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Thursday, May 21, 2009

I am reminded why I left the museum field

Earlier this week, a friend of mine who is still in "the biz" emailed me a link to an article in the New Haven Register. The Connecticut State Attorney General has been asked to investigate the New Haven Historical Society and Museum (formerly the New Haven Colony Historical Society) for "potential loss of funds and destruction of records" and apparently was sparked by residents concern over the condition of the eighteenth century Pardee-Morris House located in the Lighthouse Point section of New Haven. According to the neighbors, questions posed about the funds and the house were not adequately answered by the director, Bill Hosely. In addition, Hosely accidently deleted files on the computer relating to the finances during a period when there was no book-keeper on staff.

From 1990 -1993, I was the curator of the New Haven Colony Historical Society, and I know the house well...or at least I know what it was like during that period. I also know that the Historical Society has been struggling with a lack of funds since the 1980s. The staff has been drastically reduced, and many positions which were previously filled by full-time professional staff is now filled by part-timers.

The Morris House was given to the Historical Society in 1918 by an early restorationist in Connecticut. The house came with an endowment which Hosely states made about $20,000 per year (and I suspect that was before the recent stock market crash). The house was operated as a house museum while I was there.

We had it open on weekends during the summer months. It is not air-conditioned, the electrical supply was inadequate, it was not handi-capped accessible and visitation, because of it's location and other reasons (how many historical houses can you go to in Connecticut in the summer? ) was poor. Even when Amy Trout, then the director of education, and I arranged special events, visitation was considered to be a success if we had 30 people on the grounds. Getting tour guides to staff the house was a problem, even if you paid more than minimum wage.

The house was frequently the target of vandals. I remember then director Rob Egleston replacing panes of glass which had been broken out. The house also needed a huge amount of up-keep. About the time I left, we discovered significant structural problems which needed attention, but there wasn't money for that, and trying to figure out how to approach fixing the issues while following appropriate historical guidelines created a whole new set of headaches. The board, at the time, was made aware of these items.

Working with a board of a historical society is often. . . interesting. I remember the roof leaking at one of the museums I worked for and when I told the board they said that we didn't have money to replace the roof and that it would have to wait until at least the next year. I remember being frustrated because if it were someone's house, it would be fixed, and roofs leaking at a museum which stores collections is even worse.

Raising funds for historical societies is actually the major responsibility of the board of directors. The director of an institution works along with them in this, but the major responsibility is for planning and caring for the day-t0-day operations. New Haven is a difficult city for both funds and volunteers. The City is non-profit rich and cash poor. Very few patrons of the arts, museums and non-profits in general have the funds to spread around as in earlier years--patrons and patronesses such as Margaret Bush Clement and Mrs. Brewster simply don't exist anymore. The temptation is always there to use the principal of endowments when finding new funds becomes difficult. Cutting staff has long been a tradition.

I know Bill Hosely in a professional capability and while I can see him accidently deleting files on a computer, I don't see him doing it with mal-intent. He is an exuberent proponent of things he is interested in, particularly in areas of historical studies. He is a scholar. I'm sad that he, and the Society has to go through this.

I had to laugh when the Register pointed out that the 2006 990 filed with the IRS gave the assets of the Society as $4.92 million. Recognize that yes, this includes the endowment which operates both the Pardee-Morris House and the Society's headquarters at 114 Whitney Avenue. It also includes the value of both properties, and the location of the headquarters makes it a valuable property indeed. I suspect that the Society's collection of historical objects (which include the portrait of Cinque, Whitney's cotton gin and patent model for the gin among other priceless objects important to the history of the United States ) is also included in that figure. Now, I know that my daughter's college fund has been halved over this past year, so I can only assume that the Society's endowment has taken a similar hit.

I'm also extremely sad that the Morris House has come to such a pass. It is an interesting house, although it would need massive amounts of money to make it merely liveable much less restore it. It sits on a hill, and used to have a fantastic view coming toward it...however in the early part of the 20th century, the area in front of the house was sold and now the front of the house faces the back of the properties now in front of it.

I can't say as if it really ever worked well as a museum. Certainly there are enough house museums in Connecticut to keep one well occupied for at least a third of a year without going to this one. It is not in a well-trafficked location. Its story, although interesting to locals, is not one which can't be told elsewhere. It is interesting from an archetectural point of view, but that is also limited.

At one point, the Society was looking into what the best possible use was for it. Could you sell the house using historical restrictions on the use and what physically could be done to it? What other options were there? Selling it with restrictions probably would have been the best idea for it, but that's just my opinion. This discussion was discontinued prior, I think, prior to Mr. Hosely's being hired.

When I first came to Connecticut, I came fresh from working and being trained at Colonial Williamsburg. People questioned how I could come to such small institutions from such a big one. I usually told them that the problems were the same, just on a different order of magnitude. This is certainly the case. If Colonial Williamsburg sold Carter's Grove Plantation because visitation was low, it was too far away from their main area, and the upkeep cost a lot, then why is it surprising that the same is true for a smaller institution in a more impoverished area and less of a national presence?

$20,000 doesn't go very far when you have to cover security, insurance, lawn care, staffing, heat (even at a miminal level), electrical and in addition cover the not-insignificant costs of maintaining a rather large structure. Is the Society guilty of not maintaining it and not raising the fund necessary to take care of it? I don't question that at all. No matter how you cut it, it is heart-breaking, for the neighborhood, the Historical Society, the board, and the staff.

Adaptive re-use of this structure is limited given the confines of the building order to adapt it, you would lose most of the historical fabric. You can't add onto it as over the years it HAS been added onto on almost every face. The piece of property wouldn't be able to handle another building with adequate parking I don't think. Probably the best which could be done is that it be sold with restrictions to someone to make it habitable again...Such heart break, caring too deeply for the buildings and the history, frustration at not ever having enough time or money to do things correctly, long hours (it was nothing for me to work 10 hour days and also do weekend work), is why I decided not to continue my career when I left Connecticut in 2005. The salary wasn't great either (when I left, I was making $24,000 with no pension, no dental, 2 weeks vacation--and I had been working in the field for 10 years with a MA from William and Mary), but that was ok because I went into a field that I loved. Because I loved it, it broke my heart. The current problem with the New Haven Historical Society just drives it home again.


lyric said...

I've enjoyed reading through your posts - what a lovely and thoughtful blog.

Pop back over and send me your address so that I can send a lovely little ATC your way!

Michigoose said...

Thank you Lyric! What a kind thing to say! You're skills as a quilter are "da bomb!"

trueblue said...

Hi Lisa,
It's a nice post, well written. And sad to hear the state of many such historical buildings. (I must say this is becoming a worldwide phenomenon though.)

p.s.Interestingly - I'm from William & Mary as well. Was there from '99-01 and was one of the few who moved out westwards :-)

Michigoose said...

Wow Joe! Small world! I was in the History Deptartment from 1981 - 1983; and I left in Oct. 1983 to take my first position in CT. In the summer and fall of 1983 I worked for Colonial Williamsburg in the archaeology Dept. excavating at the Peyton-Randolph site while working on my thesis.

My thesis, I understand, is still being read...too bad I discovered a while ago that my numbering of my footnotes was off and I have to go back and figure out where they went wrong!