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50 States of Preservation: The Molly Brown House Museum in Denver, Colorado

March 30, 2017 | By Sarah Lepinski

This feature is part of a series we call “50 States of Preservation,” in which we are touring small and mid-sized museums, libraries, historical societies, and other repositories across the country to show how they are helping to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage.  Read other entries in the series here.

Today, Margaret ‘Molly’ Brown (1867-1932) is best known for surviving the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, but during her lifetime she was a forceful figure in late Victorian America, a self-described “daughter of adventure,” who served as a community leader and passionate social reformer, advocating especially for the rights of women and miners.  Brown ran for U.S. Senate three times and worked with the Red Cross in France during World War I as a nurse and an ambulance driver. She was also an accomplished actress, and her strong fashion sense made newspaper headlines almost as much as her other accomplishments.

Brown’s home in Denver, Colorado, remains one of the few historic sites dedicated to the story of a woman. Its extensive collection of artifacts illustrates late Victorian styles and tastes, as well as the legendary story of its owner both at home and in the public eye.  In addition to its collection of fine and decorative art, domestic items, books, and photographs, the Molly Brown House Museum holds a large Fashions Collection--including shoes, handbags, scarves, horse riding gear, and hats, dating to the years of Margaret Brown’s life. Pieces such as the black and brown check riding coat dating to 1888 and a World War I Red Cross cotton smock uniform illustrate how women’s fashion adapted to external cultural, social, and historical forces and resulted in a move away from restrictive clothing and new liberties for women.

Until recently, this important collection was kept entirely at the house museum. Not only was storage cramped, but it also posed potential preservation risks. The 1889 house presents certain challenges for preserving clothing and other delicate materials, which are threatened by fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels as well as water, dirt, and pests. With help from NEH Preservation Assistance Grants in 2011 and 2015, the museum was able to acquire environmental monitoring equipment and rehouse its Fashions Collection: garments were either hung on padded acid-free hangers for vertical storage or transferred to garment boxes if they were too fragile to be hung. When not on exhibit in the house museum, the items are now kept off-site in an environmentally stable storage area.

The Molly Brown House Museum is planning to create a new Natural Resource Educational Center in the former storage space that will focus on the history of mining in Colorado. The center will place the story of Margaret’s husband J.J. Brown, a mining entrepreneur during Denver’s formative years as a booming mining town, within a larger historical narrative.

In every state, NEH supports organizations that preserve humanities collections.  Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions (PAGs) fund projects that help safeguard photographs, letters, documents, prints, moving images, sound recordings, maps, drawings, artworks, textiles, furniture, and artifacts, making them available for future generations.  These collections help researchers, educators, and members of the public better understand the complex stories of the various cities, towns, and tribal groups that make up our nation.

Since 2000, NEH has made nearly 2,000 Preservation Assistance Grants to small and mid-sized organizations to preserve and care for their humanities collections.  In all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, PAG awards have funded preservation assessments, purchase of shelving, environmental monitoring equipment, and preservation supplies, and training for staff.  Organizations in all states and U.S. territories are eligible to apply, and the program encourages applications from those new to NEH.  The next application deadline Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions is May 2, 2017.  If you have any questions about this grant program, please contact us at preservation@neh.gov or 202-606-8570.  

The Molly Brown House Museum received NEH support through Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions, PG-51421-11 and PG-52402-15.