It’s In the Details: Discovering the Full Potential of a Historic Site’s Museum Collections

By Special Contributor posted 08-31-2015 13:01

By Laura Quinn

 Exterior view of Cooper Molera. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation
Cooper-Molera, Monterey, California. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation
From the earliest discussions of shared use at Cooper-Molera, it was understood that the collection of objects, art and other materials that came to the National Trust along with the property was somewhat of an unknown. The National Trust recognized the impact that the shared use model would have on the collections management at the site, as well as its ethical and legal obligations to the collection. While numerous inventories existed, there were none that could confidently be considered definitive. Not having a comprehensive inventory limited our and our partners’ ability to imagine how the collections could be used for new and creative interpretation in the future.

Because thorough collections inventories are arduous and time consuming, the National Trust knew it was important to allocate resources to this work and hired an outside firm, History Associates, to assist with the project. With their help, the National Trust, California State Parks, and our other partners now have a clear understanding of the scope of the collections and their interpretive potential at Cooper-Molera and have been able to factor responsible collections management practices into the planning process.

-Carrie Villar, John & Neville Bryan Senior Manager of Museum Collections, National Trust

 Historic sites have the power to transport visitors back in time. Walking through buildings and grounds that have stood for decades, or even centuries, creates a powerful connection to the past. It is often inside these spaces that visitors begin to wonder about the people who inhabited these spaces and how they lived. Historic collections housed within, such as furniture, tools and other belongings, can tell the stories of former inhabitants—creating a personal connection that brings the sites to life.

 History Associates photographed items in the collection on site at the Cooper Molera Adobe. | Credit: History Associates
Photographing collection items on site at the Cooper-Molera Adobe. | Credit: History Associates
One such site is the Cooper-Molera Adobe in Monterey, California, which is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and operated by California State Parks. The Adobe’s collections reflect the culture and activities of several generations of prominent Cooper and Molera families who lived at the site from the early settlement period of California’s history through to its beginnings of statehood.

Within the Cooper-Molera Adobe, visitors might come across an eclectic mix of objects such as a Japanese ginger jar, a tapestry of the Madonna, and a branding iron. While these may appear to be a random assortment of pieces, visitors soon learn that the Japanese ginger jar on display speaks to the owner’s life as a Pacific trader. The tapestry of the Madonna illuminates the trader’s marriage into a prominent Mexican Catholic family. The branding iron illustrates the family’s involvement with animal husbandry and their ownership and management of ranchos—large tracts of land granted by the Spanish and, later, Mexican governments to encourage settlement and the raising of cattle and sheep. Each collection piece within the historic site can transport you back into the lives of the Cooper-Molera family from the 1820s to the late 1960s.

Shared Use and Opportunity for Inventory

In recent years the Cooper-Molera Adobe has been considered for development as a shared-use space. The addition of commercial spaces such as a restaurant and public and private rental areas in addition to the historic house, museum and garden would create new opportunities to bring first-time and returning visitors into the space. The potential change could create an increase in visitor traffic within the historic site, thus it was an excellent time to reassess the site’s collections and review current exhibits.

A complete inventory is an important step for any organization maintaining historic collections and must be carried out periodically to verify the location and condition of all objects. An up-to-date inventory is also necessary when reassessing a collection in order to understand the full scope of a historic structure’s holdings. In preparation for the possibility of creating shared-use space at the Adobe, History Associates, a historical research firm, assisted the National Trust for Historic Preservation by creating a comprehensive inventory of the Adobe’s collection of art, furnishings, objects, and other artifacts associated with the site. By completing this inventory, the National Trust would be able to establish a Scope of Collection, a document that defines the types of objects an organization collects and why it does so, as well as highlight any items of particular interest and significance.

Inventory Practices

 The collections at the historic site help illuminate the lives of the Cooper-Molera family who lived there from the 1820s to the late 1960s. | Credit History Associates
The collections at Cooper-Molera help illuminate the lives of the family who lived there from the 1820s to the late 1960s. | Credit History Associates
To carry out these tasks, History Associates organized a team of four collections managers specializing in object handling, inventory, and museum object photography to document the collections at the Cooper-Molera Historic Site as well as collections located in off-site storage. The team methodically inventoried and photographed all of the agricultural tools, objects, furnishings, and artwork associated with the Cooper-Molera Adobe. Information such as catalog number, object name, description, and measurements were captured to identify each artifact. Each object name for the inventory record was completed according to the American Alliance of Museums documentation standards, applying Chenhall’s Nomenclature 3.0, a classification system that arranges objects by use, to ensure consistent terminology. The completed inventory data and associated images were imported into a customized Access database. Within three weeks, History Associates created a complete, definitive inventory for more than 3,000 collection objects associated with the Cooper-Molera Adobe.


Completing the definitive inventory of the collection allowed History Associates to review each item individually as well as to look at the collection as a whole. By looking at each object individually, History Associates was able verify information already captured and to record any additional information not captured in previous inventories. For example, maker’s marks on the bottom of china pieces were noted to allow for further research into the value and history of the pieces. Review of individual objects also allowed for conservation issues to be identified and communicated to the National Trust for remediation.

When looking at the collection as a whole, History Associates’ collections managers were able to draft a Scope of Collections document outlining the historical context of the collection in relation to the Cooper-Molera family. Significant core collection items with intrinsic and/or interpretive value in the Cooper-Molera Adobe’s holdings were identified and grouped into categories. These categories connected the artifacts to central themes within the family’s life.

 View of the Foyer at Cooper Molera Adobe| Credit History Associates
Foyer at Cooper-Molera Adobe| Credit History Associates
One category of note was animal husbandry. Captain Cooper began the family’s strong connection to the California soil with his purchase and management of thousands of acres of ranchos. This tradition passed on to his sons and grandsons who continued to manage the ranchos and pursue interests in animal husbandry and farming. In fact, Andrew Molera is often credited with popularizing artichoke growing in Salinas Valley, leasing his land to any farmer willing to grow the vegetable. A listing of notable animal husbandry artifacts found in the inventory may enable a closer look at the role Cooper-Molera played in 19th-century animal husbandry and the land surrounding Monterey.

A collection inventory is necessary and beneficial to any historic site’s collection. The potential addition of shared-use space at Cooper-Molera represents an ideal time to utilize the inventory and reevaluate the collection and the stories that can be found within. Refreshing exhibit displays and text will engage new visitors and educate returning guests on a new interpretation of the house and its contents. Beyond these more traditional uses for the collection, as the National Trust works with its partners to integrate interpretation of the site’s history into the commercial uses in creative ways, the complete documentation and a fuller understanding of the collection will facilitate this work.

Laura Quinn was a collections manager at History Associates when she worked on the Cooper-Molera inventory project. History Associates works with museums, foundations, and private collector clients on a variety of projects,from inventories to program development.

#Cooper-Molera #HistoricSites #SharedUse #collectionsmanagement

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