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Local history under threat, and how you can help

July 13, 2012

The Loudoun Museum building, Leesburg, Va. Source: LoudounMuseum.org

UPDATE 7/15

Below is the text of the email I sent to the Loudoun County board of supervisors. You’ll see a link at the end of the original post below to contact the members. Feel free to take this text and email your support.

Dear Board of Supervisors,

I am writing to urge you to continue the current funding level for the Loudoun Museum. Cutting the county’s grant to the museum would be a significant loss, both in terms of economic development and in the less tangible but perhaps more important arenas of history and heritage.

I sympathize with the financial difficulties that all governments are facing, but the museum requires so little to run in comparison with the county’s budget that surely some compromise can be reached that will ensure its continued operation. Leesburg Today wrote an editorial July 13 titled, simply, “Worth It,” that offers several suggestions (link below).

The loss that shuttering the museum would entail cannot be measured with a budget line. I do not live in Loudoun County. But I hold a Ph.D. in archaeology, and much of my research is carried out among collections of documents and artifacts held in places like the Loudoun Museum. The same is true for professionals working in history, cultural resource management and related fields. I have a number of colleagues who have worked with the museum in the past, and they uniformly laud the quality of the staff and the collection.  

When it is time to vote for funding, please consider these points, and the loss to your citizens that shutting the Loudoun Museum would entail. Thank you for your time.

THE ORIGINAL POST (7/13):

There’s news of yet another existential threat to a first-class local history institution: The Loudoun Museum, in Leesburg, Va., is facing the possibility of losing its county funding, which accounts for 70 percent of its budget. But also a bit of room for hope: It’s not official yet, which means some pressure on the county board is due. More on that at the end, but first, some background.

The Loudoun Museum operates largely on an annual $63,000 grant from Loudoun County. This week, the county board of supervisors voted to recommend that the funds be cut for fiscal 2013, and the county take over maintenance of its collection, effectively dismantling the museum and likely sending its holdings into an unaccessible black hole. That last bit is my take, for more on the actual deliberations, see this article from Leesburg Today.

Richelle C. Brown, who tweets at @BirchCelloWren, has been out in front of this. She pointed out some of the museum’s incredibly important holdings, including the Lucas-Heaton letters. These are nine letters (1830-1839) between the Lucas brothers, former slaves who emigrated to Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society (which was co-founded by Charles Fenton Mercer, of Loudoun County), and the Heaton brothers, who freed them. Among the other 8,000 artifacts in the museum’s collection are textiles, rare books and letters, and documents signed by George Washington.

This move to defund the Loudoun Museum is the most serious, but only the latest, in a series of challenges it has faced. Due to budget cuts from the county, it is down to one full-time staff member (from more than five), and is open only three days a week.

Local history museums like this one are vital if we want to have a society that understands where it came from and where it’s going. The Smithsonians and other high-profile institutions are great, but places that are close to home are too, in a different way. They offer accessible introductions to history for schoolkids, resources for people looking into genealogy, and an educational (and affordable) afternoon outing. More important for me, these are places where incredibly rich sources of documentary and material culture reside: See the reference to the Lucas-Heaton letters above. You can’t find that resource anywhere else, and the same is true for local history museums across the country.

I’ve written before about the false economy of cutting programs in history, heritage and archaeology. This case is even more egregious, an instance of a government agency slashing funds and then wondering (oblivious to the bitter irony) why the museum isn’t doing more with less. What is particularly galling is that of all places in the U.S., Loudoun County should offer the textbook example of well-funded, active local history programs.

According to this article from TheStreet.com, Loudoun County’s median household income, based on 2010 U.S. Census data, was $119,540, nearly two and a half times the national county average of $49,445. It also had a poverty rate of 3.2 percent, whereas the national average is around 14 percent. That means Loudoun is the richest county in the United States, a distinction it has held since at least 2007.

Loudoun County collected $905 million in local revenue in Fiscal Year 2011, along with $80.7 million from the Commonwealth of Virginia and just shy of $9 million in federal funds. (See figures from 1998-2011 here. Warning: Link seems to work only sometimes.)

In other words, that $63,000 grant would account for 0.006 percent of the county’s revenues. For a fraction of a penny on the dollar, the board is considering the end of an important local resource, not to mention putting people out of work and removing a draw for tourist dollars.

As I said, the vote is not yet official, so there is a chance to let the board know what a mistake this would be. This link shows how you can contact the board of supervisors. An email to the main address (bos@loudoun.gov) will be forwarded to all members. The board has a business meeting scheduled for 17 July, then nothing else until September. If you work in history, museums, or archaeology, let the members know how important sites like the Loudoun Museum are, and what a disservice to their constituents cutting its funding would be.

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