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Wisconsin historical society works to preserve artifacts

In this Jan. 2, 2018, photo, Jeff Stolz, a professor in the Viterbo University Theater Department, works conserving a dress from the 1970's at the La Crosse County Historical Society in La Crosse, Wis. The dress will be featured in an upcoming exhibit featuring the clothing of prominent La Crosse women. (Erik Daily/La Crosse Tribune via AP)

Jeff Stolz, a professor in the Viterbo University Theater Department, works on Jan. 2 at the La Crosse County Historical Society. The society moved into its current building three years ago but is finding it’s not very suitable for preserving history.  (Erik Daily/La Crosse Tribune via AP)

La Crosse Tribune

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — Jeff Stolz, a researcher at the La Crosse County Historical Society, was hard at work earlier this month restoring a green silk dress that a local woman had worn to President Richard Nixon’s inauguration.

Several large textiles, artifacts of La Crosse’s bygone days, were rolled up to give him a place to work. The dream of Peggy Derrick, executive director of the historical society, was to store the large textiles flat, which is best for preservation. But she doesn’t have large cabinets with the type of drawers that would be needed.

“We don’t have a good place in this building for one,” she told the La Crosse Tribune .

The historical society — which receives money from La Crosse County, along with a mix of membership fees, private donations and grants — moved into its building at West Avenue South and King Street three years ago. The board then wanted a new, more visible location to give the historical society its own identity, and the owners of the church-turned-historic-home offered to donate it.

Officials at the historical society gratefully accepted the offer. Even so, the building isn’t an ideal place to display the society’s collection of historic artifacts from the La Crosse area.

“Old churches do not make good galleries because of the windows,” Derrick said.

The windows and the sunlight they provide help make the building beautiful, but they have also caused trouble for staff workers at the historical society.

In this Jan. 2, 2018 photo, Amy Vach, left, the collections manager at the La Crosse County Historical Society in La Crosse, Wis., and intern Natalie Van Dam prepare a 1898 wedding dress to be photographed for the museum's online gallery. (Erik Daily /La Crosse Tribune via AP)

Amy Vach, left, the collections manager at the La Crosse County Historical Society in La Crosse, and intern Natalie Van Dam prepare a wedding dress from 1898 to be photographed for the museum’s online gallery. (Erik Daily /La Crosse Tribune via AP)

“Light destroys things. It breaks down fibers. Silk literally disintegrates if left in direct sunlight long enough,” Derrick said.

The building’s windows also take up wall space and give officials there less room to put pieces from the collection on display. Galleries generally should be large, adaptable spaces, Derrick said.

She’s not sure what the best answer is, she said. Since Mayor Tim Kabat announced a resolution to set up a task force dedicated to researching the possibility of having a historical museum in La Crosse, Derrick has been fielding questions about what the attraction might ultimately be.

“The whole point of this committee is to figure that out. We need to figure out what ‘it’ is, define what we see as the needs and what the square footage should be,” Derrick said.

The question of whether to set up the committee went before the La Crosse Finance & Personnel Committee earlier this month. The La Crosse Common Council is expected to take it up at a later date.

Derrick has high hopes for the committee and its ability to study the possibility of having a museum to celebrate the region’s culture and history. Alhough getting a capital campaign to start the project is a large undertaking, the priority should be on figuring out what comes next, she said.

“The big thing is that it be successful after it’s built,” she added.

Derrick is hoping the committee will commission a study to look at social and economic factors and really dive into what it will take to make the museum succeed.

“It isn’t just about yes or no, you can do it. It’s about articulating what the challenges are,” she said.

The idea for a task force arose amid the historical society’s growth amid the past few years. As the board looked toward a future strategic plan, the question arose whether it could have a museum dedicated to displaying its artifacts and sharing La Crosse areas’s journey from the days when American Indians were the only people living there to the incorporation of the city and the arrival of its first white settlers.

Although hesitant to toot her own horn, Derrick acknowledged that the collection had become a priority after she joined the staff eight years ago. Before Derrick took over the executive-director reins a couple years ago, a combination of financial struggles and circumstances had put artifacts on the back burner.

“Collections had been overlooked for a long time,” she said.

However, the new emphasis placed on collections and artifacts has prompted further expansion of the historical society, as it struggles with a building whose defects extend to having too much natural light in its basement.

“Storing collections properly requires environmental controls for humidity and temperature — and for things like mice — but that’s very expensive,” Derrick said.

Proper storage also takes up more space. Room must provide to ensure that gowns, for instance, are not crammed into boxes with four other dresses.

Derrick said all the trouble is ultimately worthwhile.

“You can learn a lot about people and society by the things they make and use on a daily basis,” Derrick said. “If we treasure it, and if we show how important it is, people respond to that.”

It’s clear that staff workers and volunteers alike treasure the historical society’s collection. Stolz has been working on and off for months in his free time to get historic dresses ready for an exhibit  called “Juxtaposition,” which is planned for the spring of 2019. After he’s finished building the dresses up enough to withstand being moved and displayed on mannequins — which he says is harder on the garments than people might think — he plans to take them on field trips throughout La Crosse.

“We’ll photograph them in the environment where women lived and worked. There’s something really wonderful, I think, about clothing,” Stoltz said.

Meanwhile, the collections manager Amy Vachs and intern Natalie Van Dam were in the basement getting a Victorian-age wedding dress ready to be surveyed, photographed and added to the historical society’s online collection.

“If you don’t have a museum, it’s still accessible online,” Vach said.

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