NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

February 28, 2013

A museum in need of help

Bartlett Museum board struggles to support town institution

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY — Facing a decline in membership and a rapidly deteriorating building, the Bartlett Museum is looking for help as it struggles to raise money for badly needed repairs.

Located at 270 Main St. in a 19th century schoolhouse, the Bartlett Museum was established in 1968 as a place to showcase Amesbury’s rich cultural and industrial history. Once a vibrant historical destination, the old Victorian-era edifice has been plagued by a whole range of issues that are familiar to old buildings.

The building has a leaky roof, faulty pipes and no working toilet. The front of the building was repainted a couple of years ago, but there wasn’t enough money to repaint the other three sides, which are in bad shape and have old lead paint that needs to be scraped off first.

“It’s basically everything,” said Dianne Cole, who serves on the museum’s board of directors. “We can’t touch anything until we have money, but right now we’re just paying the heat, lights and phone, and that’s all we can afford at the moment, then it gets worse as the years go on.”

To make matters worse, the museum’s carriage house, located it its backyard, suffered damage after a large tree limb collapsed in a storm and busted a hole in the building’s roof.

“We patched the roof with some scraps, but the main museum probably needs a new roof,” Cole said. “The pipes leak, and we used to pay docents to give tours, but we stopped that because we couldn’t afford it.”

Cole estimated that the museum would need to raise thousands of dollars to make all the necessary repairs. Several fundraisers have been scheduled this spring to try to raise that money, but those will likely act as a Band-Aid covering up a festering wound.

The real root of the problem has been the museum’s decline in membership. Cole said the museum has fewer than 90 members remaining at this point and many of its core leaders are growing older. In the distant past, membership was 150 and above.

It depends entirely on volunteers to open the doors to the public. After the paid docents were let go, it fell to Tony Knapp, the museum’s president, to give the tours himself.

“We need more members to support us, financially and physically, because when we do an event there are only a handful of us who are able to work on an event, and that limits us on big events,” Cole said. “Usually we have to do stuff away from our building.”

The Bartlett Museum is open for tours every weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but because of the lack of toilets, the museum has to hold most of its events and outings offsite, often at the nearby Union Congregational Church.

The biggest struggle has been keeping the Bartlett Museum’s name out there so people think to come visit. The museum’s name has a rich history in the neighborhood — it is named for Josiah Bartlett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the first state governor of New Hampshire. Bartlett was born in a house that once stood about 50 yards from the museum building.

Its original collection included artifacts that were once housed in the Amesbury Public Library, including an extensive collection of birds collected by a 19th century Amesbury club and numerous Native American artifacts. Over the years the collection has expanded significantly. Among its artifacts are items produced in Amesbury during its heyday as a manufacturing hub, such as carriages. There are numerous historic paintings of 19th century Amesbury residents, an extensive photo collection, documents and a 19th century school room.

The museum saw its peak of activity from the 1960s through the 1990s. It hosted lectures, ran numerous events such as a July 4 auction and housed two other museums on its grounds — the Amesbury Carriage Museum and the Salisbury Point Railroad Historical Society.

“It was a very good idea, very popular, but people have forgotten about it over time,” Cole said.

For those who are interested in supporting the Bartlett Museum, membership costs $10 per year and donations can be made to P.O. Box 692 in Amesbury. The upcoming fundraisers include an event at the Flatbread Pizza Co. in Market Square from 5 to 9 p.m. on April 2 and an electronic recycling fundraiser at the museum on May 18. The museum also has a website with more information, bartlettmuseum.org.

There are also four vacant spots on the museum’s board of directors, and Cole encouraged non-Amesbury residents to offer their support as well.

“We have a huge amount of Amesbury items, but we also have items that would pertain to the surrounding towns, so it doesn’t need to be supported just by Amesbury people,” Cole said.