The Afton Historical Museum’s collection is showing its age, and not in a good way.
Photographs and documents are fading. Dresses hung too long on dress forms are showing wear on the seams. And the displays haven’t changed much since the museum opened in 1985.
Now, after three decades, the museum’s board of directors wants that to change.
The board, which has won several state grants to improve the museum and preserve the collection, is vying for a $150,000 federal grant to renovate the basement, add temperature and humidity controls, and to purchase a compact, movable storage and preservation system.
The compressible shelves the museum board wants are on tracks, stacked together with one aisle for ease of entry and retrieval. It’s the same type of system used at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.
But unlike the smaller Afton museum, the Minnesota Historical Society displays only 2 percent of its much larger collection at any time, said David Grabitske, the nonprofit society’s manager of outreach services. Light exposure alone can cause cumulative and irreversible damage.
“That goes against the mission of preservation,” Grabitske said. “Objects need a chance to rest in the dark.”
That sort of rest will allow future generations to see historical artifacts, as well as let a museum change its exhibits and attract more visitors.
Stan Ross, president of the Afton museum board, has been working hard to raise money to make the changes the board wants. He described the museum at 3165 St. Croix Trail S. as “very benign and very sleepy.”
About four years ago, the board began working with the History Center’s outreach services department to update the museum. On the department’s recommendation, the board began working with a consultant to devise a strategic plan, said Ross, who also serves on Afton’s City Council.
The plan calls for improvements to the 147-year-old building and the preservation and display of its artifacts. The museum board will be guided by the Standards and Excellence Program for history organizations espoused by the American Association for State and Local History.
The program was designed to assist small and midsize history organizations to understand and achieve national standards while recognizing the challenges they face, according to the association’s website.
“Stan was interested in making sure that what he and his board were doing and what Pam [Reuvers], their staff person, was doing, really meets that body of standards,” said Grabitske, who works with about 500 local history organizations around the state.
So far, the Afton museum has landed state Legacy grants of $7,000 to inventory its artifacts, $72,857 to catalog them, $9,898 to rehouse original documents, $9,999 to purchase a microfiche scanner and $5,200 for assessing its heating, air conditioning and ventilation system.
In hopes of getting more financial help, it is one of nearly 700 organizations that have applied for the federal Museums for America grants. Winners will be notified in September, said Connie Cox Bodner, supervisory grants management specialist with the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Office of Museum Services.
Because the grant sums fall into two categories — $5,000 to $25,000 and $25,001 to $150,000 — the institute cannot predict how many grants it will award, Bodner said.
Having the money to add the shelving and preservation system would not only save the museum’s existing collection but allow it to continue to collect artifacts, Grabitske said.
“A lot of people think history is about the past, but the work of a history museum is really about the present,” he said.
“We’re asking ourselves what’s important about 2015 that we should treasure. … There’s no reason to keep any of that stuff unless you make it useful to the public.”
‘Crossing our fingers’
The Afton museum is already rotating exhibits, Reuvers said. A recent wedding dress exhibit proved very popular, she said. Its next exhibit, beginning in March, will feature items from the Roaring ’20s.
“It’s really necessary,” Reuvers said of improving the museum. “You just have to do this or it won’t last.”
The museum is open Wednesdays and Thursdays, and is seeking another volunteer so it can open on Sundays as well, Reuvers said. It charges no entrance fee, but requests donations.
Beyond its storage and preservation goals, the museum board wants to bring in another consultant to help craft an interpretive plan, gathering information from residents about what they want to see in the museum, Ross said.
The museum then would seek more money to buy equipment to properly display artifacts.
“They apply the best advice, the best information that they can get to their situation so that the people of Afton are served effectively,” Grabitske said of the museum’s diligence in consulting with so many people. “What they’re doing is a great example of what many are doing across the state.”
Nancy Crotti is a Twin Cities freelance writer.