After a power struggle, Washington’s Gunn Historical Museum faces uncertain future
Updated 6:32 pm, Tuesday, November 22, 2016
WASHINGTON — A power struggle between competing boards of directors appears to have killed plans to spin off the Gunn Historical Museum from the library that it has been associated with for more than 100 years.
After putting the museum on a trajectory to become its own, separate, nonprofit entity, the Gunn Memorial Library’s board of directors recently disbanded a “Museum Council” board it had created and fired a part-time museum director it had hired.
For decades, there have been talks of separating the two, and in July 2015, the separate board was created and a $1,000-a-month executive director hired for the museum. At the time, it was estimated that the museum could operate independently within three to five years.
Former council members said the recent moves - which included the library changing the locks on the museum, limiting access by volunteers - were a shock. They said the museum board had worked hard to make the museum financially stable and self-sustaining.
The museum, which had recently been allowed to raise funds separately from the library, raised about $90,000, secured $100,000 grant and was on track to separate from the library in March if the library board allowed, said Louise van Tartwijk, the museum’s now-former director.
“They’ve taken it all apart,” she said. “They just pulled the rug out (from under) it all, and I’m afraid that the next step is to close it.”
One museum trustee declined to comment, saying that all comments had to come from board President Rod Pleasants. Pleasants did not respond to repeated calls for comment.
Library trustees voted to fire van Tartwijk Nov. 11 and to disband the museum board on Nov. 17. Members say they were told they were no longer allowed in the building, which has been closed to the public for the past few months as volunteers catalog an 11,000- to 13,000-piece archive to create a permanent Washington exhibit. The locks were changed the next day, Nov. 18, former council members said.
The museum, which bills itself as the custodian of Washington’s history, has been around for more than a century and is housed in a home built in 1781. It has always been under the umbrella of the library.
Since July 2015, the museum raised far more money than library trustees requested, and proved it could hold its own as a nonprofit, said Nick Solley, a former museum board member. It also published a newsletter, sold merchandise and held well-attended fundraisers, he added.
The museum was also recently awarded a $100,000 “Good to Great” state grant to create a permanent history of Washington exhibit and a local history curriculum for area schools.
According to a press release from the now-defunct museum board, library trustees “(gave) no explanation for the unanimous vote that has resulted not only in an end to the goal of museum independence, but has also ended the council’s initiatives to fully catalog and photograph the museum collection, seek adequate new artifact storage, (and) bring long-overdue repairs to the museum building.”
Museum council members said they fear the museum will be closed — its collection sold off — and money raised for a self-reliant museum redirected to the library, van Tartwijk said.
The library board will hire an administrative accountant with van Tartwijk’s $12,000 annual salary, according to a press release the museum board sent Monday.
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