New Moody Mansion exhibit gives museum goers a tour of an intriguing woman’s travels
When sifting through boxes and dust to find artifacts and historical household items from eras spanning decades, Sharon Batiste Gillins couldn’t be having more fun.
A historical researcher for the Moody Mansion, Gillins was finishing up her latest exhibit: “Treasures, Trinkets and Souvenirs,” which features the items Mary Moody Northen collected while traveling around the world. The exhibit is open to the public.
The restored 1895 Moody Mansion is the former 28,000-square foot Galveston home of the powerful Moody family. The museum houses the personal effects of a family that shaped the island and still influences Galveston today.
W.L. Moody Jr. was an American financier and entrepreneur from Galveston who founded a private bank, insurance company and one of the biggest charitable foundations in the nation. His daughter, Mary, became head of the enterprises and lived in the mansion for three decades after her father’s death in 1954. She founded the Mary Moody Northen Endowment, which still operates and owns the mansion today.
Gillins, who first started working at the museum in 2011, wasn’t searching for a job on the island, she said.
“This job sought me and found me accidentally,” she said.
Gillins was at an event also attended by Betty Massey, executive director of the Mary Moody Northen Endowment. Massey heard Gillins talk about research and said “Come and see me.”
“I’ve been here ever since,” Gillins said.
Less of a curator and more of a historical researcher, Gillins found applying her skills in a completely different environment to be both exciting and challenging, she said.
“The same kind of skills are required, which are research, writing, analysis,” she said. “I’m a researcher and I’m able to take advantage of the fact that there have been a number of curators in the past who did an extensive amount of research.”
The latest exhibit Gillins created demonstrates how Mary Moody’s travels made her a natural collector, she said.
“When she traveled, she collected things that represented what she was interested in,” she said. “She kept excellent documentation and that set her apart. She recorded dates, places, people from left to right. That gives us information that we would not have.”
Moody was quite fond of the Far East and made sure to bring back a wide range of trinkets, Gillins said.
“Some things that she brought back and collected she wrote lots of notes about,” she said. “She had clothes made all around the world. It came from the Far East and she had it made when she was traveling.”
These exhibits are so stimulating because Mary Moody Northen was a pioneer of her time, Gillins said.
“She was chairman of the board of some major corporations at a time when women were just given the right to serve on a jury,” she said. “In addition to that, she traveled extensively around the world and brought back cultural artifacts.”
Digging through antiques that date back more than a century and creating exhibits from them is a collaborative effort, Gillins said.
“This work is not work I do alone,” she said. “I can’t do it by myself. The people who came before me were absolutely devoted to cataloging and recording each of the objects and putting them in storage.”
Crafting exhibits is fascinating work, Moody Mansion employee Pat Welsh said.
When selecting objects for a public exhibit, there’s a specific focus on what parts of Moody’s life will interest the general public, Welsh said.
Every exhibit needs to have a certain cohesiveness and showcase Mary Moody Northen’s eclectic collecting skills, Gillins said.
“Everything selected has to be consistent with a theme,” she said. “We all get together in staff meetings and we look at the timing and what’s coming up.”
Already planning several new exhibits for the public, Gillins is inspired by the vast amount of source material she has at her disposal, she said.
“There are hundreds of boxes and every box is a treasure,” she said. “Everything is interesting and historical. So, we have a lot of information that we can pull from to develop a collection. We haven’t run out of ideas or source material yet.”