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The Daviess County Museum: A Template for a Revitalized and Active Indiana History Center

On May 10 I had the pleasure of visiting Washington, Indiana, to speak at the Daviess County Museum. I had been asked to help the local community open a new exhibit: the newly found Civil War letters of one of the youngest members of the Fourteenth Indiana Regiment.

“Charlie Gibson: A Surprising Update on a southern Indiana Civil War Legend.” was my talk, based on a story in my book Gallant Fourteenth: The Story of an Indiana Civil War Regiment.

To summarize that story I’ll say that Charlie joined C Company of Martin County at the age of seventeen. My book followed him and his fellow schoolmates from Mt. Pleasant, Indiana, through the war to the Battle of Chancellorsville. There Charlie was killed leading his first charge as an officer: he had been named a second lieutenant a short time before.

The legend grew out of the fact that his friends, most of them officers now in the regiment in their own right, had to bury him after the battle and then—dig him up after four days again to send home at his father’s request. One can only imagine the horror that involved. No letters of Charlie were known to exist.

Last November, a set of five Civil War letters from Charlie was brought to the museum by a descendant of his sister’s from Arkansas—she wanted to see them preserved in his home territory. Accompanying Charlie’s letters was also a set of consolation letters to his parents from his friends in the Fourteenth—historically interesting and important to understanding the deep meaning and lessons of the Civil War for Indiana.

I will deal with that subject in a later blog.

But it is the site of the program that is my focus now. It was a surprising and gratifying experience to come to this older four-story building on Main Street in Washington and to find a full staffed and recently renovated and decorated museum which was utilizing the latest in museum protocols and practices. Something had happened here,  and I will let Becky Kremp from Washington, a leader among the volunteers who restored the museum, tell the story in her own words. It can stand as a model for struggling small museums around the state who wish to stay alive for the future—and there are several of them.

Here’s Becky:

Sometimes I have issues being “brief”!

For my part, about 3 years ago in the early summer of 2015, I read an article in the local paper stating the county commissioners were thinking of pulling the county funding of the Daviess County History Museum. The journey began at this point.  I called the then current paid director, and asked him if 2 or 3 interested citizens could meet with him to offer our help in order to fix whatever shortcomings the commissioners were unhappy with at the museum.

We met, we offered help cleaning what can only be described as a smelly, dirty crammed building. For months, 3 of us worked almost daily cleaning out cases that hadn’t been touched in years, moving them away from the walls to use bleach on the walls where we suspected more than just dirt, etc. These efforts began to pay off little by little, but cleaning simply wasn’t enough. I will leave out any comments on why the condition had deteriorated.

Eventually, we gathered a group of concerned citizens with the approval of the director to develop a business plan and take our case to the commissioners.

This was done, the visits made, and the commissioners agreed to give us time.

At that point, the decision was made to close the museum for several months as it was simply too huge to tackle otherwise.

One example: There were 400 plus dolls of vinyl and plastic from the 1960s and 70s that we eventually photographed and de-accessioned as one hazardous waste group. I happen to restore and collect composition dolls only, and was I ever tempted with some of the older clothing, but the state cautioned not to even attempt to wash them, as the black mold or the mold could contaminate the washing machine.

The “concerned citizens group” had invited the State Historical Society down for direction before the closing for renovation and they advised us. We began to gather more volunteers and attempted to inventory the collection. At some point the board, which could previously have been more active and personally responsible for our museum,  got committed and added a new member. The organization is now all-volunteer.

About 140 gallons of paint have been applied by volunteers, the community has embraced the cause, and we have developed programs for school field trips and welcomed any and all groups or clubs to hold meetings at the museum. During the winter months we have planned vital and interesting programs At this point, with county funding, we do not charge admission to the museum or to the programs as we want to be available to all regardless of economic status.

The above has been done with the help of workshops put on by the State Local History group for the historical society; we visited Dubois County several times and other initiatives developed as we tried to professionalize our approach to running and maintaining a museum.

It was a long but rewarding mission!

Nancy Baxter’s book Gallant Fourteenth: The Story of an Indiana Civil War Regiment has just been released as a paperback. Click back to see and get it!