January 24, 1994|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

Stained glass ice cream cones hang in the windows of Ann and Billy Wilkinson's home in Hanover, Pa.

The cones symbolize a dream the former Baltimoreans have entertained for some time and are about to realize. They're establishing a national ice cream museum.

Limited in focus only by the imagination, small cottage-industry museums have become an increasing presence in communities around the country. They usually focus on the variants of a single item or concept -- say bananas or Civil War memorabilia -- and operate on small or nonexistent budgets -- but with a wealth of enthusiasm.

The Institute of Museum Services, an independent agency created by Congress to assess the needs of small, emerging, minority and rural museums, identified 8,934 "non-federal" museums in the United States in a 1991-1992 study, with 75 percent classified as "small." Small here means a budget of less than $250,000, five or fewer staff (paid or unpaid), and being open to the public.

In this country, if you look hard enough, you can find museums to honor such subjects as brine, time, fly fishing, magic, bread, insects, Jurassic technology, tools, dolls and Hank Williams Jr.

Ann Wilkinson and her husband began collecting ice cream-related artifacts in 1978, mainly because they liked to eat ice cream.

Their white house in Hanover is filled with what Mr. Wilkinson calls "ice cream ephemera." One room is overtaken with items from the collection, and more ice cream things are stored in the basement and other available spaces. The displayed material includes books, packaging, signs, menus, pillows, a kite, games, toys, lights, posters and shelves of other memorabilia.

But the Wilkinsons have reached the point where merely collecting is no longer satisfying. Now they want others to have access to what their passion hath wrought.

"We've had a dream and we've had it for some time, to share all this," says Ann Wilkinson. "That's the reason for the museum."

Mr. Wilkinson says their backgrounds should be useful in the venture. Mr. Wilkinson, 60, retired in October after 11 years as director of the gallery of the Kuhn Library at University of Maryland Baltimore County. Mrs. Wilkinson, 53, was a certified public accountant for nine years with Glass, Jacobson & Associates in Owings Mills until November and before that a college librarian.

"We have some letterhead stationery," Mr. Wilkinson says. "Now we're looking for affordable space, maybe a small storefront."

The Wilkinsons' story is typical of what happens when someone becomes deeply committed to protecting and preserving history, even its most temporal aspects. In doing so, some say, people demonstrate something about themselves.

"It shows the variety of people's passions," says Donald Garfield, associate editor of Museum News, a magazine for museum professionals. "It reminds you that everything under the sun can be studied and has a history, no matter how mundane the subject."

Mr. Garfield says that in his travels he's always on the lookout for the museums that are prosaic only in the eyes of the beholder.

"Many don't generate a lot of news and are hard to find out about," he says.

A goodly number are noted in the American Association of

Museums' directory among the umbrella organization's 8,000 listings, but Mr. Garfield says the total "probably is twice that number." Among those listed -- and a few that aren't:

* Dr. Hugh Hicks, a dentist and director of the Mount Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting in Baltimore, has collected 60,000 light bulbs, with 8,000 on display. This is the museum's 31st year. He figures his fate was destined from the time he was born 71 years ago. The first thing he reached for -- so a family story goes -- was a light bulb.

* Jackie Lanier still has the doll she got when she was 5. Some 41 years and 40,000 items later (counting record albums), her home on Gay Street has become, almost by metamorphosis, the Lanier Museum of African-American History and Culture. "I didn't decide it was a museum," Ms. Lanier says. "The public decided it was a museum. About 10 years ago, people said, 'You have to share this stuff.' So I do."

* Bob Miller, 53, a retired Baltimore County teacher, turned what was once a hobby into a business and a museum. His 30- by foot taxidermy museum is built next to his taxidermy shop in Maryland Line. "I've collected for 20 years," Mr. Miller says. "I have maybe 75 to 100 different species of birds and animals."

* Doug Bast's first acquisition (for $1) came at age 7. It was an old bottle someone dug out of a dump. From that modest start, he grew into a "historical pack rat," and in 1975 turned a Victorian house in Boonsboro into the Boonsborough (the original spelling of the town) Museum of History, filling it with his Civil War collection, antique guns, Indian artifacts, an old-time cabinetmaking shop and any number of other eclectic collectibles.

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