We step into museums again

After more than a year at home, punctuated only by grocery shopping and outdoor walks, we made a step toward normality by visiting some indoor sights in the Monterey area. There are lots of places on our list, museums, the famous Monterey Aquarium, the Carmel Mission, and the many historic houses that predate the US takeover of California in 1846. Not all cultural venues have reopened; for example, the museum at the Monterey Presidio remains closed. There is still lots to see.

We began in the center of things, Custom House Plaza in Monterey (the banner photo above this post). The huge decline in Covid cases and subsequent end of restrictions has allowed some of the historic houses to reopen. Right across from Fisherman’s Wharf, the large open plaza by the Custom House hosts a Saturday craft market, and after a look around, we headed to the Custom House and the Pacific House Museum that border the plaza.

Inside the Custom House is an area recreating the original work carried out, recording the coming and going of goods. Thick ledgers on the table where cargoes, ships, and dates were noted, hint at the enormity of trying to keep track of California as it grew from a military fort and a mission into a vast state of the US.

The Pacific House is across a corner of the plaza. Monterey State Historic Park Office, is the sign you see first, and the Pacific House Museum is in smaller letters beneath the porch roof. Inside, a knowledgeable park staff member pointed us to the start of the timeline of California history, and added that the upstairs held collections of indigenous objects.

California history begins with the people who camped along the shore and collected clams, mussels and abalone. The remains of these campsites are still visible as you walk along the coastal paths anywhere from Lover’s Point to Big Sur. Where you see dark earth dotted with fragments of abalone, you’re walking on the remains of a shell mound created by coastal people. The remains of their activities turned the ground dark, a contrast with the pale sand dunes beneath.

We’ve asked ourselves why no one seems to pay any attention to these coastal archaeological sites. Most are being eroded by footpaths, and by the thousands of ground squirrels that like to burrow in the soft dirt. Perhaps it’s because the entire coast would have to be declared an archaeological site, and you can’t protect everything. Further, these sites are about 99% marine shells–there aren’t any tools, pots, or baskets to find, and looters ignore these places. Gradually, they will erode back into the ocean.

The Spanish and Mexican history of California spans about a century, from 1769-1848, and is full of twists and turns. Land grants were established, forts built, people moved in and established farms and ranches. There are interesting pictures of Californios, people of Hispanic background born in the region in the Spanish-Mexican era.

Upstairs in the Pacific House Museum is a collection of artifacts donated by a local couple, the Holmans, owners of the largest department store between Los Angeles and San Francisco (at one time). The Holman’s focus was on California basketry, and they tried to obtain one of every type. Other objects come from all over Indian Country, Southwest kachinas, plains beaded regalia, and parfleche bags.

After a quick browse through the gift shop, we went behind the building into an extensive patio and garden area. Called the Memory Garden, it is beautifully maintained and provides shade and a few places to sit. If you’re not ready to take a break, a trail by historic buildings of Monterey leads from this area past the Duarte Store and the Joseph Boston store. Both have period items arranged within, but both were closed when we went by. It’s difficult to tell whether small historic buildings will reopen again.

We plan to visit other historic buildings in Monterey along the self guided tour (www.mshpa.org)

We skipped to the other end of the historic district to the Monterey Museum of Art. The upstairs displays work from the permanent collection, including some classic California paintings, and the main floor held two current exhibits. During our visit, interesting photographic work by local students was being shown, along with an exhibit of manipulated polaroids by William Giles that we liked very much. An extensive exhibit showed the brightly colored work of an uncle and niece, both artists who spend time in the area. I particularly liked the displays from their work areas. I’m always interested to see where people work and how they ornament the space around themselves. During the past months that we’ve been in one place, I’ve managed to spread bits of flotsam all over the window ledges and tables.

Which is why I liked the old school stuffed animal exhibits at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. Their new exhibit doesn’t open until July 2, but in the meantime the permanent collection displays most of the species you can find in central California. We scrutinized the birds, hoping for insight into identifying them, but a taxidermied bird isn’t the same as a bird on a branch. We’ll have to keep looking in the great outdoors. We did make a new friend (right) and reinforced my desire never to see a grizzly bear in the wild. Like many smaller institutions, the Natural History Museum is coming back from long months of lockdown and is very much worth a visit as a show of support for our cultural insititutions.

We’re going to continue to investigate the spaces we’ve been kept out of until recently. Being unable to visit any cultural institution at all for more than a year makes me appreciate the number of museums that are around us. Now I’m ready to visit them all.


Published by winifredcreamer

I am a retired archaeologist and I like to travel, especially to places where you can walk along the shore or watch birds. My husband Jonathan and I travel for more than half the year every year, seeing all the places that we haven't gotten to yet.

2 thoughts on “We step into museums again

  1. I so enjoyed reading this about Monterey/Pacific Grove. I was at DLIWC in 1971 and spent time at the wharf and that area. Great memories. I have visited once since then, went to the wharf and cannery row . . . quite a change since the 1970s. Thanks for the reminders.


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