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Past Perfect? 

Vermont's small museums of culture and history face an uncertain future

Published October 10, 2006 at 8:06 p.m.

Birds of Vermont Museum sculptor Bob Spear with a work in progress - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Birds of Vermont Museum sculptor Bob Spear with a work in progress

The Ethan Allen Homestead in Burlington has been experiencing well-publicized financial and management difficulties (see sidebar), but it's not the only historical or cultural institution in Vermont with problems. The Shelburne-based National Museum of the Morgan Horse appears to be in as dire a condition as that of the Homestead, and officials at a half-dozen other museums around the state say it's increasingly difficult to sustain operations. All are affected, to different degrees, by a negative national trend that's being felt most acutely by small and rural museums.

The problems facing most of Vermont's heritage showcases are compounded by a lack of support from Montpelier. Museum administrators say the government has not only skimped on budget subsidies but also failed to highlight the state's indoor tourist attractions.

The number of visitors to U.S. museums has flatlined for the past five years, according to a study conducted by the American Association of Museums. For some, stagnation might be considered an achievement. Attendance is actually falling at a few venerable institutions, including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. "For almost every heritage organization I know nationally, it's a real challenge," says Kevin Graffagnino, director of the Vermont Historical Society, where visitorship is still holding steady.

Many have speculated about the causes of the downward or sideways drift in museum attendance. One possible culprit is gas prices that discourage discretionary travel. Another is the ubiquity of home entertainment centers, which tempt Americans to stay put. Then there's the ease of Internet access to information and images that could once be acquired only through laborious library searches or travel to museums.

Competition for visitors has intensified, as well. Once the United States had 15,000 museums. Recent years have added about 1,500 - many of them abounding in techno-glitz in an effort to lure visitors.

Not all of those possible causes apply here. Tourism in Vermont has suffered no overall drop, despite the climb in gas prices and the growing incidence of couch potato-itis. So representatives of museums with declining attendance are suggesting that there's another problem: The state isn't helping tourists locate them.

Officials at museums across Vermont argue that their visitor numbers would rise - and their financial pressures ease - if the state posted a few more signs about its unique cultural resources. Residents of other states or countries account for a sizable share of visitors to most Vermont museums. Ingrid Brown, curator of the Birds of Vermont Museum in Huntington, says, "Tourists are always complaining that they can't find us."

Her complaints are echoed by administrators of other museums.

"Part of the reason why our institutions have trouble surviving is that the state is so ass-backwards on signage," says Jim Sault, general manager of the Porter Music Box Museum in Randolph. He complains of laws prohibiting publicity signs on the same road where a site is located. No signs for the Porter Museum are permitted on Route 66, the U.S. highway that rolls past its front door.

"No one wants to see billboards come back to Vermont," says Kevin Coburn, a spokesman for the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich. "But we don't put our best foot forward in attracting people to what we offer culturally. The state needs to figure out a way to have better but unobtrusive signage."

Vermont doesn't even post the brown signs familiar nationally as indicators of historic sites, points out Jane Williamson, director of the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh. To her mind, "That's just nuts."

Similarly, Interstate 91 has no signs to direct travelers to St. Johnsbury's historic district, notes Anna Rubin, a spokeswoman for the Fairbanks Museum, which is located in that downtown area. "There are lots of signs across the border for the Littleton [New Hampshire] historic district," Rubin observes.

Vermont does post brown signs for state parks and national and state historic sites, responds Roger Koniuto, an Agency of Transportation official. The Rokeby and the downtown St. Johnsbury district are not demarcated in that way.

Vermont's strict laws on signage are administered by the state's Travel Information Council, which Koniuto staffs. This appointed citizens' body sets rules for situating the discreet black-and-white signs that direct drivers to businesses that have obtained a required license. The council stipulates that the signs be posted close to a business's location and near a point at which a turn must be made to reach the listed destination, Koniuto explains. He says that changes in Vermont's signage policies of the sort urged by many museum officials would necessitate action by the state legislature.

But the Douglas administration does not seem likely to address the concerns raised by custodians of the state's cultural legacy. Bruce Hyde, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, acknowledges that signage is "a big issue" for museums and historic sites. He says he recognizes that "visitation is a real challenge" for many of these institutions. But, while the state wants to "help promote visits," he says, "we certainly want to protect landscapes, and we're certainly not doing near what other states do with signage."

