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Mold found growing on a water damaged support beam beneath the museum's floor

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

MAR. 7, 2010

CONTACT: THE DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS MUSEUM

PHONE: (830) 444-0523

MUSEUM MOVES OUT OF MOLDY BUILDING

Since the discovery of mold inside the Douglas Fairbanks Museum’s new building over a month ago, museum staffers have been busy packing and moving the collections to safe climate-controlled storage offsite. The move was completed in mid-February.

“I’m happy to report that the collections do not appear to have suffered any damage as a result of the mold infestation,” museum curator Keri Leigh announced at the March board meeting in Austin. “Luckily the problem was discovered early on — about 10 days after we moved in — so we hadn’t uncrated any significant artifacts or hung anything on the gallery walls yet. We were so fortunate in that sense.”

The unfortunate news is that the museum’s planned re-opening, originally scheduled for March 1, has been postponed indefinitely pending repairs to the sick building. Extensive mold remediation, moisture intrusion repairs and replacement of key structural members will be required before the building can be safely opened to the public.

It’s obviously a major health issue,” Leigh said. “In addition to the dangers mold poses to the museum’s collection itself, my biggest concern is the health risks to staff and visitors.

“Most of the museum’s visitors have always traditionally been kids and the elderly, and those are the age groups most suceptible to harm from mold,” she explained. “Until the mold is remediated and the underlying moisture problems are fixed, there’s just no way we can continue to occupy this building or even consider opening it as a museum.”

Evidence of severe water damage, rust, dry rot and mold found under museum sub floor

Numerous case studies have shown mold to pose serious health risks to normal, healthy persons. The effects are even more severe and dangerous to the elderly, small children and infants, persons with compromised immune systems, asthma, breathing problems or mold allergies.

To make matters worse, Leigh herself is highly allergic to mold. Shortly after moving into the home in January, Leigh soon found herself suffering spells of dizziness, difficulty breathing, loss of short term memory and motor coordination, unexplained fatigue, joint pain, swelling of her face and extremities, skin rashes, and flu-like symptoms that just wouldn’t go away.

“For a couple of weeks there, I thought I just had the flu.” Leigh says. “But my symptoms weren’t getting any better and I couldn’t figure out why I was having all these other symptoms but no fever. It didn’t make sense.”

Then the mold was discovered about a week later. “While that was the worst news possible for the museum, it was kind of a relief to at least know what was making me so sick. As someone who has dealt with severe mold allergies from birth, finding out the home was ridden with mold explained all those symptoms. So at least I knew what the cause was, but of course it didn’t help me feel any better.”

“The only thing to do was for me to get myself and the museum collections out of the house as fast as possible.”

Leigh and museum staff quickly packed up the museum’s artifacts and put them in safe storage offsite. The next step was to get Leigh moved to temporary shelter for her own health.

“Once I got out of the house and into a mold-free environment, I started feeling better immediately,” she said.

But Leigh still has to travel to the museum frequently to deal with business matters once or twice a week. “It’s amazing – almost as soon as I step in the door, I’ll start sneezing. My eyes get all puffy and watery and it’s hard to breathe,” she says. “Within an hour or two I’m itching and scratching and have red bumps coming up on my skin. My brain will start to feel foggy and I can’t concentrate. The effect is instantaneous. So I’m trying to spend as little time here as possible.”

Severely water, dry rot and termite damaged wooden sheathing in attic

Although she is terribly disappointed, Leigh has come to accept the fact that the museum will not be opening in the building anytime soon. The repairs needed to remediate the mold, fix the moisture intrusion problems, and stabalize the structure are too extensive to be performed while the building is occupied.

“It’s really sad,” Leigh says. “I had such high hopes for this place just a few short months ago. It’s a lovely old Victorian home and I saw a lot of potential for the museum here. To find that this grand old house has sick building syndrome just breaks my heart because I love historic homes and hate to see something like this happen to them. It’s entirely preventable with proper care, conservation and maintenance. If homes are not cared for, these types of problems – termites, mold, wood-destroying organisms – set in and eventually just overtake the whole house.”

“It’s sort of like a cancerous growth in your home,” Leigh explains. “Early detection is key. If you can find the cancer early and remove it, it’s much less likely to come back. If it is not caught until the late stages, the cancer will spread like wildfire and be much more difficult and costly to get rid of. It may recur again and again, or it may prove fatal.”

For now, Leigh is just relieved that her health is improving and the museum’s collections are safe. “Luckily we discovered the mold and moisture problems quickly before the collections were uncrated or on the walls,” she says.

“While this is certainly a nightmare, it would have been so much worse had we actually been open to the public at the time. I have often shuddered to think of one artifact getting damaged or even one visitor or staffer getting sick from the mold. One is one too many,” says Leigh. “So I guess we were fortunate, if we try to look on the bright side of this.”

While Leigh looks for the bright side, the museum’s future hangs under a dark cloud. With grants and donating funding for nonprofit arts and cultural groups at an all-time low nationwide, many small museums like the Douglas Fairbanks are having to close their doors, either temporarily or permanently.

“The last two years have been particularly tough for us,” she says. “With the downturn in the economy, many of the funding sources we could always count on for support were either cutting grants altogether or giving much less. And the trend across the country is for even more cuts to arts, culture and educational organizations.

“When I see the Governors of big states like California and New York closing major parks and recreation facilities, and shuttering museums and libraries due to massive budget cuts, I really have to wonder how a small private museum like ours is going to stay afloat in this economy.” 

“Right now, our greatest obstacle is to have a permanent location that we can call our own,” Leigh explains. “We thought we had one here, and then we discover the building needs repairs to extensive for us to stay in it. So we’re basically right back to square one — using temporary office and exhibit space until we can settle into a new home.”

Leigh says just having a bricks-and-mortar location would most likely save the museum. Even in these tough and uncertain economic times, Leigh feels that the museum can stand on its’ own two feet without taxpayer funds.

“We’re always been self-supporting,” Leigh says. “The museum has been open since 1998 and has never accepted any public funds. All of our funding comes from donations and grants from private individuals and businesses, admission fees, gift shop sales, fundraisers and special events. We’re very proud of the fact that we’re not a burden to the taxpayer.

“We believe that if the silent film and local community think we provide a valuable service to the public, they will support us, and they always have before,” she says. “These are just tough times for everyone. We’re trying to weather the economic storm, like everybody else.”

The museum also raises additional funding from licensing and duplication fees charged to film producers and book publishers seeking to reproduce items from its’ collections, as well as fees charged to other museums when artifacts are loaned out for long-distance and traveling exhibits. The museum also has an online gift shop where Fairbanks fans can purchase books, DVD’s, apparel and memorabilia, with a percentage of sales going to the museum. “Every little bit helps right now,” Leigh says. “Especially when we don’t have a building that is open to the public where we can raise funds through admission fees, events, and the gift shop.”

“Our first priority now has to be finding either temporary or permanent space for the museum to operate,” she says.

Will the museum eventually return to the old house on St. George Street? Leigh says it’s possible.

“Sure, once the home is repaired and stabalized structurally, we could move right back in.” She says. “But there is a lot of serious work to be done here before the house will be fully repaired, and who knows how long that’s going to take? By that time, we may well be in a new permanent location with a long term lease commitment. And that’s what I hope will happen, the sooner the better. Finding us a new building is my only focus now. We desperately need to get our doors open to the public again.”

Anyone who has a suitable historic home or building they would consider donating or leasing to the Douglas Fairbanks Museum is encouraged to email or call (830) 444-0523 to discuss a resident curatorship, possible tax incentives or other options for your property. The museum is willing to relocate anywhere within the United States.

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