Changes for Loudoun Museum

Changes for Loudoun Museum

Adding staff, moving house and changing attitudes will bring new experiences to visitors.

As they sat in the Loudoun Museum's memorial garden on a sunny Wednesday, Karen MacLeod and Eric Larson acknowledged that it could have been very different. The new executive director and director of curatorial services, respectively, MacLeod and Larson both applied for another job at the museum before settling down into what is, for each, the right position.

"I almost literally fell out of my chair because it was a dream come true," said MacLeod, a Loudoun County High School and University of Virginia graduate who originally applied for the director of education position. She accepted the post of executive director in May.

Larson, a slightly graying redhead who was last stationed as the curator of the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum in Sterling, had applied for executive director. But for a fellow who got his start taking tickets at Yorktown after college, a job with his hands on the artifacts was the right one. Larson took over as curator in July, and his first major project is to catalogue the museum's collection, which, he estimates, has about 2,000 of its 7,000 objects unclassified.

"We'll just go box by box, shelf by shelf and file drawer by file drawer," he said.

MAJOR CHANGES are in store for the Loudoun Museum in the coming year with its new staff in place: a new database, a new attitude toward the craft of museuming and a new location.

The database will expand on the old one, which, Larson noted, was incomplete. No one's quite sure exactly what's in dozens of boxes upstairs in the museum's downtown Leesburg location in an old silversmith's shop. Right now, the boxes are labeled with things like "short bodice and underskirt, petticoat," and the computerized database has limited searching abilities.

When it's finished (and the project is slated to begin in September), museum staff and researchers will be able to single out one artifact on the database and see an image of it, read about its history and even read about the history of the family that owned it.

It will be a useful tool for the museum, which has an expansive assortment of 19th-century quilts, samplers and clothing.

"The collection of textiles ranks up with the largest museums," Larson said.

Only about 10 percent of the museum's collection is on display at a time, but that's not too unusual, said Larson.

"Most museums are lucky to have 20 percent of their collection out at a time," Larson said.

VISITORS MAY not reap the benefits of the computerized database right away, but they will benefit from another new Loudoun Museum development: a shift in focus in the presentation of exhibits.

While visitors are still greeted by a life-size, if cartoonish, cardboard cutout of Lord Loudoun, MacLeod is attempting to redirect the museum's focus away from the wealthy landowners and statesmen and more towards the average Loudouner over the years.

"They want to see more about women, more things to touch, more kids' sections," MacLeod said.

A series of surveys has helped museum staff focus on what's working and what's not working for visitors. It turns out that text-heavy exhibits — like the brief history of Loudoun in the museum's front hall — are the least effective for the average visitor, while a minority of attendees read every word.

"The old attitude was, 'If we build it, they will come,'" MacLeod said. "That's not true .... They want to be entertained. They want some educational value. More than anything else, they just want that experience."

"That experience" is the ability to relate to the exhibit, to feel it on a personal, almost visceral level. To do that, Larson and MacLeod are trying to put a face on the past — for example, creating an exhibit based on the diary of Catherine Barbara Broun, a Loudoun woman just trying to hold her family together during the Civil War.

"It's great to relate the artifacts to the person in the exhibit," Larson said.

"And the person who's looking at the exhibit," MacLeod added. "They think about what it was like to live back then."

The museum has already added a more tactile element to its Civil War exhibit. In a small room off the central hall, children can camp out in a pup tent and try on a replica Confederate jacket.

"When parents bring kids, they're expecting something for the kids to do," MacLeod said.

A $7.5 MILLION expansion to the museum's neighbor, Town Hall, is going to do a couple things to the Loudoun Museum in the not-too-distant future: it's going to wipe out the memorial garden and send the museum, its staff and its artifacts packing for the duration of construction.

The project is yet to be sent out to bid, so construction won't require the museum to vacate for at least a year. Still, the move, while coming from an unexpected direction, is something the board of directors has been considering for a while, said board president Elizabeth Whiting.

"I, quite frankly, challenged the board and staff at some times, saying, is the central museum location right for us?" Whiting said. "The right model really is multiple locations."

Currently, the museum has one satellite location, with a small exhibit at the Purcellville Train Station.

The museum will return to its current location after Town Hall construction is complete. It will, however, continue to operate administrative offices at its interim location, the Leesburg Training School, in addition to hosting an exhibit on the building's role as a school for African Americans prior to desegregation.

The school has been used for storage since closing in the 1940s and will require up to $400,000 in repairs before the museum can move in, said Whiting. The controversy surrounding the Town Hall expansion — no one likes a huge construction project to build another bulky government building in a quaint historic district — has slowed the project's progress, and will ensure that the museum will have enough time to organize and move its collection and offices.

"I think we can get a pretty good jump on what the issues will be," said Karen Jones, vice president of the museum board of directors.

The museum's impending move in combination with the addition of MacLeod and Larson has served as a much-needed jolt to the museum's system, said Whiting.

"These are exciting times for the museum," she said. "With their backgrounds and skills, we're going to be able to serve some of our ambitions."