Group Energized to Bring History Alive

April 27, 2017
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Museum Director Evelyn C. Murphy, left, and Director of Development and Communications Lisa Maher pose with a dress made in Paris and worn by by Julia Norton Hartshorne. This and other dresses are part of the exhibit “The Hartshorne: Eight Generations and Their Highlands Estate Called Portland.” It continues through mid May at the Monmouth County Historical Association Museum in Freehold.

By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen |

The Monmouth County Historical Society, founded 118 years ago, doesn’t want to be an organization that lives in the past.

“We don’t want to be thought of as stagnant, not responsive, not growing,” said board president Linda Bricker. “We want to tell stories, bring things to life.”

Among its current initiatives is an oral history event marking the fifth anniversary of Super Storm Sandy. Years from now, the stories will be historical source material for anyone interested in the event, they believe.

Super Storm Sandy caused deaths, destroyed or damaged thousands of homes, left millions without power and caused billions in economic loss to New Jersey.

The historical association is eager to record memories.

“We were founded in 1898 by people who felt it was important to preserve the history of Monmouth County and that has been our mission from the get-go,” museum director Evelyn C. Murphy explained. “We summarize it as ‘collect, preserve, interpret and share’ everything related to Monmouth County history.

“And that includes the county’s broad economic history, social history, political history, all aspects of our history,” she noted.

The MCHA is partnering with Melissa Ziobro, a public history professor in the department of history and anthropology at Monmouth University. She is reaching out to libraries, churches and community centers, and plans to compile the stories on a website.

“We know the value of realtime information about an event,” Murphy said. “It’s very valuable to us. It’s like having the actual diary written by a soldier at the Battle of Monmouth.”

“What will be important to someone a hundred years from now will be actual statements from people who lived through Sandy and the impact it had,” she said. “It happened five years ago and it’s not over. There are still people not in their houses in our county.”

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And that’s not all the MCHA is up to these days to change the notion that history is just a bunch of boring facts. The association, which currently has five full-time employees, 42 trustees and 75 volunteers (and looking for more), took stock of itself a few years ago.

“We thought we were doing a very good job of collecting and preserving and researching, but we were not being as active as we could be in sharing,”

Murphy said. “That really needs to be the core of what we’re doing. Of course, we need to save things. We want them here for everybody in the future. But we also need to be sure we are reaching people today.”

Murphy, who first served as interim director beginning in March 2012 and was offered the job in May 2014, doesn’t have a background in either history or running a museum. But she does have a background in finance and nonprofit management.

“It turned out that what was needed at the time was a way of looking at the organization through business eyes,” she explained. “We had periods of time where the way we would operate was, ‘OK. We have this amount of money, what can we do with it?’ That’s reasonable, but it tends to make you stagnate.

“Instead, we switched to, ‘What is our mission? What do we need to do? How much will it cost to do it right, and how do we go about getting the funding’?”, she said.

The board decided the goal was to grow its budget by 50 percent and reach out to various communities, especially the historical groups found in many municipalities, said Lisa Maher, director of Development and Communications.

“We want to serve the community and be a part of the community,” she said. “We have to be more vocal in how we talk about it.”

In addition to its website, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr pages, the MCHA recently joined Instagram and is in the process of digitalizing its collection to post online.

Instead of waiting for the public to come to its headquarters at 70 Court St., Freehold, which includes a museum, research library and archives (most of its collection of 30,000 items are stored in an off-site facility), the association is reaching out to the public.

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For the past four years it has had a float in the Rumson St. Patrick’s Day parade.

A concert focused on the African-American music scene in Asbury Park was held in the front yard of the MCHA’s headquarters.

Another concert featuring Latino music also was held and for the first time last year the MCHA participated in the annual Latino Festival of Monmouth County.

The “Hartshorne: Eight Generations and Their Highlands Estate Called Portland” show is the group’s first bi-lingual presentation. It continues through mid-May.

“We need to be responsive to all communities,” Murphy said. “With the Battle of Monmouth we’re talking about American values, American patriotism.

“It’s really a good thing to speak to people who are new here, who don’t speak English,” she said. “That makes them more interested in learning to speak and read English so they can learn more and feel like a part of the community.”

Recent MCHA events included an all-day seminar “Whatever Shall We Wear: 18th and Early 19th Century Clothing and Accessories in Monmouth County,” and the popular “Open Hearth Cooking” at Covenhoven House in Freehold designed to explore the lives of local 18th century Jewish farmers. It featured a kosher menu that included Polish barley soup, Ashkenazic meat dumplings, and German Cinnamon Stars.

Coming up is the Wool Days Spring Festival at the Holmes Hendrickson House on April 29 and 30. Besides the usual sheep shearing and herding demonstrations, the MCHA is expanding the festivities to include a Colonial-style market and craft fair of local artisans and purveyors.

The MCHA also is reaching out to communities that run their own museums to offer advice, resources, and sometimes physical labor.

Before the Keyport Historical Society’s Steamboat Dock Museum was destroyed by Super Storm Sandy storm surges, they called the MCHA for help, Murphy said. “Their members were packing boxes and they called us looking for help getting their artifacts to safety,” she explained. “One of our trustees got a truck and picked everything up and took it to a storage facility where it stayed for three years before they could take it back.”

Sounds like a story for the Sandy archives.

To share your Sandy stories, email

For information about the MCHA and how to volunteer, visit, or call 732-462-1466.

This article was first published in the April 20-27, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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