The Fourth of July fireworks that light up the Benicia waterfront illuminate a city steeped in our nation’s history—a community whose own founding is worth celebrating. Yet many Benicians remain unaware of the role our city played in our state and nation’s development. There’s a place with its own storied past that carefully preserves Benicia’s history, one that inspires pride and off ers a fascinating expedition into our earliest days—the Benicia Historical Museum.
This local gem serves as a repository for historical documents and artifacts and provides a place to learn about the local area. Elizabeth d’Huart, executive director of the museum, believes everyone should understand their community’s history. “Benicia and its residents can be proud of our place in history, and learn important lessons from the past, which shapes who we are and what we do today,” she explains.
With this in mind, the museum’s collections include private journals, letters, business records, deeds, maps, military writs, photographs, telegrams, newspapers, craftsman’s tools, home goods and more. In fact, the museum holds over 20,000 artifacts.
The museum’s buildings are themselves historic. They are designated a California Historical Landmark and are part of the National Trust of Historic Places. The main building, the Camel Barn, tells Benicia’s story as a whole. Its wooden stairs and bright stained-glass window lead to maps, documents, artifacts, and interactive displays that draw visitors back through time. The old powder magazine, a stone structure with cathedral-like arches, explains the military history of the area. And the third building serves as administrative offices.
Historic on the outside, the museum’s most important function happens inside, behind the scenes. Staff and volunteers carefully document and preserve photos, documents, and other physical artifacts. All are carefully archived. For example, says d’Huart, the museum recently received over 800 photographic glass plates from the early 1900s. Each one must be preserved, photographed, and archived. After processing, such items are stored for future reference.
In the midst of preserving the artifacts, the museum receives over ten research requests a week. In fact, they have handled over 2,500 research assists since 1987. Requests might be to review a bill of lading from a ship that docked in the 1800s or to help identify someone in an old photograph. As with other museums, people cannot search through its fragile artifacts themselves. However, trained staff members gladly do everything they reasonably can to fulfill each request.