Artifacts of rural life, generations of photos and a circa 1880 pipe organ that backed up student performances at the Nash-Kollock finishing school for girls could be lost if the Orange County Historical Museum closes its doors.
After slashing expenses, the museum is burning through 60 years of savings, said Ernest Dollar, a board member with the nonprofit Historical Foundation of Hillsborough and Orange County. This year’s budget, which covers the fiscal year begnning July 1, projects a $16,000 shortfall.
“To be blunt, very frank, I suspect we’ve only got two more years of operation before we close,” he said.
The museum at 201 N. Churton St. had a $68,845 operating budget in fiscal 2016-17 and a $24,500 shortfall it paid out of savings.
A 2016 tax document shows donations, grants and membership fees have fluctuated over the last 10 years, falling from a high of $46,644 in 2009 to $31,688 last year. Fundraising took the biggest hit, dropping from an annual average of $7,000 since 2012 to $277 last year.
Orange County, Hillsborough and other groups provided nearly $20,000 in grants last year, but the museum raised most of its money with special events, such as the annual Hometown Holidays celebration.
Extensive water damage exacerbated the problem when it closed the museum for 18 weeks last year, executive director Candace Midgett said. Rainwater was running off the church property next door and into the foundation and basement, she said.
“It was a long time to be closed,” Midgett said. “The town did everything that they could. There were significant issues with getting things back up, and all of the bays on the west side of the building were bowing, so everything had to be shored up.”
Water damage also increases the humidity inside the building, threatening the more than 3,000 artifacts amassed in the last 60 years. The staff regularly empties the dehumidifiers and is working with Orange County to move some items to climate-controlled storage, she said.
The town has spent over $65,000 on repairs since 2008 to the former Confederate Memorial Building, which the museum leases for $1 a year. It was built in 1934, in part with a $7,000 grant from a local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, as a whites-only library.
The board got permission from the town in 2015 to remove the solid copper letters that spelled “Confederate Memorial” over the museum’s doorway. The letters are in storage now, but a display about that history greets visitors at the front door.
Orange County is “perhaps one of the most important counties” in the history of North Carolina and the United States, said Dollar, the museum’s former executive director. But history is also about the future, he said.
“Historical education is more a necessity now than it’s ever been with the state of the United States,” he said. “History education, if we had invested in it, if we had promoted it, if we had supported it, maybe we may not have had the same problems that we stare at the TV and face today.”
Over 9,500 people visit the museum or take part in community outreach events each year, according to the museum website.
While they would like to be in a bigger space and hire more staff, the goal now is to keep the museum alive and protect the collection, Dollar said. Sharing a bigger space with other nonprofits also has been suggested, Midgett said.
It will take more donations and museum memberships, they said.
“I think the strategy for making a successful institution is becoming what the town needs of us and what the community needs from us, to be a quintessential and important part of the community that we serve,” Dollar said.