Forming a Collection
A collection is a group of things and often that group is created by someone. As an example, many children have a collection of comic books. They have gathered or collected these comic books and with every year as they get older the collection gets larger, and later may be forgotten. The same is true of many collections. Today, the most popular collectibles are coins, stamps, baseball pins, vinyl records, toys, trading cards, and wine.
Museums and historical societies in the United States have gathered large collections which include many unidentified objects. A museum’s collection is usually started by donations or gifts to the organization and eventually may become unmanageable without constant management and review..
Every collection manager’s objective is to develop a collection of objects which are relevant to the museum’s mission, mandates, history, and themes. Each museum plans to include curating, preserving, and making artifacts from the collection available for the public benefit. It is difficult and requires constant attention and review by the staff and board of directors.
The Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County is not a museum. It is best referred to as a museum without walls. We place our collections in various sites where people will have a surprise encounter with a historical object in a new context such as on a hiking trail, in a vineyard, an art gallery, or a restaurant. This encounter gives meaning and creates a memory of the object as a unique and important part of public history. Our collection is designed to delight and educate the viewer about viticulture, terroir, fermentation, winemaking, and wine culture in San Luis Obispo County. It focuses on who and what actually shaped our history. It is the only project designed in this format in the United States. The “Project” refers to our work to directly involve the public in specific projects such as planting heritage vineyards, designing mobile exhibits to move about the county and making wine in clay vessels known an amphorae. We partner with other organizations such as the Dana Adobe and Cultural Center and the Wine and Viticulture Department at Cal Poly University to showcase these projects.
We have a large collection. These objects are, at times, referred to in the museum world as artifacts, relics, remnants, or antiquities. According to National Geographic, an artifact is an object made by a human being. Artifacts include art, tools, and clothing made by people of any time and place. The term can also be used to refer to the remains of an object, such as a shard of broken pottery or glassware. Artifacts are immensely useful to scholars who want to learn about a culture.
Glass bottles made in the 1800s. Photo by Cindy Lambert, 2018.
The Focus of the Wine History Project’s Collection
In 2015 Libbie Agran founded and established the Wine History Project to study the land, microclimates, grape varieties, growers, and winemakers who have shaped the wine history of San Luis Obispo County. She researched the county to create a timeline of grape growing and winemaking history from the Mission Era to the present. Other founders included: Richard Sauret, Archie McLaren, Robert Haas, and David and Judy Breitstein who provided support, expertise, guidance, and historical insights.
The Wine History Project’s mission statement:
We collect, present, and preserve two centuries of local viticulture history through research, interviews, exhibitions, films, and public work with local vintners and growers to bring to life the wine history of San Luis Obispo County.
To preserve the viticultural past of San Luis Obispo County, the Wine History Project has built a Collection that documents the history of the tools utilized by early residents to create our local wine culture and physical viticultural landscape. Besides objects, we also collect photographs, books, manuscripts/personal papers, and ephemera, which help us tell historical stories and provide the public with historical context.
The first donations and gifts included rare wines, early photos taken in the 1800s, library books published over the last 100 years, wine labels, etched bottles from local artists, and old tools from residents in San Luis Obispo County. Archie McLaren donated items related to the Central Coast Wine Classic and the Paderewski Festival. With time and growth, the organization went in search of collection-worthy objects. This became a reality in the summer of 2018 and it has been a wonderful and adventurous journey.
To create a museum-worthy collection, the organization must also be responsible for managing and caring for that collection, as well as documenting, digitizing, and researching objects. This method safeguards both the tangible and intangible aspects of history and culture.
Creating the Collection in 2018
Collecting is a passion for some and a hobby for most. The journey of developing the Wine History Project’s important collection focused on creating a group of appropriate artifacts to tell the story of the wine culture and history of San Luis Obispo County’s viticulture growth. The first thing Libbie Agran did was hire a professional collection manager, Cindy Lambert.
As the collections manager/curator my work involves collection development, acquisitions, and stewardship of the artifacts and archives. I assist with curating exhibitions and conducting scholarly research on said artifacts and archives. Additionally, I author articles on winemaking and viticultural tools and equipment for the Wine History Project’s website. Prior work experience with recordkeeping and collections taught me that it was important to set museum standards for the Wine History Project. We joined the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH), a professional organization providing valuable resources in the museum field.
I attended AASLH’s annual conference in Kansas City, Missouri in September 2018. The theme of that conference was “Truth or Consequences”; it focused on the need for history practitioners to show their commitment to the field of public history by focusing on accuracy and reliable evidence based on research, science, and scholarship.
