Drive around Amesbury, and you will discover something that is astonishing -- the little city of 16,000 people has eight private institutions that recognize its history-- three museums, three historic homes, a historic boat shop, and a historic meetinghouse.
By comparison, Newburyport has two such institutions. Newbury has three. Most towns around here have only one history museum/historic home.
It’s mostly a blessing for Amesbury, but in some ways it is also a curse. The dilemma facing the Bartlett Museum is an example of the latter.
The museum, housed an 1870 former schoolhouse on Main Street, has struggled in recent years to garner public support and funds. Its dedicated and shrinking board of directors have had to make hard financial choices -- they pay the most important bills, but sadly watch as the old building and grounds deteriorate.
It is getting to a tipping point for the Bartlett. Funds are desperately needed to make basic repairs, such as mending the leaky roofs, painting the peeling exterior, and restoring an operating bathroom. There are not enough volunteers to help out, and even the Board of Directors lacks its full membership.
To their credit, members of the museum’s board have made their situation known to the public, and hopefully, local residents and businesses will step forward to help. Through the years, Amesbury residents have time and again demonstrated their deep-rooted compassion for those in need, and so there can be confidence that this community strength will shine through again.
We live in a region that is rich in history and culture, and much has been set aside for preservation. In Amesbury’s case, many of the institutions are decades old; some are over a century old. They have been passed on by earlier generations, and it’s up to today’s generation to find a way to preserve them and continue to pass them on.
The eight history-minded institutions in Amesbury are not all facing the same issues. The Rocky Hill Meetinghouse, for example, is owned by Historic New England, a well-funded organization that owns historic structures throughout New England. The Mary Baker Eddy House is owned by the Longyear Foundation, which meticulously maintains its properties. Through hard work, a good business plan and a strong board of directors, Lowell’s Boat Shop has managed to become a local success story, if not a destination. So too with the Whittier Home.
Others are still struggling to find a way. The Bartlett is certainly the most recent case. The Amesbury Carriage Museum hopes to one day open its doors in the Lower Millyard, but for now it doesn’t have the resources to do so. It is hard to find the financial resources and volunteers to support them all. And the more institutions there are, the more thinly spread the money and volunteers are.
Amesbury can be proud of the many cultural institutions it holds. This includes a wide array, such as the many parks and monuments that are cared for by the Amesbury Improvement Association, and the numerous artistic organizations that have formed in recent years.
We hope that residents and businesses will help keep Amesbury’s impressive cultural resources, such as the Bartlett -- vibrant. It doesn’t take a big effort. Membership dues to most local organizations are inexpensive, and volunteering can be manageable, especially if spread over a healthy-sized group.
Membership has other advantages. The opportunity to meet like-minded individuals and to support a worthwhile institution are rewarding.
Many hands, each doing a little something, will make the difference.