Within two weeks of moving to Benicia, Beverly Phelan visited the local museum. She quickly learned Benicia was once the state capital and that the capitol building was still standing.
“That’s when I got the bug,” says Beverly. She became a volunteer for the Benicia Historical Museum in 1990 and joined the board shortly thereafter.
Her enthusiasm for local history has not waned over the years. She became the museum’s curator in 2006 and volunteers 30 to 35 hours a week there. She also volunteers weekly at Kaiser and is active in the Friendship Club.
“I was born with tremendous energy. My mission is to teach people about this place. You meet so many interesting people,” Beverly says.
A Chicago native, she worked for a movie distribution company while still a teenager and has vivid memories of meeting stars such as Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. She and her husband, Jim, moved their family frequently as he was transferred to new locations. After arriving in Benicia in 1985, she took a part-time office job in Concord to update her work skills.
Beverly, 74, puts those skills and her considerable experience to use in several key ways at the museum: she researches requests for historical information, oversees the seemingly endless work of properly cataloging every museum item, meets with donors, works on special exhibits, and attends museum board and committee meetings, to name a few of her responsibilities.
“We’re preserving our past for the future,” she says.
What are some of the changes you’ve seen at the museum over the years? I was on our board when we hired the first director in 1991. Things started changing right away. We started taking our records more seriously. Once we got a professional director, the first thing she did was have us inventory everything in storage. I had volunteers out here every weekend for 18 months, inventorying everything – furniture, extra chairs, magazines, textiles, office machinery, books, photographs, papers. She put us in a professional mode.
We didn’t have an office building at the beginning. When we got the building, we started with a typewriter on a typewriter stand, a desk for the director and a filing cabinet. She told us we had to get a computer. From there on, we grew and grew and grew.
With every director, we continue to grow. The museum is on a good path.
What does it take to properly catalog an item in the museum’s collection? Accessioning is getting everything into our collection according to Hoyle. You have to number each item, put it in a proper container and write a thorough description. If you give us something as small as a square nail from an important building built in the 1850s, it has to be properly accessioned.
Because of all the detail, you have to do it properly, and I can’t do it all. I couldn’t do it without (volunteer registrars) Roberta Garrett and Bob Kvasnicka. Not everybody can do this kind of work. You have to be detail-oriented.
How many items does the museum have in its collection? We have about 18,500 items in our computer database that’s available online, but I couldn’t say how many more items we have overall. We have lots of photos. We try to get them archived—after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. People can look through them and can buy copies of the photos.
What are your responsibilities as curator? I’m responsible for protecting the collection, to make sure the collection is in the best possible condition that we can afford. I inspect the museum every Tuesday morning. Weekends are usually busy here and I want to see how everything is looking.
I make sure our records are in the best shape they can be in our archives. I get things ready for exhibits, though the director has the final say, of course. I do all the gift agreements and loan agreements, which are very detailed.
Research is the primary thing. I do a lot of research.
What types of questions do people ask the museum to research? We get questions from people as far away as Norway. We’ve been asked a lot about (Benicia shipbuilder) Matthew Turner. Do you have the plans for the Galilee? No, but we have the ship list that has the dimensions and the name of the master carpenter. Then they come back with another request about another ship. It can go on and on.
There are just numerous questions about our town and the people here. One woman said her husband served in World War II at the Benicia Arsenal and asked if the gate is still there. Yes, I told her, but it’s off to the side and the guard house is gone. Then she asked if we could send her a picture of it. It just goes on and on.
It’s never boring, it’s always interesting. I can do a lot of things in one day.
What training has helped you in your role as curator? I learned from the directors how to properly archive, and I’ve also gone to California Association of Museums conferences to learn more. There are meetings on different topics, and you can ask any question and learn from other directors. You learn you are not alone, that all museums have the same woes, especially small ones.
I’ve also gone to American Association of Museums conferences when they are on this end of the country. They offer lots of materials at a reasonable price.
When I have a particular problem, I call someone at another museum who knows what I can do with our resources. And I read and I read and I read.
What criteria do you use to evaluate items offered to the museum’s collection? We want items that match our mission statement, which has to do with the history of Benicia or Benicia’s military history. For example, we recently accepted an organ because it’s a cultural item that someone in Benicia would have owned at a certain time. On the other hand, a Japanese dresser would be a treasure, but it doesn’t match our mission statement.
What are some of the unique items in the collection? One of them certainly would be the painting of the Peabody Hospital with Mary Lane’s house in it. Mary Lane was a former slave and she owned a home (near Passalacqua Funeral Chapel). She’s buried in Benicia Cemetery.
We have Charles P. Stone’s journal starting in 1851. He came here to build the arsenal and it goes all the way through the Civil war and beyond. This is a day that is never to be forgotten, he wrote of the day Lincoln was shot.
We have the journal of the von Pfister store from 1847-48. Who was there, what they bought and how much they paid for it. Thomas Larkin, Robert Semple—a ball of string, a bottle of whiskey.
And we have the binnacle with the compass from the Galilee. That’s a good one.
Who inspires you? Actually, my dad. He’s gone now, but he always had a good attitude about life. If there was ever a tragedy or a problem, he’d tell me it was going to be OK. … My dad wouldn’t let worry stop him from the task.
What do you do to relax? We watch TV and movies. Jim and I have our favorite competition shows like American Idol and The Voice. I love to watch young people going for their goal.