A Thoroughly Modern Museum: 1978 – 1988
The Monmouth County Historical Association began its eighth decade with a new director, a wide-ranging collections, an important library and archives, four historic houses, and a main museum building. Post-war American society had changed dramatically, and museums were attempting to remain relevant and vital. The Association faced its own challenges: preserving four unique historical structures that constantly required repair and upkeep; collections that needed cataloguing, research, and proper storage; and the demands of finding new sources of funding for it all.
By 1979, Marlpit Hall had served the Association as an historic house for more than 43 years. After its original restoration in the 1930s, the site now needed some major attention, including a new roof, interior painting, and other repairs. In addition, the site’s furnishing plan, which had not been altered to any great extent since Mrs. Haskell first donated the house to the Association, needed to be updated and refreshed. The other houses, too, needed work – Holmes-Hendrickson House required a new roof, while paint testing was done at Covenhoven House and Marlpit Hall to determine original interior paint colors of the original woodwork.
The years following the Bicentennial saw increased attendance at all of the Association’s historic houses, “particularly startling,” as Director Hammond noted in one of his reports, “in light of the gas shortage during the summer months which cut attendance at other museums up to 20 percent.”
The Association and its houses were featured in an extensive article in the January 1980 issue of the magazine Antiques. A separate article highlighted ** pieces of 18th and early 19th century furniture in the collection, a culmination of more than two years’ worth of research by Hammond and outside furniture consultants.
Challenges and Changes
With new staff including Nancy Kraybill, Curator of Collections, Greg Plunges, Librarian, Mary Eileen Fouratt, Curator of Education, and Rebecca Scarborough, Public Programs Coordinator, Director Joe Hammond organized a Trustees Day on 24 January 1981. Nineteen board members visited the main museum in Freehold, attending presentations by the staff on collections care and organization. Mini workshops and demonstrations allowed the board members some hands-on experience in proper object handling, accessioning, and storage. A lunch followed at Covenhoven House, where staff and board enjoyed hearth-cooked fare.
Differences between staff and director led to the departure of Joseph Hammond at the beginning of 1982. Although his three years as director were somewhat tumultuous, Hammond brought a level of professionalism and care to the handling, storage, and cataloguing of the collections which had previously been lacking. His research on the collections, particularly in the areas of furniture, silver, stoneware, and paintings, resulted in important discoveries and connections previously unknown.
The year 1982 also saw the Board welcome a new President. Rumson resident Mary Lou Strong, a trustee for many years previously, took her place as president with energy and enthusiasm. Strong had been highly active in the Allen House restoration, working with other board members and then-director Charles Lyle on the summer archaeological digs on site. The Board’s first action in that year was search for a new director. Twenty-nine-year-old Wilson O’Donnell was hired in the spring of 1982. A graduate of the Cooperstown Graduate Program, O’Donnell had previously been Curator at the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
In 1982, the Association received a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission to conduct a Museum Assessment Program report, which was completed in September of that year. The report provided suggestions to the museum on plans and goals to aid the board and staff in future decisions.
The Modern Age Meets History
Director O’Donnell was instrumental in bringing the first computer into the museum. The April 1984 board meeting minutes noted that O’Donnell “said that he is exploring the possibility of installing a computer system of some kind at the museum.” The following year, the Association entered the computer age, when an AT&T 6300 computer was donated to the museum. Introduced in 1984, the 6300 was designed for both business and personal use and came with a standard 128 kilobytes of RAM. A typical laptop computer today, by comparison, has about 8 gigabytes of RAM, or approximately eighty thousand times more memory than the 6300.
In March of 1986, the Association learned that Locust resident Ruth Bowne Somerville had left the museum a three and a half percent share of her estate, amounting to well over $50,000. The Board minutes noted that Ruth Somerville’s generous bequest was “one of the largest single bequests in the organization’s history.”
