November Staff Spotlight: Lisa Barr & Sabrina Sanders

By Jason Carrillo, Communications Intern

Most Utahns know the Rio Grande Depot has a storied history. Since it was built in 1910, the building has passed hands from a train depot to the headquarters of the Utah Division of State History. Its iconic facade, mezzanine, and neon sign attracts the attention of everyone around 300 South. 

Since the 1980s, the building has been home to the newly-named Department of Cultural and Community Engagement (CCE) (and its predecessors) and several of its divisions. However, because of the damage from last year’s 5.6 magnitude earthquake, the Rio Grande is currently undergoing major changes, including the preparation of moving all its collections to temporary storage locations. What has necessitated this move? 

For decades, many of Utah’s historical artifacts have been stored in the Rio Grande’s basement. While they have been watched over and preserved with extraordinary care by archivists and historians, the physical attributes of the space are less than desirable. Pipes hang above Pioneer-era wagon wheels and steam-powered showers, water pans are gerry-rigged below sometimes leaking pipes to protect a collection of historic textiles, and temperature and humidity settings are not ideal. 

This is why a new space for the collections is necessary. You can see the basement’s conditions in this video made two years ago. This month, we are excited to spotlight two of the staff preparing the collection for the move: Lisa Barr and Sabrina Sanders!

Being a collections manager in the Rio Grande Depot is a special task. You work in a historical building surrounded by historic artifacts, and you spend your whole day surrounded by people with historical obsessions. Frankly, it’s just the environment a collection curator is looking for. Although not many souls are currently working in its halls, Lisa Barr and Sabrina Sanders, have thrived in this setting, archiving an abundance of historical artifacts and finding their provisional homes. Lisa has been the Historical Collections Curator since 2019, having previously worked for the National History Day-Utah program. Since 2018, Sabrina has been the Artifact Collections Manager and decides how artifacts correlate and interface with other collections. Though their arrivals are fairly recent, they’ve contributed invaluable work to the state’s historical objects. 

Most people aren’t aware of the behind-the-scenes work to prepare and preserve artifacts and archival materials. Schooling, training, organization, and interpretation are all required. Being able to easily find the artifacts is a necessity as well, so it’s up to the collections managers to log, label, and list the artifacts’ details and location. And when you are working in a space that was not designed to be a place for collections, that work gets all the harder. In the Rio Grande’s basement, Lisa and Sabrina take advantage of every inch of space they can. Early aerial photographs of the canyons sit across the hall from Philo Farnsworth’s television tubes; an industrial-era steam powered shower stands across the hall from the state’s first flag. A lot of the materials the collections team cares for speak to Utah’s diverse history.The space Lisa and Sabrina work with is impractical, yes, but their upkeep and care of the collection have proved resilient to the shortcomings of the century-old depot.

With the new Museum of Utah to begin construction and the Rio Grande undergoing renovations in 2022, someone has to pack and move the textiles, books, objects, and thousands of other artifacts. Fortunately, Lisa and Sabrina are part of a dedicated and innovative team.

The team’s past few months have been characterized by pallets, cardboard, and wrap. Feats of meticulous data entry are represented through the dozens of box-strained pallets lining the halls, rooms, and mezzanine of the Rio Grande. In each box lies a piece of the history of our state. Many of the artifacts sit in specially-designed containers built by Sabrina herself. Considering that the Library and Collections team of 10 employees only have approximately six months to accomplish this grand task, they have done an impossibly great job. While many would find these efforts unimaginably straining, to Lisa, Sabrina, and the rest of the collections preservation team these artifacts deserve the utmost care possible, so the move is worth it.

Collection managers  like Lisa and Sabrina are also essential to Utah’s history. They contribute to their local community by preserving the artifacts and archival materials that define them, preparing them to be available for future generations. The two have a lot more moving to do, so remember their efforts when returning to a renovated Rio Grande or seeing our collections in the future.

Thanks, Lisa and Sabrina!