Curation of historic Gibson House collection continues

By Anne Ternus-Bellamy, Davis Enterprise

Almost a year after the Yolo County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to turn management of the historic Gibson House museum in Woodland over to YoloArts, supervisors received an update this week on efforts to preserve and catalog the 11,000 items in a historical collection dating back to the 1830s.

A museum curator hired to oversee that effort, Iulia Bodeanu, told supervisors a team of specially trained volunteers and college interns have thus far reviewed 2,000 items and the focus continues on ensuring items are displayed or stored in a way that ensures their preservation.

“I cannot overstate the importance of maintaining the structural integrity of the collection,” Bodeanu said, “as once a collection item is lost, it is lost forever.”

Preservation

Fears about the condition and maintenance of Gibson House and its historical collection prompted the Board of Supervisors in 2018 to turn operations over to YoloArts and hire Bodeanu as the county’s first museum curator.

According to county staff at the time, those concerns “included the discovery in years prior of deteriorating and pest-infested native American baskets stored in the attic, the serious deterioration of the very few Gibson family pieces in the collection, such as Mrs. Gibson’s ballgown worn to the McKinley inauguration, their family quilt, and Mr. Gibson’s ranch banner for his prized steers used at the State Fair.

“Additional concern was raised over facility improvement needs and the understanding that the collection had grown to over 11,000 items, of which a large portion is not available for public view but held in storage in facilities on the property.”

Review by an outside contractor found the collection to be in crowded conditions that could result in damage to some pieces and that certain storage facilities on the property were not suited for long-term preservation.

At that point the county reached out to YoloArts as a potential partner for facility management. YoloArts had long been looking for a larger permanent home, which the Gibson House property would provide.

Located at 512 Gibson Road in Woodland, the property includes not only the historic Gibson mansion but also barns and outbuildings, all of which have long served as a source of living history for thousands of local school children, particularly third graders, who visit annually.

The house belonged to William Byas Gibson, who moved to Yolo County in 1850, and with his wife, Mary Isabel Cook, raised three sons on the property. The county purchased the house and property in the 1970s and turned it into a historical museum. It’s purpose: To illustrate, through objects and archives, the stories of individuals and families — like the Gibsons — who settled Yolo County.

Rite of passage

For decades since, visiting school children visited the property, touring the mansion’s downstairs rooms filled with furniture and relics dating back to the 1800s and upstairs rooms furnished and decorated as they would have been more than 100 years ago.

Outside, school children toured barns full of old farm equipment and churned butter by hand.

Some of those activities remain, Bodeanu said, including butter churning.

Other things have changed.

Last year, the West barn, which previously featured a display of agricultural equipment and items, was converted into an event and gallery space, while those agricultural items were moved to the blacksmith shop. Another outbuilding now serves as a temperature-controlled space to review and catalog items.

The current focus, Bodeanu told county supervisors, is on the mansion itself, particularly the attic, which contains the bulk of the historically significant items within the collection, including clothing, jewelry, children’s items, quilts, paintings and more.

Bodeanu noted that the variety of items in the collection, from large agricultural equipment to clothing to paintings to household items “presents unique challenges in the organization, storage and ongoing care.”

“Previously the collection was stored in multiple locations on the Gibson property and were in various states of overcrowding, exposure to temperature extremes and susceptibility to pests,” she said.

Now they are viewed and catalogued in a temperature- and humidity-controlled facility, she said, with items selected to remain on display at the Gibson property.

Taking care

Meanwhile, a team of volunteers and two college interns, all trained in museum standards of object handling and cataloging procedures, are going through all 11,000 items in the collection. The mission: figuring out what exactly is in the collection and developing interpretive methods for their display.

Also required: removing items from the collection altogether.

That’s done by a committee of local experts with backgrounds in local history, agricultural history, education, art and more.

“Before, there was overcrowding with the collection, so bringing it down to a manageable size means we can ensure the longterm preservation of those objects,” Bodeanu said.

The committee determines criteria for removal from the collection and then votes on whether an item should be removed or not.

Yolo County residents may apply to serve on the committee by submitting an application before May 15. Information is available at https://yolocountylibrary.org/research/yolo-county-historical-collection/

Meanwhile, Bodeanu said, two new exhibits have opened at the Gibson House property — one focused on agricultural history, the other on the county’s dairy history.

The agricultural innovation display focuses on the crop cycle of wheat, which was the top crop in Yolo County in 1850.

“The exhibit showcases implements and tools used in planting and harvesting as well as a hands-on component for students,” Bodeanu said.

The dairy exhibit focuses on the rise of the dairy business in Woodland and continues the butter-making activity students have long enjoyed on their school tours.

“So far there have been 20 tours scheduled through May 30 and we’ve served a total of 437 students from the Davis and Woodland school districts,” Bodeanu said.

Upcoming exhibits will focus on the Gibson family’s role in the agricultural business, the theme of food preparation and the farm-to-fork movement, as well as leisure activities in the Victorian era.

Bodeanu earned praise from county supervisors on Tuesday for her efforts thus far.

“Tremendous progress, just since last year,” said Supervisor Jim Provenza of Davis.

“I was out there recently,” said Supervisor Gary Sandy of Woodland, “and it’s really remarkable to see the job that’s been done. The entire campus is as neat as a pin. It’s really extraordinary. Then seeing the great work you’ve done behind the scenes in restoring items, cataloging them, I feel like we’re making really positive progress there.”

The transition of Gibson House management to YoloArts was not a smooth one. Longtime volunteers and board members with the Yolo County Historical Museum — which previously managed the property — opposed the transition, fearing the living history component of Gibson House would be lost as space was given over for more art-focused activities, such as the gallery.

More information about the historical collection is available at https://yolocountylibrary.org/research/yolo-county-historical-collection.

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at aternus@davisenterprise.net. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy