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Loudoun’s past on display

photoTimes-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny Loudoun Museum curator Alana Blumenthal gives a tour of the downtown Leesburg museum Jan. 28. Hundreds of items on display reveal aspects of Loudoun’s history such as fashion, toys, homemaking and letter writing from colonial times to the early 20th century. Visitors can take a self-guided tour on weekends because budget cuts have reduced the museum’s ability to bring on docents.

Emerging from a year long battle with Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors to maintain funding, the Loudoun Museum is slowly making its way back into the limelight.

With a new website set to launch Feb. 1, the museum’s curator and volunteers are reaching out to bring more of Loudoun County history into the schools and government facilities of the area.

“The future is all about partnerships for us. We are in talks with multiple sites of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. We’re also in talks with the courthouse and also we would like to be in talks with some of the schools about getting our objects out there. And then drawing people into the idea that Loudoun County has a rich history, drawing them to the museum and being able to interpret that history for them in places that they thought they might not be seeing it,” said Curator Alana Blumenthal.

The newest piece on display is a tombstone donated by the Loudoun Times-Mirror that belonged to John M. McCarty.

Recently, during the renovation of 19 N. King St. in Leesburg several letters were found from the late 1800s that the curator is working to restore.

“We don’t have the family history of that, we only have what we can gather from the letters and the deeds from that property. But we try to have as much information as possible and get that into our database,”  Blumenthal said.

The museum’s most popular attraction is the Discovery Room, which is designed as a hands-on early 19th century home.

“Kids love this,” she said. “… This is definitely a major draw for moms to show their kids just how special this can be.”

The museum can arrange special openings for groups to explore the room, which is filled with toys from that time period, clothing that kids can play dress up with and a kitchen, complete with plastic apples, herbs and vegetables.

All of the textiles in the museum are on a rotating basis for preservation purposes.

Civil War artifacts, such as hair from Gen. Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveler, and a wreath made of human hair are also popular attractions. The practice has Victorian roots where the crafter would take hair from multiple family members and weave it into a wreath to honor their loved ones.

“The more time you spent crafting something out of the hair the more you’re remembering them and honoring them,” Blumenthal said.

The guest book at the museum, which offers a self-guided tour, is filled with signatures from people from all over the country and world.

“So many people in this area are kind of transient and they have no idea how much there is,”  Blumenthal said. “It’s really amazing when you think about it.”

photoTimes-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny Hundreds of items on display at the Loudoun Museum reveal aspects of Loudoun’s history such as this Civil War era dress, musical instruments, toys, homemaking items and letter writing tools from colonial times to the early 20th century. The dress is called “found in collection” because the museum doesn’t have records about where it came from. According to local ghost lore, the dress is named Elizabeth after a ghost believed to be associated with it.

A close call

The museum had a close call last year, when, after years of cutbacks, Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors debated on whether to completely nix its funding.

By July, staff and some supervisors determined the museum hadn’t fully demonstrated a capacity or willingness to reinvigorate its fundraising and operations and recommended that the full board withhold payment of any portion of the $63,000 contribution to the museum.

However, by September, the board had a change of heart, agreeing to approve the first of two $31,500 payments to the Loudoun Museum and to direct county staff to review the museum’s progress in terms of fundraising and operations in six months.

Chairman Scott York (R-At Large) at the time said he loved the “valuable history” of Loudoun County and saw no problem spending a little money to ensure its preservation.

“It was stressful … We’ve had great community support behind us. We were just worried about these collections because I was tasked with creating a plan to disperse these collections in case the vote had gone the other way and trying to figure out can we get the whole collections somewhere. Can we make sure that it stays within Loudoun County?” Blumenthal said.

With close to 8,000 pieces of historic textiles, furniture, children’s items, letters, photographs and machinery in its collection, the task would have been daunting.

Still, as part of the cutbacks, the museum has learned to do more with much less.

Blumenthal acts as the museum’s only full-time staffer – curator, collections manager, the administrator and the volunteer coordinator. Prior to budget cuts, which started in 2009, there were seven full-time workers.

The museum lost about 85 percent of its funding in the course of four or five years. The loss of funding is not unusual,  said Blumenthal, who has worked at The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum in Leadville, Colo. and the Jewish Museum in Manhattan.

“Most of the poorest areas tend to rally around their museums,” she said. “They value their local culture and they’re proud of it.”

Other things, like rotating displays had to fall by the wayside as well to keep up with the budget cuts. But Blumenthal has high hopes to bring that back.

“My dream would be able to revamp and refresh and have something new on display quarterly,” she said.

The collection is slowly starting to build again, mostly through donations from Loudoun residents who want to make sure their piece of history is preserved.

The museum’s curator and volunteers hope that with the launch of its new website on Feb. 1, residents will become even more curious about the venue and what it has to offer.

“[The website] is amazing. It is so impressive. And not only is it a great resource about the museum, and for memberships and information, we also have close to 6,000 of our collections online that are searchable,”  Blumenthal said.

If you go:
The Loudoun Museum will host a reception to launch its new website from 6 to 9 p.m. Feb. 1.  Live demonstrations, wine and refreshments will be available. The museum is at 6 Loudoun St. SW in Leesburg.
For more information, visit http://www.loudounmuseum.org.

photoTimes-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny Hundreds of items on display at the Loudoun Museum reveal aspects of Loudoun’s history such as this “crazy quilt” as it was called from the colonial to Civil War era after the random pattern from stitching together scraps of cloth. The collection also includes musical instruments, fashion, toys and letter writing tools from colonial times to the early 20th century. Visitors can take a self-guided tour on weekends because budget cuts have reduced the museum’s ability to bring on docents.


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