RADTKE: Holiday display tradition returns to the museum

For the past several years, the Tri-Cities Historical Museum has displayed a 1940s Nativity Scene in its front window during the holiday season.
Dec 27, 2013

The Nativity was purchased in the early 1940s for this very window as part of the annual Addison Baltz Christmas display.

When Steketee’s opened in the building in 1959, they continued to use the display until sometime in the early 1970s. The store underwent a remodeling, and during the subsequent auction of store fittings and fixtures, the owners of Fortino’s acquired the pieces for their own window, where elements of the display were used almost every Christmas. Space limitations prevented the use of the entire nine-piece set, however. 

In 2008, Fortino’s decided that the now-historic Nativity Scene belonged back at the museum to be preserved for posterity. The museum was very glad to receive the display to add to its collection of artifacts relating to the early history of the newly renovated Akeley Building — which, incidentally, served as a dry goods/department store from the time it was built in 1870 until the museum purchased it in 2001.

The exhibits department, recognizing the historical value and the beauty of the set, made the decision to display the pieces in the front window, reuniting the entire set for the first time in more than 40 years.

 The museum considered the religious theme implicit in the figures, and decided that the fact that the set was ordered for the exact place to where it was returned over 70 years since it was originally displayed provided a powerful sense of community and continuity that is in keeping with the mission of the organization.

The nine-piece set is constructed of pasteboard with beautiful chromolithography images in brilliant colors on the front. If you visit the museum during the holiday season, notice the hair and makeup on the figures — particularly those of Mary and the Angel — have a very 1940s movie star look about them.

Sets like these were relatively common at the time, as the lightweight, eye-catching colors and affordable cost made them a popular choice for retail establishments. Although there are no identifying markings on any of the figures, they were most likely ordered out of a catalogue of a company that catered to holiday displays for institutions such as churches, schools, government buildings and commercial establishments like the department store.

To prepare them for display, the museum collections staff carefully cleaned each image with a dry-erase system, coated each with a special microcrystalline wax designed for paper, and  photographed them  to establish a baseline for monitoring fading and deterioration. Photos also make for easy identification in the computerized inventory system. 

The figures were not freestanding when the museum acquired them, although they appeared to have been originally. So, after careful consideration by the collections committee, it was decided that adding hinged supports for the backs to allow for easier display and to minimize the risk of damage would be permitted. The work was performed by the collections volunteers of the museum and is entirely reversible.

In the off-season, the figures are carefully wrapped and stored vertically at the museum warehouse.

The Tri-Cities Historical Museum is pleased to have the opportunity to return the figures to the place of prominence that they had held in this location for so many years. We would like to thank all those who helped make this display possible.

Steven Radtke is executive director of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.

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