My first work focused on setting the criteria for the Wine History Project Collection. As the collection manager, I have the responsibility to catalog the collections, assess and assist in the preservation of these collections, develop an understanding of the materials of the objects and artifacts, organize content and information, and to present the collection to the public..
Our Collections date back to 1850 when San Luis Obispo County was founded.
My intent is to acquire objects dating back to the mid-century 1800s and continue through each decade to the present. San Luis Obispo County is one of the original 27 counties established in the new state of California on September 9, 1850. The entire population numbered 336 in 1850. This included a total of 60 families and 53 dwellings. Compare these numbers to the population of San Luis Obispo County in 2021 – 283,159 residents.
My research has led to some amazing discoveries. Does the WHP Collection contain every item that could have been utilized for growing grapes and creating wine throughout the years? Not yet, but there are many antiquities to study for those interested in researching our county’s growth and importance in viticulture.
I periodically watch a popular cable television show, “American Pickers,” on the History Channel. The episode “Ripe for the Picking” was broadcast one night in the summer of 2018. I watched Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz travel to Petaluma, California to peruse a collection of wine artifacts stored in chicken coops on an old farm. Wolfe and Fritz were “picking” through Jim McCormick’s collection more popularly known as the California Wine Museum.
Jim had been collecting for decades with the hopes of establishing a Wine Museum in Santa Rosa, California. Unfortunately, the project did not come to fruition. However, Jim wanted his artifacts to be acquired by serious collectors who would share them with the public. What better way to provide a home than with the Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County?
Libbie Agran and I contacted Jim and traveled to Petaluma. We spent several days looking through warehouses of artifacts, tools, and equipment used in early California winemaking and viticulture. In a larger context, the collection reflected the early Wine Culture established in California by diverse ethnic groups with personal items such maps and paintings illustrating the vineyards and wineries.
The Corkscrew Collection of WHP. Photo by Cindy Lambert, 2018
Managing the Wine History Project Collection
Efforts have been made to process, inventory, and assess for relevance many items acquired for the collection. Each item must match the Wine History Project’s mission and exhibition needs while birthing this collection. An emphasis on the “big picture” has been part of this innovative approach advocated by our team. Museum standards have been followed to create a well-developed collection management practice to make the WHP Collections accessible for research and exhibition.
In addition to an object/artifact collection, we have a library collection and an archival collection. Standards have been followed and utilized with these collections also in order to maintain complete and accurate records of the collecting efforts we have made over the past five years.
Artifacts were assembled in our climate-controlled storage areas for being processed, inventoried, and assessed for relevance. The collection needed to be sorted and defined options are utilizing one of three ways to do so: subject-based, material-based, or size based. The Wine History Project Collections are sorted by subject. Currently, these include 22 categories:
- Auger, Boring and Reamer Tools
- Bottle Cleaners
- All Objects Regarding Holding Wine: Jugs, Demijohns, Bottles, Tools for Creating
- Corkers and Cork Presses
- Cooper Tools
- Cellar Lamps
- Cellar Tools
- Bottle Dryers
- Grape Presses
- Spigots and Barrel Taps
- Vineyard Tools
- Vintage Funnels
- Wine Thief Pipettes
- Wine Transfer Pumps
- Published Works
We document each item in the collection, including descriptive information, a visible number for each object, and information about its provenance and use. We record this information in an electronic database.
Our Master Plan was created to determine how much space is needed to store our collection, and what “furniture” (shelving units including their size and number of shelves) is necessary for storage. The plan provides for the protection of artifacts against natural disasters (flood zones, earthquakes, etc.),and includes flat files and special storage for artwork, maps and paper artifacts. Archival boxes and materials are used to store the collection..
Additionally, there is a collections care strategy policy; objects are checked for health risks, pest infestation, mold, or other issues before proceeding with the “life” of each object.
Staying connected with professional organizations also has been a part of our development of this overall collection strategy.
AAM, the American Alliance of Museums
AASLH, the American Association of State and Local History
ARCS, the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists
Collections management is a continuum. “Inside is better than outside, on a shelf is better than on the floor, in an enclosure is better than out in the open”.
We look forward to sharing our Collections with the public in winery tasting rooms, the Dana Adobe, The Land Conservancy, State Parks, the Wine History Gallery at the Paso Robles History Museum, local festivals, and at special exhibits and events. Please contact us if you need more information. You may find more research information, photographs, and videos at our website. www.winehistoryproject.org