As difficult as it is to start something from scratch, most will attest that picking up someone else’s work can be every bit as difficult. As we dive deeper into Women’s History Month, this second post in a series on the great women associated with the Bowers looks at Margaret Key who started at the museum shortly after Bessie Beth Coulter retired. Though officially she was the Bowers Museum’s Registrar, responsible for maintaining a register of all the objects in the Bowers’ collections, she wore a great many hats. During and after her time working in Santa Ana she was fondly referred to as the “First Lady of the Bowers Museum.” In this post we look at her background and some of the reasons why she earned that title.
Loss and Becoming
Margaret Adair Samuel was born in Flint, Michigan in 1919. Entering the world just two years after WWI, she had a tortured relationship with wars. Her older brother was killed while serving in China in WWII, a tragic event which made her son getting drafted to fight in Vietnam all the more traumatic. It was during World War II though that she got in her first work experience. She worked as a secretary for AC Spark Plug, an appropriately named Flint, Michigan automobile part manufacturer. While working there she met and in 1943 married an engineer named Cleo Key. The young couple had two children: Robert and David. After the war Margaret Key briefly worked as a docent for Greenfield Village and then as the Secretary to the Fine Art Department at The Henry Ford Museum, but her professional engagements were regularly interrupted by her husband moving the family around the United States for his work. It was not until he transferred to Ford Motor Company’s new aerospace division located in Newport Beach that they finally settled down in 1961.
While still adjusting to their new Tustin environs, the Keys attended a Christmas-themed lecture at the Bowers Museum. During the event Margaret Key learned that the Bowers had an opening for someone with job experience working at a museum. She applied and was hired on early in 1962. When she first began there was one telephone, three desks, and two typewriters. Though Bessie Beth Coulter had done a remarkable job of acquiring collections, she had not had the staff to properly catalogue them and in general the Bowers was highly disorganized. It is in large part due to Key that the museum’s files began to be properly catalogued and that the catalogue system of the museum was transferred to a modern computer database during the museum’s late 1980s renovation. She holds countless other accolades as well, such as instituting modern policies for condition reporting loans to the museum, as well as finding time for activities far outside the purview of most Registrars.
Perhaps the culmination of Key’s time working at the Bowers Museum was the Bowers Museum’s 36·86 Exhibition, a golden anniversary exhibition featuring many of the finest objects in the Bowers’ collections. Uncharacteristic for a Registrar, and perhaps indicative of the broader scope of her position, she curated the exhibition, pulling together the incredible selection of objects. The truth of the matter was that none of the three curators working at the museum at the time were as familiar with the collections as she was. Key retired from the Bowers Museum just three years later in 1989, having put in 27 and a half years. Shortly after her retirement the Bowers’ historic courtyard was renamed the Margaret and Cleo Key Courtyard in her honor.
Eyes That Dance
Margaret Key passed away in 1999, almost exactly a decade after retiring. Not having had the protection that losing her husband afforded Bessie Beth Coulter, one finds comments questioning what her dedication to her position might have meant for her home life strewn throughout articles on her. However, such dated notes are very much overshadowed by her incredible character. One could hardly claim to know her without knowing that her vehicle of choice was a brightly colored Ford Mustang. But her greatest passion was right in line with her work though. She caught the antiquing bug at an early age and wherever she and Cleo lived there was a room in the house called the “treasure room,” filled entirely with antiques that she and her husband had personally restored. While at the museum her interests were the Bowers Museum’s interests, constantly expanding and growing with the evolving institution. Yet no matter how much reading she did for work, she always found time to read a biography on someone who had suffered a loss like she had with her brother and persevered. Now, over a third of a century after her retirement, Collections staff can feel her legacy every time we dive into our database.
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This is such an interesting and informative article about a Key staff member of Bowers who shaped its early history. I enjoyed learning about the contributions of Margaret Key from cataloguing collections to curating. Seeing a re-staging of the 36.86 anniversary exhibition would be a wonderful tribute to the legacy of this celebrated woman. Thank you for showcasing another dimension of Bowers Museum history.
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