Past treasures fill Historical Society’s archive

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(Host) The Vermont Historical Society moved into its newly renovated home at the old Spaulding Graded School in Barre last summer, but much of the building is still a work in progress. Meeting rooms and display areas are still being refurbished. However, one important phase of the move has been completed and it’s something most members of the public may never see.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Imagine you’re responsible for caring for a friend’s most prized and perishable family possession – a letter by a relative who fought in the Civil War, or a dress worn by an eighteenth century ancestor. Now multiply that responsibility by 20,000. Now you know how Jacqueline Calder feels as curator of the collection at the Vermont Historical Society.

Calder says most of the items the historical society has been collecting since 1838 have been donated by Vermonters in the hope that they’ll be carefully preserved for a long time to come.

(Calder) “People have invested their family’s collection in us and we’re not just thinking in terms of one generation, it’s several generations.”

(Zind) Until recently, these Vermont treasures, along with 150,000 volumes dealing with Vermont history, were stored at the historical society’s old headquarters at the Pavilion Building in Montpelier. Calder says while there were some close calls, like the 1992 Montpelier flood, nothing was ever lost. But less than ideal conditions at the Pavilion hastened the aging process.

(Calder) “There were steam pipes in the museum storage areas and sewer pipes in the library. We couldn’t control the humidity and temperatures in those areas and they were always in danger of flooding. On top of that we were extremely crowded. Collections were moving up into office spaces.”

(Zind) Calder says typically, a museum has only 10% of its collection on public display. The rest is in storage. It may be out of the public’s sight, but it’s very much on the mind of curators.

(Calder) “These are pretty much non public areas.”

(Zind) The historical society’s collection of artifacts is stored in four rooms downstairs at the Barre center. Unlike the old Pavilion space, the temperature and humidity in these rooms is carefully controlled and monitored by computers connected to state of the art air handling equipment. Keeping conditions constant goes a long way toward preserving the society’s documents and artifacts. In a building that the historical society paid one dollar for, over a million dollars has been spent to safeguard documents and artifacts that represent Vermont’s history.

The storage rooms are nothing fancy. Rows of metal utility shelves and racks hold old clothing, household implements and other once common items, made uncommon by the passage of time. A more recent addition is a bottle of Governor Jim Douglas inaugural sparkling water. The society’s approach seems to be, when in doubt, collect it. Calder says new additions arrive daily.

(Calder) “It’s growing all the time. We’re a collecting institution. Vermont’s history is an hour ago. You never know what’s going to be part of history and what we need to pay attention to and save.”

(Zind) Calder says if there was any doubt that the money, space and time it took to create the new storage area was worth it, it was dispelled just two months after the collection was moved when there was a steam leak in the former storage area at the Pavilion.

(Calder) “It literally rained in the space that was our former storage area. Everything was just dripping and there was water running down the walls. I thought, ‘Thank God we have pushed for so many years to move to this place.'”

(Zind) Calder says as spacious as the storage area is at the Vermont Historical Society’s new center, the collection will continue to grow and someday they’ll need more space.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Barre.

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