Struggle over Bethany museum continues

The relationship between Bethany Beach’s Cultural and Historical Affairs Committee (CHAC) and the Bethany Beach Historical Association (BBHA) has always been complicated.
Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY: The display spot for some of Bethany Beach’s historical items is in dispute.Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY:
The display spot for some of Bethany Beach’s historical items is in dispute.

The BBHA, founded in 1997 through an edict from the town council, operated the original Bethany Beach museum in a small, grant-funded building that resided on the site of what is now Bethany Beach Town Hall. When the new town hall was built, two office areas were remodeled to house the existing historical panels — professionally developed at town expense but supplied with information and photos from the BBHA — and some artifacts.

When a house was offered to the town in September of 2001 by the Dibler family, BBHA members say, they were told that the museum might be reborn in the smaller building, which would be placed on the lot next to town hall.

According to BBHA Secretary Margaret Young, in September of 2002 — one year after the donation — the town reclaimed the office space that had housed the museum, closing it and putting the materials in storage. Another year later, after the building had been moved and renovation plans discussed, the town decided the structure was too small to accommodate the museum and wouldn’t be an efficient investment of town funds. (It was removed from the site just a few months ago, in fact, with no plans to develop the now-vacant lot.)

Discussions then focused on perhaps placing the museum on the former Natter property. But that property was permanently designated as an environmental-education facility, through the grant that helped pay for it — thus prohibiting use in the more generic museum role.

And support for a separate building for the museum simply dried up.

Meanwhile, the BBHA’s original responsibilities, as tasked by the town council, were to have included the running of the museum, the fostering of community involvement — including the provision of docents and growth in their own membership — and the raising of funds to support the museum.

In the first task, they have excelled, by most accounts. But membership has stagnated at approximately 80 people — many of whom are not actively involved with the museum. And fundraising has also been limited.

With that in mind, the council formed CHAC some three years ago, as an official town committee. Made up of representatives of the BBHA and new members, CHAC’s assigned responsibilities were much the same as the BBHA’s, at least as pertained to the museum. But they had a larger mission, including fostering other cultural happenings in the town.

Along with those new tasks, CHAC focused on using the funds the town set aside for the museum — to bring it to a new home in the town hall lobby. The area’s high ceilings and town services were deemed an asset in the new arrangement, as was then proposed. And work on the museum’s new cases and revamped displays was recently completed, with minor finishing touches still under way.

The committee has also organized a major fundraising effort with the Seaside Craft Show — now going into its second year, and with part of the resulting funds available for the museum.

But despite CHAC’s formation and ongoing work for the museum, the BBHA was never dissolved. Additionally, BBHA members have always wanted the museum to stand on its own, in a separate building that was — purely — the Bethany Beach museum. And despite being made part of CHAC, they’ve remained largely independent in respect to their membership and how those members deal with the day-to-day operations of the museum.

Young, who is a CHAC member in addition to the BBHA secretary post, has largely been the one in charge of those day-to-day operations. She has taken charge of scheduling docents from the BBHA membership to attend the museum when it is officially open during the summer and answer the questions of any visitors.

She has also arranged visits from the few tour groups that have asked to visit the museum. And she has taken a leading role in the ongoing acquisition of artifacts and display of the existing collection of items.

But there begins some of the conflict between the two groups in what has amounted to an uneasy truce between the proverbial two oxen working in a single hitch.

Some items on display were removed from the museum by the town without the BBHA’s foreknowledge, Young said, and that has remained a sticking point, with their whereabouts unknown. Young has also taken issue with how long some aspects of getting artifacts on display has been taking through CHAC.

And some of the BBHA’s previously displayed items — such as albums full of photos — have been rejected by CHAC as not presentable enough to be put out on display in the revamped museum. Town Manager Cliff Graviet rejected the notion of putting some items out on a table that had previously been used. CHAC Chairwoman and Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead — and other CHAC members — backed Graviet up on that call, citing the potential for clutter and unprofessional appearance.

With all the work and money that went into the new museum installations in the town hall lobby, Olmstead and others have resisted any displays that might appear less than professional. They’ve focused on cutting-edge museum cataloging software and computer kiosks to organize photos and oral histories for display.

But Young and other BBHA members have repeatedly called for additional items already in the collection to be put out, to provide a better museum experience. And they’ve focused on organizing existing information about historical homes and properties in the town, for example.

Even the old truck donated during the recent demolition on the historic Drexler property has become a source of contention. The one faction has deemed the trunk too large to put into the lobby area, but Young said she knew from the moment it was donated that they would consider it “too ugly” to be out on display, despite its historical nature.

