Coleman-Franken recount: How historic is the U.S. Senate saga? Let’s ask the folks at the Minnesota History Center

Curator Matt Anderson
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Curator Matt Anderson with GOP memorabilia

Norm Coleman speaks briefly on a talk-radio show. We read an instant transcript of it emailed to us. We write a 200-word short report. We post it. We Twitter it. You click on it.

It’s now. It’s here. It’s gone.

Al Franken meets with local mayors. We know because we received a text-messaged news release. We race there, listen there, photograph it, write it, push a button, create a tiny URL of it. We post it. We Twitter it.

Instant history.

Enter Matt Anderson, a curator for 3-D objects at the Minnesota Historical Society. He slows down events for us all.

After digesting Anderson’s view of the never-ending 2008 U.S. Senate race, we learned we may be missing a perspective-filled forest for the constantly moving trees.

Looking in a rearview mirror
While we dive into every nook and cranny of the recount, Anderson’s role is to gaze into the future and, once there, peer into a meaningful rearview mirror. That’s why, so far, there are no objects that the Historical Society has yet saved from the five-month-long recount.

“We like to have a little hindsight before we collect anything,” Anderson told MinnPost Thursday afternoon in his underground office. “We like to know what’s going to be considered important. That’s a struggle some time.”

His job is the anti-Twitter. He’s into the longer view.

We’ve been writing for months now about the “historic” Coleman-Franken U.S. Senate race. We’ve been referring to the longest recount in Minnesota history. We’ve been doing what daily journalists do: rapidly tapping out that typo-filled first draft of history.

At the Minnesota History Center, there are a variety of ways the experts preserve history. The library collects documents of all kinds.  Another curator combs through and keeps official government records. Anderson and two other curators gather “stuff.”

Some general rules apply. Less is more. There’s only so much room, even in the massive History Center and other storage buildings. And all curators seek the main stories, the pieces that will resonate with museum-goers and historians three, five, 10 decades down the road.

The task: To predict what people will find interesting in the future.

Going slow on recount choices
For now, Anderson and others at MHS, one of the nation’s premier state historical societies, haven’t collected or gathered much of anything from the Franken-Coleman saga.

They have some campaign posters and literature. They’ve thought about, maybe, getting one of robes from the three judges in the election contest, but textiles tend to deteriorate over time, and the museum already has Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Wahl’s robe; she was the first woman on the state’s high court.

As someone who has sat through just about every moment of the State Canvassing Board and trial, I suggested getting a tie or two from Coleman lawyers Joe Friedberg and Ben Ginsberg, two stylish gents.

Anderson offered a polite, but notably lukewarm, “Not a bad idea,” but then announced what he’s truly after for posterity.

“One of the things I’m really anxious to get my hands on are one of those dolls the Saints will be giving out, Count/Recount,” he said, speaking of the promotional toy that local baseball team will hand out on May 23 with a Coleman/Franken spinning head.

“It talks less about the process but more about what this meant to the people of Minnesota.”

Other “keeps” so far: a set of Franken campaign trading cards and a construction helmet Coleman wore for the new Twins ballpark’s groundbreaking.

But not much, yet.

As for the court records, Ramsey County’s court system will hold them. As for video and audio from outlets such as The UpTake or Minnesota Public Radio, preservation is an issue. Right now, DVDs and even computer servers can’t keep images or sound for, perhaps, longer than 20 years. Technologies and formats change. The History Center can’t rely on the survival of digital materials.

What best tells the story?
Thus, what’s worth keeping for Anderson is what — in a quick look — can tell a story, can resonate with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

So he’s a bit disappointed that the Historical Society’s 3-D collection from the 1962 Karl Rolvaag-Elmer Andersen recount is virtually non-existent. Just some campaign buttons and posters.

Walk with Anderson through a climate-controlled storage room and see how he has catapulted his vision into the future so that others may look back.

From the Republican National Convention of last summer, he has preserved a T-shirt worn by an ACLU observer of demonstrations. He proudly obtained the Minnesota delegation’s official red, white and blue standard that declared its presence on the Xcel Energy Center convention floor. He has official delegate credentials. He preserved a gas mask worn by a journalist who covered a fracas just outside the History Center. He was sent some hand-made protest signs.

Nope, no Sarah Palin dresses. They were already on loan from the Neiman Marcus museum.

As he showed the objects, he wore white cotton gloves, so the oils of his hands didn’t harm such living history.

From the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007, Anderson, with the help of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, has preserved key road signs that were once attached to the bridge, including the 18.4-mile marker.

The bridge-related object with the deepest emotional power is the back door of the school bus from which 52 children were rescued as the vehicle teetered.

The autographed school-bus door from the I-35 bridge collapse
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
The autographed school-bus door from the I-35 bridge collapse

There it lays on a protective pad and pallet on the floor of the storage room. It’s autographed by the children whose lives were saved that awful day in August.

“Objects are fascinating because they’re immortal,” said Anderson. “People die, but the object is always going to be here as long as we protect it.”

As for the recount … whatever objects you’ve got, save ’em. They could tell a story long after you’re gone.

Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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