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Archive for May, 2011

MUSEUM RE-OPENS IN SPITE OF HARDSHIPS

By Dr. Laura Murray, museum volunteer

Despite of the national economic recession, a mold infestation in the museum’s former building, and a burglary that resulted in the loss of hundreds of rare artifacts last year, the Douglas Fairbanks Museum is finally back open again.

On what would have been the 128th birthday of the great silent film star, the museum held a Grand Reopening celebration and once again welcomed visitors into the museum’s new home.

“This is such a happy day,” museum curator Keri Leigh told the assembled group of volunteers, supporters and guests. “We’ve had more than our share of challenges over the past few years, and sometimes we wondered if this moment would ever come. Thanks to your support and the hard work of our dedicated volunteers, we are open to the public again.”

Overcome by emotion, at one point Leigh broke down in tears while describing the holiday 2010 burglary that resulted in the loss of hundreds of rare photographs, three-dimensional artifacts, and a sizable portion of the museum’s film and periodicals collections.

“Several of these items were more than 100 years old; many were one of a kind and simply cannot be replaced,” she said. “We’re trying our best to re-build the archives, but it will take many years to ever get back to where we were before the burglary.

“Funding needed to acquire new artifacts just isn’t there.” Leigh explained. “Since the economic downturn of 2008, the gifts and endowments that used to sustain us have dropped dramatically. This is true for museums and libraries everywhere, but it hit us especially hard in light of all these tragedies. Insurance only covers the fair market value, not the historic value of collectibles such as these. In many respects, we will never be made whole again because there’s just no way to replace many of the items that were stolen. They were the only ones known to exist in the world.”

Although the museum offered a cash reward and a 90-day amnesty period for return of the stolen artifacts, no one ever came forward. To date, these hundreds of rare photographs, periodicals, films, and three-dimensional items have not been located. The thieves remain at large. Private investigators are working pro bono hoping to crack the case.

“I’m just grateful for what we still have.” She said. “By the grace of God, we are here today to share what’s left of our collection with you all. We’ve been here since 1998 and we have always triumphed over tragedy. We’re not going away as long as I still have breath in me. We’re not going to let a recession, mold, or thieves get the better of us. We believe that is in keeping with the message of Douglas Fairbanks; to never give up, to fight on in the face of adversity and injustice.”

Leigh’s remarks brought wild applause and a standing ovation from the assembled group. She pointed to a poster of Douglas Fairbanks in a typically bold swashbuckling pose, ready to take on the bad guys with his rapier: “See that fellow right there? He’s our inspiration. He’s the reason we carry on.”

Fairbanks in "The Black Pirate," 1926.

GUESTS TRAVELED MANY MILES

Visitors traveled from as far away as Dallas, Oklahoma, Colorado and California to attend the reopening. Leigh also read aloud cards, letters and emails of congratulations and well-wishes from museum supporters who could not attend in person. Among them was an email she recently received from one of Fairbanks’ great-great-grandsons in England, who just penned a school term paper about his great-grandfather.

“I’m just thrilled to see kids taking an interest in Douglas Fairbanks again,” Leigh said. “It made me beam with pride when I read young Fairbanks’ final report about his great-grandfather’s vast contributions to the Allied war effort in WWII. He should be proud of his family’s legacy.”

The Campisi family traveled from California to attend the reopening celebration. While browsing through a “look book”  documenting the stolen artifacts, Mr. Campisi tried to help his 7 year old son understand why the items were not available for him to see and touch. “This makes me so sad,” Mrs. Campisi said solemnly, “but it also makes me angry. What kind of people steal a child’s education? A thief’s greed denied my son and future generations the opportunity to learn about a great pioneer of the film industry.”

Mr. Campisi added, “if the thieves should ever meet up with the ghost of Douglas Fairbanks one dark night, they had better watch out! I’m pretty sure old Doug wouldn’t be very happy about what they’ve done. That’s all I can say.”

A rare 1920s photo of Fairbanks' "Rancho Zorro," stolen in the burglary.

ALL FOR ONE, ONE FOR ALL

Visitors enjoyed refreshments, guided tours of the museum’s new exhibit and library space, and a screening of Fairbanks’ 1921 classic, “The Three Musketeers.” As a show of solidarity at the end of the movie, guests, staff, and museum volunteers raised a toast and exclaimed a hearty, “All for one, and one for all!”

A homemade birthday cake was served and every museum visitor was presented with a gift bag containing a complimentary copy of the book Douglas Fairbanks: In His Own Words, a museum button, coffee mug, and a commemorative postcard to remember the occasion by. Kids got a D’Artagnan-style hat complete with feathered plume so that they could play the hero in a Three Musketeers game.

As the sun was setting and the last guest departed, the remaining staff and volunteers began cleaning up. Before locking up for the night, we took a moment to survey the new gallery space one more time. Someone said all the hard work to rebuild had been well worth it. We all just stopped in our tracks and nodded an “amen!” We saved the candles from Doug’s birthday cake and each volunteer took one as a special souvenir to remind us all of this very special day. We will never forget it.

BEFORE AND AFTER PHOTOS

Stage 1: Moving the boxes in

Stage 2: Cleanup and preparation

Stage 3: Planning and design of gallery spaces

Stage 4: Unpacking and setting up audio/visual systems

Stage 6: Starting to fill the bookshelves

Stage 7: Hanging the posters

Stage 8: Building exhibits

Stage 9: First exhibit ready to go!

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