Throughout the Frank Arganbright Genealogy and Research Center, items are in storage -- items someone at some point considered historically significant.

Nestled in his small office on the second floor of the center on 10th Street across from the Moses Fowler House, Harris' task is to computerize the Tippecanoe County Historical Association's hard-copy card catalogs and computerize years of donated items that escaped being enumerated or completely slipped through the cracks.

He rhetorically repeated the question to himself as he leaned forward in his chair, reaching for a 10-pound cannonball set on a table in front of him: "What is it that's fun? Being able to handle something like this that probably goes back to the Revolution," he answered, holding out the solid shot that was found in the area of Fort Ouiatenon.

For Harris, 67, the fun is also bringing order from chaos and the chance to play history detective when he stumbles across undocumented items or some unrecognizable trinkets or artifacts.

Each week is different from the previous -- another thing Harris enjoys about his job.

"It takes a lot of attention to detail, and it's a kind of work that not everybody can do," Harris said.

The hands-off rule enforced on most visitors to museums doesn't apply to Harris, who for nearly four years has gone by various titles ranging from collections manager, collection coordinator or curator of collections. Call him what you will, Harris sees himself as a simple curator of the association's accessations that date back to its first gifts, received around 1925. And he's happy to do it.

A 2008 grant from the Greater Lafayette Community Foundation allowed the association to purchase Past Perfect, a computer program used nationally by museums to catalog and cross reference collections. The association then needed someone with museum experience to wade through the collections, the card catalogues and the museum's undocumented donations. That's where Harris came in.

"Kathy Atwell (TCHA director) approached me about setting up its software," Harris said, noting after four years, he's just scratched the surface of the association's considerable holdings.

A former director of the Tippecanoe County Historical Association, Harris spent 15 years of his career in Tippecanoe County as the association's director from 1972 to 1987, when he left to go to the Indiana Historical Society, from which he retired after 19 years.

He's now a partner in his wife's Indianapolis business, Heritage Photo & Research Services, and he treks back to his old stomping grounds twice a week.

At first, the grant paid him a part-time wage for his work.

"The grant ran out after a year," Harris said, "but I just kept coming because I was having fun. I always wanted to be a curator."

The association's board recently hired Harris again to pay him for his labors. It's a promising sign for the association, which just finished its third consecutive year in the black -- albeit, barely.

Atwell hesitates to label the positive bottom line a turnaround or a sign of better financial days ahead.

Instead, she attributes it to watching expenses, tough fiscal decisions and successful fundraisers, such as the Feast of the Hunters' Moon, which has escaped being rained out the past few years.

"We have a very small, dedicated staff," Atwell said. "That helps."

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