The Association embraced additional and much needed modernization in producing a clearly defined Collections Policy. For the first time, the Board specified what the Historical Association’s goals were in collecting, stating that “The Monmouth County Historical Association is dedicated to the study and preservation of Monmouth County’s heritage and culture. The Association therefore collects museum and library materials that pertain to the residents of the County of Monmouth and its surrounding areas or are associated with recognized historical periods, events, or individuals influencing Monmouth County’s heritage from the earliest period of settlement until the present day.”
The Board Looks Forward
After less than four years as director, Wilson O’Donnell resigned to take up a position as Director and Chief Curator at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark. Carol Brodeen, the museum’s Business Manager, was offered the position as Acting Director. The Board decided not to open a search for a new director, but instead planned to make Brodeen permanent Director after six months’ time.
In January of 1987, Mary Lou Strong stepped down as Board President, remaining as an active trustee. The Board’s new President was Hope Haskell Jones, granddaughter of Mrs. J. Amory Haskell. Jones, with her quiet demeanor, kindness, and sense of history, would usher in exciting changes and improvements for the Association.
A second-floor gallery space at the museum’s Freehold headquarters, formerly known as the Sports Room, was chosen to be transformed into an interactive educational space. Funded by the Monmouth County Junior League, the gallery would feature separate areas for young visitors, school groups, and families to explore topics on the Battle of Monmouth, early school days, hearth cooking, and spinning and weaving. The Discovery Room, as it was known, was one of the first interactive museum spaces in the state and opened to great acclaim on 1 October 1987.
That same year, the Association received a substantial grant from the State of New Jersey to install a modern kitchen and bathroom at the Covenhoven House. Designed within the framework of a lean-to “milk room” on the east side of the structure, the kitchen and bathroom allowed the site’s hearth cooking program to be expanded.
With all the changes within the museum field itself and the upheavals and changes the Association experienced over the past decade, it was time to look forward and make deliberate plans to insure the institution’s survival and expansion. To that end, the Board, headed by Hope Jones, contracted with Robert Matthai to develop a Long Range Plan for the Historical Association. Matthai had worked with such organizations as the New Jersey Historical Society, the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., and the U.S.S. Constitution Museum. The Plan involved interviewing board and staff, surveying the historic sites, collection, library, and archives. The finalized Long Range Plan, submitted to the Board at the end of 1988, outlined suggested goals and action steps to assure the continued existence of the area’s oldest historic organization.
The 1980s also saw a number of rare and important artifacts enter the collection. Marine artist Antonio Jacobsen’s The County of Edinburgh on the Beach, dated 1902, captured in subtle blues and greys a singular shipwreck which occurred on 12 February 1900. The 2000 ton four masted British vessel County of Edinburgh ran aground in heavy fog on the shore at the foot of Arnold Avenue in Point Pleasant. The ship was undamaged and was refloated and towed to New York City two weeks later. In the meantime, the ship’s crew charged interested visitors ten cents to board the vessel and tour the “wreck.”
In 1986, the Association purchased two exceptionally rare and wonderful portraits at auction. The unknown artist capture in watercolor and pen and ink an African American man and his wife, fashionably dressed and facing one another. Judging from clothing details, the portraits were most likely created in about 1845 or so. Although unidentified, it is possible that the couple were ancestors within the Shemo family of Monmouth County, possibly from the Navesink area.
Carol Brodeen became the permanent Director of the Historical Association and in 1987 married former director Wilson O’Donnell. Gary Parks was hired as Librarian, replacing Kathleen Stavec, and in 1988 Peter Wisbey was hired as Curator of Collections after the departure of Sarah Heald.
The Association ended its eighth decade with a Long Range Plan in place to help guide it towards the twenty first century. Rapidly changing staff – including three directors in less than ten years – underscored the need for solid and long-lasting personnel able to maintain continuity and consistency. The Board, headed by Hope Haskell Jones, understood what was at stake. The Long Range Plan identified the need for changing exhibitions, office space, the proper care and storage of the Association’s vast collections, and additional programming as key goals for the organization to aim for over the next five years.