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Museum Marks 140 Years at Its 35th

Popular and professional are two words the Loudoun Museum director would like tagged to the downtown Leesburg museum.

The museum’s newest exhibit, “The Road to Antietam Creek: Lee, Loudoun and the Invasion of Maryland, 1862,” is expected to take care of the first word. Opening June 23, the exhibit coordinates with the 140th anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Antietam Creek, Sept. 17, 1862.

“This is a big event for us because this exhibit is going to attract record-breaking numbers of people to the museum,” said Douglas Foard, museum director, about a project that has been a year in the making. “This exhibit promises to be the most popular thing we’ve done here.”

The exhibit investigates the battle campaign, highlighting Robert E. Lee’s march through Loudoun County with original and reproduction artifacts, graphics and narratives telling the story. The exhibit explores Lee’s battle plans, explains how the Union Army obtained the plans and describes Lee’s pre-battle stay in Leesburg’s Harrison House on King Street, along with the effect of the battle on Loudoun County.

The exhibit opens to museum members June 23 during the annual membership meeting and to the public thereafter for one year, followed by another year-long exhibit on the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. The exhibit opening will honor the founders of the Loudoun Museum, along with outstanding volunteers, and includes a museum tour and tour of the exhibit.

THE EXHIBIT is expected to attract local and out-of-state visitors. A new Virginia Civil War Trails Tour kicks off in September to commemorate and trace the route of the Battle of Antietam through Virginia and Maryland. The self-guided tour, which places the Loudoun Museum as the starting point and ends at the Battle of Antietam site near Sharpsburg, Md., is expected to bring thousands of visitors to the museum to begin the tour and possibly see the exhibit. The Civil War Trails Tour includes 200 sites.

"Many scholars believe Lee kicked off the campaign in Leesburg, so that's the tie in," said Randy Davis, curator.

The room where the Battle of Antietam exhibit will be shown sits empty for now, following some reshuffling at the museum, as approved by the museum board of directors in February. Museum staff expanded offices upstairs into a storage area and moved stored items into a former exhibit room now closed off from heat and light. Staff relocated the museum shop to the historic 1764 log cabin, where the museum first opened in 1967, allowing the space to be used for a reception area, not yet completed.

Accreditation by the American Association of Museums is the main reason for the reshuffling. In the mid-1990s, an evaluation team identified a list of 79 required changes before the museum could become accredited, a designation showing the museum is operated and managed professionally.

“We’re now well through that list,” Foard said.

ALONG WITH satisfying the list, the museum is seeking a 99-year lease from the Town of Leesburg, which owns the building housing the museum since 1977, the year the museum moved out of the log cabin. The museum is operating on an expired two-year lease that in the past the town continued biannually. A longer lease would allow the museum to fund-raise for remodeling the building, expanding its size and increasing the exhibit space. The town is considering a 30-year lease with renewal options, but the matter remains under discussion, Foard said.

“That lease would mark a real turn for the museum, then we could grow,” said Gayla VandenBosche, director of public affairs for the Loudoun Museum.

Thirty-five years ago, the museum consisted of a borrowed collection exhibited in the log cabin and operated without a source of funding. Now, the collection has thousands of pieces, some of which have to be stored for lack of exhibit space. The museum operates out of two buildings, the main building and the log cabin, now used for the Museum Shop. Funding for the museum comes from grants and donations, along with town and county appropriations. The Board of Supervisors appropriated $258,000 for the museum for fiscal year 2003, the same amount as last year, while the Town of Leesburg again provided $27,000 as it had last year.

Museum staff began inventorying the museum’s collection of 6,000 artifacts in October 2001, stopped this year for other projects and resumed work in April, planning to finish the inventory by the end of the year. The inventory involves researching, authenticating and documenting each piece in the collection.

“Here we’ve been in business for 35 years, but we haven’t had the staff to do a complete inventory of our collection,” Foard said.

THE MUSEUM hired a full-time curator a year-and-a-half ago, a position filled by Davis of Maryland and previously carried out by volunteers and part-time staff. Christie Hubner joined Davis a half-year later as assistant curator. The staff additions allowed the museum to move the collection, conduct the inventory, enter into consortiums with heritage sites, develop professional relationships with other institutions and increase the number and quality of the exhibits, Foard said.

“Once we complete the inventory, we can group artifacts by topic and develop exhibits based on those topics,” Foard said, adding that he aims for a new exhibit every quarter. The museum currently has about 12 exhibits, some of which have been on display for several years. “We want people to come back to the museum and see something different when they visit,” he said.

“We’re doing an increasingly professional job of interpreting the Loudoun experience for visitors to the county and for the county’s residents,” Foard added. “At the same time, we’re uncovering elements of Loudoun’s history that have been forgotten, and we need to interpret all that, too.”

The opening of the Battle of Antietam exhibit is an “important landmark,” VandenBosche said. “To us, it’s pretty amazing. This started with a group of volunteers … It keeps growing and becoming more professional.”

The Loudoun Museum has 200 members.