Summerville-Dorchester museum scrapping for cash to survive
SUMMERVILLE — Curios are the charm of this quirky town, and its old waterworks is where a host of them end up.
What: The Summerville-Dorchester Museum.Where: 100 East Doty Ave., Summerville.Hours: Monday through Saturday 9 a.m.-2 p.m.Admission: Voluntary $2 donation.more info: www.summerville dorchestermuseum.org or 875-9666.
From the huge cistern out back to the cell bars of the old jail inside, the Summerville-Dorchester Museum is eye catching. When you realize the place is a treasure chest of local culture, from 600 pounds of native American pottery pieces to an early 20th century traffic light, the rooms take on a bit of a Smithsonian tinge.
But the future of this place might lie outside its doors.
The museum celebrates its 20th anniversary this year the way it’s spent a lot of those years — scrapping for cash to survive. More than half its $44,000 per year operating budget is paid by Summerville and Dorchester County accommodations tax revenue grants, and nearly all that from the town. The grant amounts are uncertain year to year.
Organizers appealed to Dorchester County Council earlier this week for emergency funds to make up for a shortfall they have been scrambling to cover since last year.
“We’re operating bare bones right now,” board chairwoman Judy Burn said.
With contingency money tight until the new fiscal year in July, council gave them only half what they asked for. Members suggested museum officials combine efforts with the bootstrap and can-do Upper Dorchester County Historical Society to create a county archives — in other words, give back a little more bang for the buck.
Burn and Chris Ohm, the museum director and curator, are amenable to that. But Ohm, a trained archaeologist, has his eye on something bigger. Working with academic and professional archaeologists in the region, he’s trying to put together digs in and around Summerville.
The big one would be to find Gen. Moultrie’s lost fort, the Ashley River haunt commanded by the legendary Revolutionary War “Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion. It could very well be in or near the county’s recently purchased park grounds along the river. If so, the park could be developed as a revenue-producing regional or even national historic attraction.
All that’s kept the county from looking so far is funds. Ohm is putting the effort together like he does much of what he does for the museum, at little or no cost.
That’s the museum’s job, he insists, “to educate, collect and preserve this (local) history.” To not only survive but grow, the museum has to work beyond its doors.
“For a long time we’ve been quiet, laid back. We’ve waited for people to come to us,” Burn said. “We want to do our mission. There’s a lot of history here. There’s a lot that people don’t know about.”
The museum is not in crisis, Ohm and Burn insist. It has funds now to stay open at least into the fall. Its board is developing other fundraising opportunities. But the future isn’t in just hanging on.
The museum has had plans for a while now to double its space, eventually to renovate the disused cistern as an auditorium. In Ohm’s five years, visitation has grown from 500 to more than 3,000 per year.
But more than half those visitors were people who took part in digs and other programs out in the community.
The idea 20 years ago was to display a modest collection of local artifacts on a small, accommodations-tax paid budget, said Robert Pratt, the civic leader who helped found the museum.
“I don’t think in 1992 anyone really knew where it was going or where it would end up,” he said. “In another 100 years, how are people going to figure this (town and county) out? To see and touch the things that made it? These things are going to leave this community if we don’t keep them. Sometimes, maybe, things have to get bigger to be successful.”