Inside Track: Shires relishes role in expanding city’s culture
Little pieces of history nudged the new executive director toward Holland Museum.
Many people associate history with boring textbooks that require them to memorize a laundry list of dates, places and names they’ll eventually forget. Then there’s Chris Shires.
“I have a passion for history,” said Shires. “I grew up as an only child on the eastern shore of Maryland. My family vacationed at Chesapeake Bay each summer, and I remember falling in love with history. We would go to an antique store and I was allowed to (purchase) some small item. My mother was an educator. I had to create a creative story behind the object that was purchased.”
Among the curios Shires has kept from those excursions is a 19thcentury Queen Victoria coin that has a series of scratches on the back. He wrote a short story about the coin when he was a kid, imagining how the marks got there and what it meant to the owners.
His coin serves as a lesson about the significance of historical artifacts.
“An object doesn’t have to be pristine,” said Shires. “The real value is the scuffs and scars on the piece. In the museum world, the value is intrinsic.”
History is Shires’ chosen career, having recently become the permanent executive director of the Holland Museum, 31 W. 10thSt. The museum building is the former Holland post office, constructed in 1914.
The second floor features the Dutch Galleries, housing 56 original paintings from the 17ththrough 20thcenturies. “I can’t look at art from an artistic eye, but I like them for the stories they tell,” said Shires.
An archives and research library is in the basement, which houses the museum’s extensive paper collection of local and Netherlands history.
The Holland Historical Trust is the operating organization that runs the Holland Museum. It also runs the Cappon House and Settlers House museums on 9thStreet, as well as an exhibit in a former National Guard Armory that now serves as collection space and offices for the museum’s administrative staff. Collectively, the three museums have an annual average of 20,000 patrons.
Approximately 10 percent of the museum’s 16,000 artifacts are on display at any one time; the rest are stored in temperature-controlled spaces. Artifacts include photographs, postcards, prints, glass-plate negatives, correspondence, diaries, journals, broadsides and 130 years of Holland newspapers in both Dutch and English.
There also are oral histories featuring local Hispanic and Asian residents, tax ledgers, trade catalogs, and more than 300 Dutch Bibles dating from the 16th through 20thcenturies, as well as books brought to this country by the early immigrants on religion, art, music and Dutch history.
Shires said it’s logical that the museum’s collection reflects a Dutch heritage, but he believes the future must include more examples of Holland’s changing demographics. In that regard, the museum’s collection currently includes Hispanic and Southeast Asian ceramics and textiles, and Native American handiwork of arrowheads, baskets and a beaded bandolier bag — 400 items, in all.
“We’re definitely seeing, wanting, to be more about telling the stories of Holland, and that includes Latinos, African-Americans and Asians,” he said. “Those relationships are really ripe for growth, for displaying the achievements of the community. The community of Holland is really receptive to that.
“The Dutch and Latino populations share some common traits: family oriented, faith based and hard workers.”
Shires considers himself fortunate to have found a career that centers on varying periods of history. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Marshall University in West Virginia in 2001, and a master’s degree in history along with a graduate certificate in museum studies from the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2003.
From 2003-2009, he served as the interpretive services manager and director of exhibits, education and programs at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. From 2009-2013, he was director of interpretation and programs at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House in the Detroit area.
Shires said what drew him to become Holland Museum’s executive director in September of this year was the fact he is not expected to march in lockstep with the tried and true.
“I see an organization excited for change, open to new ideas, a board who was not saying, ‘Do the same thing,’ but looking at new opportunities to be a different organization,” said Shires.
Shires knows that a number of people don’t feel a connection to history, and he wants to change that.
“The way to make connections with visitors is through human beings,” Shires said. “I want to bring visitors who are not history buffs to make a connection to people who lived 500 years ago. We’ve all (studied) history out of textbooks that are simply dates and facts and things, but I want people to suddenly realize it’s much more. It’s about storytelling and relating to that story.”
To illustrate his point, Shires refers to the years he worked at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, which sits on 87 acres in Grosse Point Shores. Edsel Ford was fond of filming family events in the 1930s — in color, a rare commodity at the time.
“People know the Fords as business people but not as people,” said Shires. “The human story was something we wanted to get across: how much they (the children) loved their father; how Edsel, who very much dealt with a lot of stress in regard to the (Ford Motor) company, viewed his house as a retreat.
“It’s important that somebody walks away with a message or experience — more (important) than knowing the date, or when or how the house was built, but walk away with some connection.”
Some of Shires’ personal collection of antiques came from his parents, specifically his Eastern Shore furniture — some made in New England — that includes a mirror in a rustic maple frame, a maple chest of drawers, rocking chairs and a dry sink.
“I want to say it’s colonial but it's not. It’s homemade (and) well made, but it’s not Chippendale furniture,” Shires said. “There’s a rough flavor to it. Most of it is decorative but some (pieces) are useful, such as a chest of drawers.
“I think it adds real character to our living space. We don't know the stories behind them but it adds a life and vibrancy to our home.”
As one might expect, he enjoys watching “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS with his wife of seven years, Greta, particularly when an appraiser tells the owner of an artifact that is worth far more than they imagined.
“We love learning a little bit more about collections from around the world,” said Shires. “I like that it is very eclectic — not a specific time period or subject matter — but that it all fits in the realm of history and possibilities.”