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History, artifacts & art in century-old landmark

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The Caterpillar tractor – designed by Benjamin Holt in Stockton – has its own wing that tells the history of the construction and the company, Holt Bros., which is still going strong today.


POSTED January 28, 2012 1:30 a.m.

STOCKTON — It’s impossible to miss the Haggin Museum.

With a majestic brick façade and towering white columns set back behind the ponds and the shade trees of Stockton’s popular Victory Park, the century-old landmark – filled with artwork, artifacts and local historical information – has long been a destination for schoolchildren, curious valley residents and out-of-town visitors.

And the museum’s staff is now making an attempt at breathing new life into a building filled with exotic works from famed artists, important San Joaquin County historical documents and artifacts and rotating collections that range from Salvador Dali drawings to suits of armor from the sixteenth century.

Twice a month the museum opens up at 6:30 p.m. for an evening of wine, snacks and music to create a different atmosphere that people would not normally associate with a museum. A family event is held on the second Saturday of the month aimed at bringing local families through the doors and getting them involved in activities associated with art.

All signs appear to be pointing towards success, according to the museum’s Director of Development, Susan Obert.

“Attendance last year was the highest that we’ve had in the last decade,” she said. “The museum used to be free and eventually instituted an admission fee. These were the biggest numbers we’ve seen since that happened in that time frame, and that’s a sign that we’re growing.”

Part of what Obert attributes to the rise in the attendance numbers are the rotating galleries that run the gamut from suits of armor from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to plein air paintings by American artists of bodies of water.

In the coming months the museum will feature a gallery of photographs from the archives of the Associated Press from World War II – covering the full spectrum of both European and South Pacific theaters as well as life on the home front during the period.

Plans are already in the works to hatch a deal with the NFL to land an exhibit that would showcase members of the NFL Hall of Fame that served in the military – including a special arrangement for the late Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, who enlisted in the United States Army after September 11 and became an Army Ranger. He was killed by friendly fire, and posthumously awarded a Silver Star.

That diverse range of attractions, Obert said, helps bring something to the museum that everybody can enjoy.

“What’s great about the rotations are some things would be of no interest to somebody, and then the next would be something that they’re fascinated with,” she said. “That kind of diversity helps us reach out to a broader audience, and I think it’s a good thing for the museum.”

Then there are the longtime staples that haven’t changed.

The Egyptian cleric Iret-Net Hor-Irw – known to most people simply as “the mummy” – was transferred back to San Francisco after being on loan to the Haggin for 65 years. More than 2,500 years old, the mummy made big news when it was transported to Stanford Medical School for a CT scan to determine his official cause of death.

But the wing showcasing the history of the Caterpillar tractor and its designer – Benjamin Holt – remains untouched. An early model of the famed farm implement, attached to a combine, takes up nearly an entire room. Adjacent to the display are pictures and details about the construction of the early Caterpillar machines – crafted by Stockton’s Holt Bros. and Stockton Iron Works.

A variety of Native American artifacts from throughout California make up another display, and around the corner a variety of early weapons – showing the progression of the rifle as well as the pistol – awaits those who pass by recreations of an early saloon, schoolhouse, pharmacy and general store.

Some of the most significant pieces of the museum’s collection, however, hang just inside the front door.

Just past the front counter in the Hull Gallery hang 12 paintings by famed artist Albert Bierstadt – showcasing scenes from the Yosemite Valley floor, the Canadian Rockies and the shore of the Bahamas after a storm.

Around the corner in the New Gallery are dozens of works by artist J.C. Leyendecker – commissioned by Collier’s Weekly and the Saturday Evening Post to paint famous covers for the historic periodicals onto canvas. More than 50 of his works – including “The Kellogg’s Kid – are on display.

—Jason Campbell
staff reporter

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