New Museum Curator

After serving as curator at the Kelley House Museum for four years, and guiding it through the challenges of COVID, Karen McGrath has retired. Her tenure was marked by interesting projects and exciting technological advancements, and we shall miss her greatly. However, there is a silver lining: we have hired a new, young curator who could not be more perfect for the job. We welcomed Marguerite O’Brien to the museum on July 1st, just in time for her to take part in the July 4th lawn party.

The Kelley House water tower smiles down on its new curator, Marguerite O’Brien.

A native of Willits, she earned her B.A. degree in Classical studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and she is about to be awarded a Master’s degree in Museum Studies at the University of San Francisco. Along the way, she served as a collections and archives intern at the Montclair History Center, whose mission is strikingly similar to that of the Kelley House, albeit with structures almost 100 years older, accessioning and deaccessioning items in the collection and helping with special events. Another internship found her at the Mendocino County Museum in Willits, engaged in exhibition research, preparation and installation.

When I asked Marguerite where her love of history and museums came from, she recalled being taken by her mother to a show at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, where she was excited to see Greek artifacts thousands of years old. She realized then that museum work would allow her to be enthralled with her job and to ensure that future generations could be thrilled by history and its objects. 

O’Brien’s special skills include object care: knowing how to care for artifacts—for example, a piece of silk clothing from 1880—so they won’t break or disintegrate in your hands. Being herself a computer-savvy young woman, she is especially focused on interactive displays that will engage both adults and children in local history and culture. 

She would like to shine more light on the accomplishments of Mendocino coast natives like Elise Drexler, the second Kelley family daughter, who won a court case in 1893 over a woman’s right to inherit her husband’s financial wealth. As well, it was the everyday labor of working people that made Mendocino what it was, and is.

O’Brien and Anne Semans, the Kelley House Director, plan to expand programs with the local schools and look forward to resumption of the countywide meetings of all groups involved in historic preservation. After the isolation of COVID, it will be fun and productive to find out what other groups are working on.

Asked about a favorite museum, O’Brien mentioned being at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece, surrounded by ruins from thousands of years ago and feeling immersed in history. Mendocino can’t transport her into the past as far as Delphi, or even as far as Montclair, New Jersey, so why is she interested in beginning her professional career here? O’Brien says she has no preference for working with one era or another as long as she is in a history museum, especially a house museum that “surrounds her with history.” She adds, “Mendocino is such a gorgeous place, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to live here, and the bonus of being much closer to my family in Willits was impossible to resist.” 

The Kelley House Museum is open from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM Thursday through Sunday. To speak with the director or curator, contact them at info@kelleyhousemuseum.org to make an appointment. Walking tours of the historic district depart from the Kelley House regularly; for tour schedule, visit www.kelleyhousemuseum.org.