Jeffrey Ray is a shameless scavenger.
A rummager of attics.
A burrower in basements.
A fly fisherman in the muddy river of Philadelphia history.
And once or twice a week, he gets calls from people who want to bring him what they believe are treasures, deserving of his inspection.
After 28 years on the job, Ray, senior curator of the Philadelphia History Museum (formerly known as the Atwater Kent), knows how to gently break the news when an item's value is purely sentimental.
But even stuff that seems so unworthy you couldn't foist it off on a Craigslist curbside alert (or a Goodwill hunting teenager) can sometimes win Ray's approving nod.
A T-shirt worn by a hot dog salesman at Connie Mack Stadium. A pizzelle iron from a South Philadelphia kitchen. Political buttons. Street signs. Photographs. And just last week, the fortune teller's costume Frank Miller's pop-pop wore early last century when he read tea leaves at the strawberry festival in Rittenhouse Square.
These are all part of the museum's collection, along with pieces of more customary curatorial value, such as George Washington's desk.
"We're interested in the things people used in everyday life," Ray said.
The museum was criticized several years ago for selling thousands of artifacts to raise money for a $1.5 million restoration and expansion of its Seventh and Market Streets home.
Among the items auctioned off were cigar store Indians and paintings by Thomas Sully and Raphaelle Peale.
The collection remains prodigious, said Charles Croce, the museum's executive director, and continues to grow. Since the museum reopened last year with a fresher look and interactive displays, Croce said, it has attracted more than 10,000 visitors.
"I really think we have blown the dust off the old Atwater Kent," Croce said. "It was always a wonderful museum. But the exhibits are much more dynamic now."
Ray cautioned that the museum's interest in quotidian relics should not be interpreted as a descent into the lowbrow. (One recent foray into the attic of a prominent Philadelphia family yielded a rare 18th-century purse.)
Nor, he said, should people think he is running a kind of Antiques Roadshow.
"When you say no to people, of course they're disappointed," he said. "But you can't collect everything."
He was intrigued, though, by the call from the fortune teller's grandson and invited him to bring the costume to the museum for an evaluation.
Introducing himself as Frank Kunkel Miller, the 59-year-old retired mechanic plunked an extra-large paper bag for leaf recycling on the conference table and began pulling out musty turbans and jackets and trousers, festooned with sequins and glittery embroidery.
For the next hour, Ray listened patiently to Miller as he rambled with more enthusiasm than coherence, spilling random details about his family.
"That picture there might be Pop-Pop in drag," Miller said, emptying an envelope full of faded photographs and sheet music. "He had two wives. . . . I'm related to John Sullivan, the fighter. . . . Gay life at the time was difficult. . . . He was raised in the Northern Home for Boys. . . . Aunt Mabel lived in Souderton, she may have been Miss Philadelphia. . . . My uncle ran baseball teams. . . . We ate a lot of mushrooms, but we wouldn't eat Spam. . . . My brother has a bagpipe rock and roll band. ..."
Writing with pencil on a small pad, Ray took a few notes of the relevant details. Occasionally, he would interrupt, asking for clarification.
"Now what was your pop-pop's name?" he asked. "You said they were German immigrants. In the 18th century?"
For the most part, however, he allowed Miller to talk himself out.
It's not unusual for people to get lost in their stories. "They're nervous and excited," Ray said. "They hope we are going to keep their things safe."
At one point, Miller tried to put on one of his grandfather's jackets to show it to better effect.
"This one's small," he said, wriggling his arms above his head, struggling to slip through the sleeves.
Susan Drinan, the museum's registrar, who helps curate the textile collection, watched in alarm.
"Let's not do that," she said, gently taking the jacket from Miller. "We'd like that."