Museum reaches a major turning point

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 10, 2002

Scenario #1: You have just inherited a country home worth millions.

You are now responsible for its care, and you are to share it with the world.

Unfortunately, there is no money to cover operating and maintenance costs. You find that selling any of the furnishings, or decorations, or personal items is not an option. While theoretically the home and its contents belong to the people in your community, they will take almost no responsibility for its preservation. A small number of the local citizenry promises to do what they can to help.

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You think about declining the offer, but that, too, is not an option. You are worried and unsure of the future.

What on earth will you do?

Scenario #2: You have just been given a mansion worth millions.

You are now responsible for its care, and you are to move in and keep it as your family home. It is large, ornate, cold, drafty, and very uncomfortable. There is not one room where you can relax with a beer and a bowl of popcorn. If you put your feet up on one of those delicate stools, it will probably collapse. A recliner and television would look out of place under that ornamental wall plaster frieze. The marbled dining room with the porcelain chandelier seems to be right out of a Walt Disney castle.

You think about declining the offer, but that is not an option. Your uncle said in his will that there will be an annual operations budget so money is not a problem. You would rather stay in your friendly neighborhood and live in your comfortable rambler.

What on earth will you do?

Scenario #3: You have just been given a collection worth millions.

It will be your job to see that it is cared for, protected, interpreted, and preserved. It is housed in a secure, attractive building. Theoretically it belongs to the entire community, but only a small number of the local citizenry is interested in helping to maintain it. Its contents have been accumulating for hundreds, nay thousands, of years.

People in your town, county, state, nation, and the world believe that this collection should be taken care of, and everyone wants to have it available for visiting, for learning, and for research. You have no money for maintenance and operations.

What on earth are you going to do?

Actually, Scenarios #1 and #2 are real. They are the stories of a country home in England and a mansion in Florida. In Scenario #1, funds were made available through the National Trust for the preservation of the buildings and grounds, and in Scenario #2, the mansion was donated to the state. Both are now open for public viewing.

Scenario #3 is also real. This one is not thousands of miles away. The Freeborn County Museum and Historical Village is within minutes of your home.

Years ago, the museum’s collection was started because a small number of people believed that a home was needed to house the items that told the stories of their ancestors &045; artifacts that helped to develop a farming community out of the beautiful and fertile land on the edge of the great western prairie.

This small number of people wanted to collect history, and they began with family stories and mementos and a room in the basement of the courthouse.

Their dreams led them to the construction of the museum and library on Bridge Avenue and the collection of log cabins and historical village buildings.

Year by year, as more people decided to donate precious family artifacts and to share their lives through oral and written histories, the collection grew until today it has reached monumental dimensions.

In the beginning, when there was nothing to look at, the concern was collecting artifacts. Then, as area residents came to trust this fledgling organization, they generously gave of their history, and the concern became safe storage. Then, when parents could no longer tell their children of farming with horses and life before electricity, the emphasis was placed on interpretation and education.

All of the while, money was a factor. At first, it was used for paint and lumber for displays. Then it was also needed for year round custodial and summertime staffing. Now, in addition, the demand by the public is growing for usage of the museum and library for programs, historical and genealogical research and education.

The museum on Bridge Avenue plays a major role in the cultural heritage of our community. Unfortunately, financial resources have not kept up with growth.

On Monday, I sat at the computer, searching for the words to say what needed to be said. They wouldn’t come, so I decided to change a burnt out light bulb and wash some light fixtures. As I worked, I reflected, “What if there was no one at the museum to change the light bulbs, or tell that school child about life before pizza, or wrap that 100-year-old baptismal gown in acid free tissue, or help a researcher find Uncle George’s cemetery plot?&uot;

Like that country home in England and that mansion in Florida, our museum has a value with no price tag. It is the accumulated wealth of thousands of donors, and millions of volunteer hours. While we are proud of the bequest that allowed us to begin dreaming of a much needed, larger building, and we are working toward a foundation that will eventually provide a significant portion of operating costs, at the present our checkbook is almost empty. We have reached a major turning point in the future of the museum, and we do not know which direction it will take.

This morning one of the board members looked at me and asked, &uot;What on earth will you do?&uot;

My response was, &uot;I do not know.&uot;

I do know that it is the generosity of the community that has brought the museum to this place. It’s up to the community to decide what happens next.

Bev Jackson is executive director of the Freeborn County Historical Museum.