Even if they did manage to attract more visitors, Vermont museums wouldn't have guaranteed financial futures. The $5 to $7 adult admission charge for most state cultural and historical institutions doesn't come close to covering their operating costs. These museums generally depend heavily on a combination of foundation grants, individual gifts and interest earned on endowments.

Scarcely any museums in Vermont receive significant amounts of state aid, and few get money from the towns in which they're located.

"Meeting our budget is a big challenge," says Montshire spokesman Coburn. "All of us are faced every year with another mountain to climb." Most science museums are located in urban areas and receive assistance from their respective municipalities, Coburn notes. That's not the case with the Montshire, which raises its $2.2 million annual budget mainly from institutional and individual donations.

Despite its struggles, the Montshire qualifies as one of the most successful museums in Vermont. It draws 130,000 visitors a year - more than any other institution surveyed for this article. The science center has advanced light years from its 1976 origin in a former bowling alley in Hanover, N.H. Taking its name from the last syllables of Vermont and New Hampshire, the Montshire moved to Norwich in 1989. It brought a collection inherited from the Dartmouth College natural history museum, which closed in the early 1970s.

Huntington's Birds of Vermont Museum draws much smaller crowds. About 5000 ornithophiles, most from out of state, find their way each year to its collection of 473 wood carvings. "It's a constant struggle for us, but people love it when they get here," says curator Brown. They're impressed by the work of 86-year-old Bob Spear, the creator of the life-size models displayed in their natural habitats. Spear spent 500 hours carving a replica of the California condor, which is displayed in a room devoted to endangered or extinct species.

Only about 2500 annual visitors view the Rokeby Museum's assemblage of memorabilia from four generations of the Robin- son family. But attendance may swell once the museum uses a $245,000 grant it recently received from the National Endowment for the Human- ities. The grant's purpose is to highlight the site's status as a well-documented stop on the Underground Railroad that transported fugitive American slaves to freedom in Canada. "We have the most powerful story to tell, and this [federal grant] will help us tell it effectively," says Rokeby director Williamson.

Other Vermont museums have special assets, as well. The Porter Music Box Museum, for example, boasts a unique collection of 17th-century automatons from France, along with antique mechanical music boxes. "We're an unknown entity in the state," says general manager Sault. "We're much more recognized in Tokyo than in Vermont, because the Japanese love our stuff." Because the adjoining Porter Music Box manufacturing and restoration company supports it, this museum manages to turn a small profit.

The Vermont Historical Society Museum in Montpelier's Pavilion Building enjoys "a more advantageous position than other museums around the state," says Society director Graffagnino. About one-third of its budget is covered by state appropriations. "It used to be 50 percent," Graffagnino notes, "and we're trying to get back to that level." Approximately 15,000 visitors annually come to see the only exhibit in the state tracing Vermont's history from Abenaki times.

The Fairbanks Museum has a degree of exposure that seems enviable by the standards of the state's seldom-seen institutions. That name recognition comes courtesy of its association with the "Eye on the Sky" weather forecasts aired on Vermont Public Radio. Even so, attendance at the Fairbanks fell to 70,000 last year from 75,000 the year before, says spokeswoman Rubin. "Our situation isn't precarious," she adds, "but it's also not one that allows us to sit back comfortably."

Meanwhile, a set of particularly awkward circumstances has plunged the National Museum of the Morgan Horse into a budgetary emergency. Staff at the Shelburne institution has been reduced from three part-timers to one. Morgan Horse Museum archivist and surviving staffer Kathy Furr says the cuts result from a "political play" on the part of the museum's parent organization.

The American Morgan Horse Institute, a national body, decided two years ago to relocate the museum to the heavily attended Kentucky Horse Park. But the institute has not been able to raise the funds needed to finance the move, Furr says. At the same time, she adds, uncertainty over the future of the museum has led many of its traditional donors to withhold their gifts.

Furr notes that the horse museum used to have a considerable advantage over other small museums in Vermont: It could draw on an international base for fundraising. Now, however, the museum is falling well short of the $70,000 budget earmarked for maintenance of a collection viewed by some 5000 visitors per year.

The Morgan Horse Museum may remain stabled in Shelburne after all. "It looks like the institute is going to give the building to the American Morgan Horse Association, which will enable us to stay open in Vermont," Furr reports.

