LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — La Crosse County Historical Society researcher Jeff Stolz was hard at work earlier this month restoring a green silk dress that a La Crosse 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. LCHS executive director Peggy Derrick's dream is to store the large textiles flat, which is best for preservation, but she doesn't have the large cabinet with flat drawers that would be necessary.
"We don't have a good place in this building for one," she told the La Crosse Tribune .
The historical society — which is funded by 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. At the time, the board 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.
The historical society's leaders gratefully accepted the offer, but it isn't an ideal building 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 it also causes a lot of problems for the historical society staff.
"Light destroys things. It breaks down fibers. Silk literally disintegrates if left in direct sunlight long enough," she said.
Plus the windows take up wall space and limit the options for what can be displayed. Galleries need to be large, adaptable spaces, Derrick said.
She's not sure what the solution to the historical society's problem is. Since Mayor Tim Kabat announced a resolution to create a task force dedicated to researching the feasibility of a La Crosse museum, Derrick has been fielding questions about what the museum will 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 create the committee went before the La Crosse Finance & Personnel Committee earlier this month before the La Crosse Common Council votes on it.
Derrick has high hopes for the committee and its ability to study how to make a sustainable museum to celebrate the region's culture and history. While getting a capital campaign to start the project is a large undertaking, what comes next should be a focus, she said.
"The big thing is that it be successful after it's built," she added.
Derrick is hoping the committee will commission a feasibility study to look at social and economic factors and really dive into what it will take to make the museum workable.
"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 with the city arose from the growth of the historical society during the past few years. As the board looked toward a future strategic plan, the question arose whether it could have a facility dedicated to displaying its artifacts and sharing La Crosse's historical journey from the days when Native Americans were the only residents to the incorporation of the city and first white settlers, and the more recent immigration of the Hmong people after the Vietnam War, as well as everything in between.
Derrick was hesitant to toot her own horn, but she admitted that the collection had become a priority after she joined the staff eight years ago. Before Derrick took 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 focus on collections and artifacts has prompted further growth for the historical society, as it struggles with a facility that even has too much natural light in the 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, as such things as gowns are put away properly and not crammed into boxes meant for one with four other dresses.
However, it's worth it to Derrick to preserve and share local history.
"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 the historical society staff and volunteers do treasure their collection. Stolz has been working on and off for months in his free time to get historic dresses ready for an exhibit planned for spring of 2019 called "Juxtaposition." 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.
Clothes are iconic to time periods as well as connected to taste and function. You work and play in it, literally leaving behind your DNA, he said.
"Clothing, it's very, very personal," he said.
Meanwhile, collections manager Amy Vachs and intern Natalie Van Dam were in the basement preparing a Victorian-era wedding dress to be surveyed, photographed and added to the online collection, fulfilling the historical society's mission to share history with the community.
"If you don't have a museum, it's still accessible online," Vach said.
Information from: La Crosse Tribune, http://www.lacrossetribune.com