Please welcome guest author Jeanne Mozier. Mozier serves as president of the board of WV’s Museum of the Berkeley Springs. She is the author of several books including “Way Out in West Virginia, a must-have guide to the wonders and oddities of the Mountain State” and “Historic Images of Berkeley Springs.” Named a West Virginia History Hero, she is currently working on a book about the local Berkeley Castle. Contact Jeanne at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website.
BERKELEY SPRINGS, WV —- When a group of local history enthusiasts established the Museum of the Berkeley Springs in 1984, we made a fateful decision. Armed with expert advice from nearby Shepherd University, we committed to use our museum as a way to tell both the geologic story of the famed warm springs and how the waters impacted the economic, social and political history of the town that formed around them. The focus allowed us to avoid the “dump Grandpa’s sickle” syndrome.
We were lucky. We had a great story to tell and much of it was literally outside our door where thousands still come each year to “take the waters” for their health and well being. We also had limitations, especially our prime space in Berkeley Springs State Park, on the second floor of the Roman Bath House, oldest public building in town (circa 1815.) It was a great location but small space – approximately 2,500 square feet and no room to expand.
Finally, as with most small local museums, financial resources are limited. All the exhibits outlined here were developed as a volunteer exercise with professional fabrication funded by grants from the West Virginia Humanities Foundation, local hotel-motel tax revenue and the West Virginia Conservation Agency. The cost per exhibit averaged $2,500.
Over the past 30 years, I’ve developed four major permanent exhibits for the museum; two interested me greatly, two I had to finish when the original developer dropped out. The most recent debuted September 7, 2014, 27 years to the day from the opening of the museum’s doors. I had no previous exhibit development experience, not even of the grammar school science fair variety.
These are some of the insights I acquired. There are lots more.
• If you know how to do research, you can develop an exhibit. I knew nothing about James Rumsey, true inventor of the steamboat who lived and worked in 18th century Berkeley Springs. My research journey took me from ignorance to extensive knowledge in about a year. It worked well as the guiding principle of the exhibit since most of our visitors would also be learning of this hapless genius for the first time.
There were no artifacts, but we did have locations that could be photographed, historic documents that were excerpted, intriguing images of his many patents and a purported portrait by Benjamin West that we were able to duplicate. A handcrafted map of locations in the county connected with Rumsey is the dominant visual. My favorite part of the exhibit displays excerpted quotes from Rumsey hinting at who he was as a man.
What I learned most was how much of the information I collected would never make it to the exhibit panel. I created an exhibit manual that captured all the material but could not find funding to get it printed.
A decade later, the internet appeared and I “invented” the Virtual Museum website as a place to make available all that work. The information is keyed to every piece of the physical exhibit giving magnitude and resonance to both.
• The town of Bath (known to the world by its postal name of Berkeley Springs) was established in 1776 around the springs. Its original owners were the colonial elite including George Washington, his family and friends who had been frequenting the place for a couple decades as “squatters.”
For the second exhibit, Formation of the Town, I needed help translating all the research into an exciting three-dimensional form. Nearly twenty years after my first exhibit, both expectations and fabrication technology had really advanced.
I sought out the friend of friend who had retired as an exhibit developer for the Smithsonian and got tips about dimensionality and highlighting. We used mini-historic portraits of founders and had half a panel turned into a then-and-now exploration of the town.
With six panels to work with, we turned two of them into a visually exciting and provocative part of the whole story – a long history of fires around the springs. That topic provided dramatic photos, charred artifacts and appreciation for the contribution a timeline can make to any story. The research from this exhibit is also part of the Virtual Museum.
• The third exhibit almost did itself. Bathing at Bath focused on the bathhouses and pulled together pieces that had existed in the museum for years. Betty Lou Harmison, another museum founder, and I had just completed an Arcadia Publishing book of Historic Images of Berkeley Springs. An entire chapter was devoted to ‘Taking the Waters,’ so we had abundant photos from which to choose.
I had developed brochures and outdoor interpretive signs on the bathhouses currently in Berkeley Springs State Park for other projects. This was an exhibit heavy on images with distinctive artifacts like the former steam cabinet used in the bathhouse and a collection of historic bathing suits. The challenge was showing both the duration and evolution of the bathing experience.
Once again I turned to a timeline, this one devoted to the progression of bathing structures in the park. I also used an exhibit designer who worked with the fabricator, a process I’d learned while developing the outdoor interpretive signs. The impact of the story was heightened by real life. Every day, outside the museum’s window, scores of people engage in a reenactment of our exhibit.
• A month ago we completed a new segment of one of the original exhibits, Geology of the Springs. This is an intricate and complicated topic and one that literally and figuratively provides the basis for all other topics in the museum – and in Berkeley Springs. Again, the task was setting context for other bits and pieces, especially a fortuitous new acquisition.
On May 16, 2012 an 800-pound quartz crystal mined in the same ridge from which the springs emerge, arrived at the museum, a gift of U.S. Silica’s Berkeley Springs plant. It was obviously the jewel of our collection and one referred to by visiting children as the 800-pound diamond. For nearly two years, development of the exhibit languished while the deadline for spending grant funds drew closer. With no knowledge of geology but the experience of three previous exhibits as credentials, I accepted the task and got to work.
Once more, I used a timeline – this one stretching 4.6 billion years. It displayed the area’s fascinating geologic evolution, one shared through much of Appalachia. Then, assuming most viewers of our fossil collection—which is a major artifact in this exhibit—were as ignorant as I was, I developed the text as simple questions, answers and nametags for the fossils. Another re-used asset was the designer and fabrication company. To date, the giant crystal and new segment of the geology exhibit have proved popular draws.
We invite visitors to the Museum of the Berkeley Springs, open March through December. While visiting historic Berkeley Springs, we urge you to directly experience our long history as the country’s first spa and take a bath in our several spas, drink the water, or dangle your toes in the largest open array of springs water in the Blue Ridge.
If you cannot come in person, visit the Virtual Museum, open 24/7 and added to all the time. Memberships and donations are always welcome.comments