In the meantime, she says, the museum is "desperately seeking volunteers." From nearly every cultural institution in Vermont, this is an oft-heard refrain.


The House That Ethan Built

The home Ethan Allen built 225 years ago on a bluff in Burlington's Intervale will reopen for the 2007 visitor season. That's the pledge of Jennifer Ely, director of the Winooski Valley Park District, which owns the property. "We'll make sure the historic house is open next summer, but on a limited basis and with emphasis on accommodating school groups," she says.

Reports circulated that the Allen homestead might remain permanently shuttered following its scheduled seasonal shutdown on October 31. Countering the rumors, Ely insists that there are "strong days ahead" for the reconstructed historic site that first opened to the public in 1989.

"I'm not worried about long-term survivability," she adds. "But the homestead will have to be based on a different kind of model that reflects current realities."

Most prominent among those realities is an estimated $35,000 deficit in an annual operating budget of $147,000. The Ethan Allen Homestead Trust, the entity that administers the rough-hewn, Colonial-style house and an adjoining visitors' center, has been unable to raise the funds needed to bridge that gap and ensure its own ongoing oversight.

Hence the trust will cease to function and will return responsibility for maintaining the 5-acre house site to the park district. Ely's organization had leased to the trust that portion of the full 242-acre Intervale park that was officially designated the Ethan Allen Homestead.

The budget crisis was precipitated by a combination of declining attendance and diminished donations, says Donald Miner, chairman of the nine-member trust. The crunch became so acute that the group was forced to draw down some of its small endowment to keep the site operating, he adds.

Visitor numbers fell to about 7000 last year, from a height of 14,000 in the first years after the Allen house was made tourist ready. The initially high attendance reflected a surge of curiosity from Burlington-area residents, Miner says. As the site's novelty value lessened for locals, out-of-staters came to account for a larger share of visitors.

Admission fees and gift-shop sales cover about 40 percent of the Allen site's budget, Miner says. Foundation grants and gifts from individuals and businesses make up the rest. Miner suggests that the shortfall in donations may be partially attributed to unusually heavy demands for charitable giving in recent years. He cites "horrible catastrophes worldwide," including the South Asia tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake and the inundation of New Orleans.

The site has also had to contend with negative national trends that have proved particularly challenging to historical and cultural institutions in small, rural states. (See accompanying story.) Like nearly all museums in Vermont, the Ethan Allen Homestead receives no subsidies from the state.

The trust did all it could to sustain its 17-year stewardship, Miner insists. It has had only two paid employees and relied heavily on scores of volunteers, says the 83-year-old retired Shell Oil executive. "Thousands of hours of effort were put into this, and there was also a strong financial commitment by the trust's board," he attests.

But sources familiar with the inner workings of the Homestead suggest that it was crippled by a lack of continuity in the director's post and by the loss of key figures who had long involvements with the site. Three directors came and went within a few years. Programming suffered as a result, and some grants were not renewed, says a former volunteer who would not comment for attribution.

Miner declined to respond to these criticisms, noting that he has been chairman of the trust's board for only the past year and a half. Ely, however, acknowledges that the loss of resident Allen experts such as David Bryant - brother of Vermont historian Frank Bryant - represents "a hit that can be very hard to recover from."

It's time for the state to step up as a financial supporter of the last home of its illustrious founder, Miner and Ely agree. Wayne Gross, director of the Burlington Parks and Recreation Department, echoes their pleas for state aid. Still, he notes that the city's financial circumstances do not permit it to play a greater role in underwriting the homestead.

Burlington is one of seven Chittenden County communities that fund the Winooski Valley Park District. The Ethan Allen Homestead accounts for the largest share of maintenance expenses among the 17 properties that the district administers, Ely says. "It's our most manicured site. There's a lot involved in maintaining that 18th-century ambience," she notes.

Miner also raises the possibility that the Vermont Historical Society might assume supervision of the homestead's educational functions. The trust and society have been discussing such an arrangement, Miner reports.

"The site is loved by so many local people, and the Ethan Allen name is so well known, that the homestead will definitely remain in operation," Ely says. "What's happening is that it's going through an evolutionary change."

- K.J.K.

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.

About the Artist

Matthew Thorsen

Matthew Thorsen

Matthew Thorsen was a photographer for Seven Days 1995-2018. Read all about his life and work here.


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