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Local News

County Museum asking public to weigh in

A woman stands outside a building with wooden double doors and a sign that says, "County Museum."

"The people are the heart of the museum," which is embarking on a series of public forums and asking visitors to fill out a survey about what kinds of exhibits and programming they are most interested in.

The Mendocino County Museum received an outpouring of community support last year, when word spread that the county fiscal team had suggested closing it as a cost-saving measure. That idea was quickly abandoned, and now the museum is rolling out a strategic plan, which includes a survey and public events around the county to find out what community members want from their museum.

Museum Administrator Karen Mattson, a trained curator, is happy to show off the work that’s gone on behind the scenes to keep track of the collection.

“We’ve been working really hard,” she said. “It’s a huge undertaking, to keep things organized. If you think about the library, everything has a place and a shelf and a number. And a museum is the same way. It’s really important to stay on top of things.” In a library of objects, “Organization is everything. Except beyond that, every object that you see has a corresponding file that tells us the history and significance of it. So those things have to be kept together, because we’re not keeping objects, we’re keeping stories. We’re keeping history, so documentation is everything.”

Some of those stories are from the past, and some are about current events, placed in a historical context. The newest exhibit, Exploramos Juntos, is a bilingual collaboration with Nuestra Alianza, an educational and outreach organization in Willits. The display includes costumes and photography from a local Spanish-language summer camp, where children learn about Latino cultures.

“All of the photographs you see were taken by two local photographers from their community events this summer,” Mattson said, pausing beside a display of masks and other objects, which was accompanied by a photograph of children wearing them as they performed a traditional dance called the Dance of the Iguana. “We would have people coming in and recognizing themselves or their friends or their family. They were able to give tours for and with us about what the exhibit was about. So that was really fun. I haven’t had an experience quite like that, where everything was so current that you know the people.” Mattson believes we are always making history, and, “It’s important to document what we’re doing now.”

Some of the stories feel well-known until you come face-to-face with a room full of carefully marked boxes containing the details. Thomas Layton, an archaeologist who researched the story of the sunken Frolic, just donated several boxes of pottery that is contemporaneous with the vessels that were on board the famous shipwreck when it went down off the Mendocino coast in 1850. The museum has permission from the state to be custodians of the collection.

Though this particular pottery was not on The Frolic, “It would be period appropriate…so you can actually see some of the pottery and ceramics whole,” Mattson explained. The museum is in the early phases of planning an exhibit around The Frolic, “Because we know that people have requested it, and having these collections will make it a much more dynamic exhibit.”

The museum has an aquarium containing chunks of pottery still embedded in sea floor strata from around the sunken ship, as well as a wetsuit belonging to one the divers who retrieved the artifacts. Most of those items are not on display. After months of meeting in committee with volunteers and advisors, Mattson says it’s time to figure out how to tell which of the carefully cataloged stories.

“Right now what we’re having is a conversation about three things,” she said. One is how to make better use of the physical space in the museum for more exhibits. Another is improving the research arm, possibly by cultivating volunteers, including docents. Infrastructure is another focus. The survey right now includes a list of themes that potential visitors would be most interested in. “We will be using that data to find out, hey, what is it people really want?” Mattson promised. “Do they want to prioritize shipwrecks over something else? And we will definitely try to use that feedback to prioritize what we do, time-wise.”

The main hall with Nuestra Alianza display is a huge rambling space, which Mattson thinks can be divided up to showcase a wider variety of smaller exhibits. “We’re really trying to find a better balance, and making smaller spaces,” she said. “So one of the challenges we have with this huge hall is, it’s not sustainable. What we know is, maybe if we have some smaller cases, we can still tell those themed stories, and maybe satisfy the community better, because we’ll have more stories out. Then we could rotate the contents of those cases, but the themes would still be addressing more of our collection…But we don’t really want to go further before we find out what people want.”

The survey is available on the museum’s website, and asks about use of the museum, demographic information, and what kinds of exhibits and programming respondents are interested in. Community forums will start next month at the county museum, and travel around the county libraries until the end of April.

Standing next to a new display of an historically prominent Little River couple in a deep-red wedding dress and tailored tuxedo, Mattson reflected that, “Not only do we want to find out what they would like to see, but we also want it to be the process of having all the communities in Mendocino County know that we actually have collections that pertain to the history in their area. Sometimes it’s not known that we have collections from Point Arena or Little River…the people are the heartbeat of this museum. So in order for us to be relevant, all of our collections have to be used.”

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.