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Uncovering hidden treasures at San Joaquin County Historical Museum

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Posted: Friday, November 8, 2013 7:55 am

A silvery silk dress from the 1920s, so delicate it was probably worn only once before it was tucked away. A hand-painted banner from the Lockeford branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Dozens of baskets, tools and pieces of clothing from Native American tribes across California and the Great Plains.

At the San Joaquin County Historical Museum, there are hundreds of artifacts that only museum staff and volunteer docents get to see.

“We’d love to be able to show everything, but we don’t have the exhibit space,” said Julie Blood, the museum’s collections and exhibits manager.

Blood, who has been at Micke Grove for five years, has been leading an effort to catalogue the items in the museum’s storage areas, in hopes of giving local residents a glimpse of some of the treasures hidden away in boxes.

But the work has not been quick or easy. In its early days, the museum was run by volunteers. They did their best to catalog and store the historical items they had collected, Blood said, but they had to use what was available and what they could afford. And in the 1960s and 1970s, when the county museum was in its infancy, collections management — the art and industry of properly caring for and storing artifacts — was still being developed.

Nowadays, museums can store newly donated items in specially designed, acid-free boxes or on conservation mannequins that will protect them from damage. In the past, museums had to rely on cardboard boxes and plastic bins that not only did not properly protect artifacts, but may even have added to the damage.

Blood and volunteer docents have been sorting through the museum’s storage areas to rescue relics from this haphazard arrangement.

Take the silver dress, for example. Handmade from French silk and studded with beads, the dress was found while Blood was working with a Tahoe museum on an exhibit about the 1920s, all folded up — a no-no for delicate clothing, but the dress was so fragile it probably couldn’t have been hung.

So the museum ordered a specially made box that was large enough to lay the dress in without creasing it. A padded bottom pulls out so that the dress can be shown without anyone needing to touch it, to prevent further damage, and the box is flat and sturdy enough that it can be easily stacked.

These precautions were very necessary — Blood pointed out a few small tears in the delicate silk, probably caused the first time it was worn. If it is ever exhibited, it won’t be able to go on a mannequin, Blood said. Instead, it would need to be displayed on a slant board that would support every inch.

But the dress is an excellent example of fashion from the 1920s.

“Everyone has this vision of flappers with spangled dresses, but that wasn’t the style” back then, Blood said. Instead, fashionable party wear included beaded dresses and sack dresses like the one in storage.

The 1920s dress isn’t the only example of fashion stored in the stuffy attic area of the museum. Another dress, probably from the 1890s, showed the difference 30 years could make, with a ruffled front, puffed sleeves and a long train. Other clothing includes a colorful, beaded blouse and skirt from Mexico and fur boots from Lapland, collected by a Stockton lawyer on his travels around the world, and Chinese textiles donated by two local families dating back to the early 1800s, as well as plenty of examples of women’s clothing.

Some of the items in storage will be rotated out to the museum’s exhibit space for the public to see, such as a new coiled basket made from pine needles collected on the grounds of Micke Grove. It was donated to the museum in July, for use in an upcoming exhibit about local Native American arts that the museum hopes to open in May 2014.

“It’s unique because the needles (at Micke Grove) are lighter than other trees in the area,” Blood said.

But for many of the items, it may be quite some time before the public gets a glimpse.

The museum has no current plans to create an online photo gallery, due to the limits of their Internet speed and the time it would take to do so.

And aside from groups of docents and the occasional visiting class from University of the Pacific, the historical museum doesn’t offer behind-the-scenes tours.

“I would love to do something like that,” Blood said. But there’s currently no space for visitors. The museum hopes to build a larger collections storage building in the future that would make such tours possible, but it doesn’t have the funds yet.

In the meantime, thousands of items wait in the small space upstairs and the back storage room — from everyday trunks and tools, to grape label plates, to items of local importance like the cornerstone box from Harmony Grove Church and Micke family heirlooms — waiting to be sorted, catalogued and perhaps featured in an exhibit in the near future.

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