In a tug-of-war between the two sides, BBHA members consistently favor putting more historical items out for display, while non-BBHA CHAC members take a measured approach focusing on the appearance of the museum space and professionalism. And some remain stuck between the two sides.

Further, the mere right to have access to the museum has recently been a subject of debate, with Young and the docents called on the carpet for allowing a small tour group into the facility without Graviet’s prior knowledge and approval. In that incident, CHAC members emphasized that the museum is inside the town hall and that Graviet has the day-to-day authority over the building and all that happens inside. But Young, in response, questioned whether town officials should deny a group of five access to a public space that is open throughout the day on weekdays and many weekends.

What has been the most recent breaking point in the split between the two groups was Olmstead’s suggestion in March that the BBHA be formally absorbed into CHAC, with clear authority for running the museum resting with CHAC alone, and citizen supporters of the museum taking on a new name — something other than the BBHA moniker to which many of them have grown accustomed.

She said the name itself was a source of confusion for the public, who often assumed the BBHA was in sole control of the museum or simply didn’t understand the groups’ roles. A change was needed, once and for all, she said.

The suggestion blindsided Young and the other BBHA members who are part of CHAC. Advance notice of the specific topic was not given. No other BBHA members were there, and their input was not solicited. After heated discussion, voting among committee members was split, with a single-vote margin favoring Olmstead’s motion. She was to put forward a resolution enacting the plan for the town council at their March meeting, but backed off that idea as the meeting began, citing the committee’s true division on the idea and a need for further discussion.

It thus came back before CHAC members on April 10, late into their monthly meeting. Discussion on the topic took up more than an hour and was filled with recriminations, criticisms, varying takes on the past and sore feelings on both sides.

Young had polled 30 of the BBHA members — all categorically opposed being absorbed into CHAC or changing their name, she said. But Olmstead noted that the vote was being held by CHAC, as the committee most recently given authority over the museum by the town council – the BBHA members didn’t have a vote beyond the members on the committee.

Further, Olmstead read from a 2002 letter by Town Solicitor Terrance Jaywork in response to an inquiry from then-Mayor Joe McHugh. In the letter, Jaywork said that because the BBHA was formed through an edict of the council, the BBHA fell under town aegis. Its funds (even though kept in a separate checking account under BBHA officer control to this day) and its very existence were under the council’s control.

Despite that, Olmstead offered some options for the BBHA. They could continue as a separate organization if they wished. Or, they could become, as previously discussed, a support group for the museum, offering membership to the public and taking dues that would go toward the museum. If they did so, Olmstead promised CHAC could help grow membership better than the BBHA, tripling it in a year, she suggested. Either way, CHAC is and will remain in charge of the museum, Olmstead insisted.

As for the historical items that BBHA currently holds — many of them are still the personal holdings of BBHA members, on loan to the group for the museum. If the BBHA were to go out on its own, they could stay with the group or be reclaimed by their donors. Items on display in the museum or donated more recently are likely to stay with the town, CHAC and the museum.

It will be up to BBHA members to decide whether they want to continue an independent existence or be absorbed into CHAC. But the decision to go it on their own would likely focus on that longstanding dream of a freestanding museum.

BBHA member Bill Addy openly favored the notion at the April 10 meeting, representing the previously absent BBHA members as the single non-committee member at the CHAC meeting. Pushing the issue of the BBHA’s previous independence and goals, he got a response from Olmstead that suggested the BBHA seek to found their own museum — to which he replied, with some satisfaction, “There you go.”

That may be Addy’s idea of a solution, but BBHA officers have acknowledged the problems involved in doing so — not the least of which is finding a suitable site and building with little funding currently available back the effort. The existence of the museum in town hall would only complicate that.

Young remained non-committal on the notion, expressing some continued willingness to work from within CHAC if some compromises could be made. “I would like to see the things we have displayed,” she said,” without all this Mickey Mouse stuff over things like we can’t have a table — a nice table.”

“People who actively work with the museum should be making these decisions,” Young added, referring to Graviet’s earlier veto of the table idea.

CHAC member Jeri Walsh supported Graviet’s right to make that decision, though. But she did allow that the BBHA members should be able to bring in the other items to have them considered for a way to display as much as possible in a way that all would consider acceptable.

That remained the single point of potential compromise this week, as Olmstead reached the point of exasperation with the impasse and the BBHA’s opposition to absorption by CHAC. “This is why I think we need to make a resolution and be separated,” she said. “We just argue and argue.”

But Young was willing to at least consider a next step forward for the combined group — to bring in the BBHA’s collected items for a CHAC review as to what could be put on display. No date was set for such a meeting, but whether it comes to pass and what happens at and after that date could determine the shape of the Bethany Beach museum going into the future.