WINNSBORO — How does a small town museum remain relevant and continue to attract visitors?
Pelham Lyles, director for the Fairfield County Museum, wants the public to come by and find out in 2013.
With a mission to capture and relay a message of history that is representative of the entire county, Lyles said the museum is branching out from its roots as a house museum.
“In a house museum, such as the Fairfield Museum, artifacts are displayed from a specific time period. The challenge then is to keep the content as varied as possible so that it generates enthusiasm. You can only collect so many arrowheads,” she said.
That is a challenging endeavor.
Because of poverty and the lack of material possessions/inability for slaves to own property, a lot of the African American cultural artifacts are gone. Lyles notes that in Charleston there is a slavery museum being constructed but that they are paying big bucks for the few remaining artifacts from the slavery period.
Shame is another reason those artifacts disappeared.
“That’s one reason I believe it is important to dig out what I can about everyone and share their stories,” Lyles said.
For a while in the recent past Lyles had some grant funding for an oral history project. The idea was to offset the lack of physical artifacts by using oral history to help people relate to their own history.
Michaela Brown did some work that was grant funded where oral histories were filmed. Some of those films are on YouTube.
“Now that project is in the files because the funding ran out and it really is a full-time project,” Lyles said.
Two years ago, a collection of genealogical materials collected by the Daughters of the American Revolution volunteers in the mid 20th century was returned to the museum.
Now combining that information with the worldwide web, the museum has “come alive” with possibility as people engage in the popular pastime of looking up their roots.
“The Internet has become a massive enterprise to research family history,” Lyles said. “People come in to the museum and we realize that their research is restructuring our interpretations of our own history.”
According to statistics, genealogy research just exploded after “Roots” appeared on TV.
It is difficult to supply all these services with only a volunteer staff because of time constraints, family responsibilities, etc., but her group now pitches in to help Lyles keep the museum going. She would love to have an assistant who she could groom to one day manage the museum when she retires, though Lyles admits she is not likely to retire in the near future.
She is thankful for the support of the Fairfield Historical Society and the Fairfield Genealogical Society.
Ed Killian is a mainstay who is the president of the Fairfield Genealogical Society, which has five to six major contributors that keep the group going. As a group it has grown in number substantially in the past few years.
There are some less than ideal circumstances they have to work around.
“Most of our materials are on the second floor and for elderly people that is not ideal,” Lyles said.
Museum and the records go hand in hand. They have the possibility one day to develop the property behind the museum, but to do so would require a lot of funding that they don’t currently have.
“Cultural institutions are poorly funded anyway,” she said, “but with the downturn in the economy we have to be creative and do what we can as we can.”
She would love to see more development along the lines of oral history and genealogical lines.
In January, there will be another Native American history workshop at the museum led by Val Green.
“In the past it was illegal for races to intermarry, so people hid their history,” Lyles said.
DNA studies help fill some gaps that were left. For instance, Lyles learned she is a cousin to Sheriff Herman Young and to Kadena Woodard, who both are African American.
Later in the spring, author Kadena Woodard will give a presentation on black churches, black cemeteries, and black funeral programs.
Lyles noted the Fairfield County Historical Society endowment paid for repainting and restoration of museum floors as well as a refurbished back room exhibit and new lighting for display cases.
The group also will fund a project that excites Lyles, having a professional exhibit designer to come and work on the south rooms on the second floor.
The exhibit the designer who once worked for the State Museum is helping with will bea chronological history exhibit about Fairfield County exploring it from its Native American roots to the present day.
An exciting thing for Lyles is that he will develop educational graphics to go along with the pieces as explanatory material.
“There are so many periods for which the museum has few artifacts but that are key periods in a historical narrative. Such explanatory material means there would be more resources for students,” she said.
She hopes that material would be a catalyst to get more interaction with the museum and area schools.
“Community pride comes from knowing you had connections. People who made something of themselves and who strove to produce you, Lyles said. “Think about the differences of the educational process if it also builds that sense of belonging and community connection.”
She admires the Roots and Recall Project by Wade Fairy of York, who has an interactive website about architectural history. The historical society project using Chester, Fairfield and York counties will eventually contain a link to a particular family’s address and then have a complete history of that building.
Lyles believes that history can aid in economic development on several levels. She thinks that improving quality of life and playing up the small town historic community could help promote tourism opportunities and that antiquing could provide part of a niche for Winnsboro, similar to what Ridgeway has done.
In her 12 years working with the museum, Lyles has seen an advantageous partnership develop with the county. For instance, she now has full access to the county’s IT department as needed to help with technology issues related to online research. That is a big plus for the organization. Since 2009 when that change happened she has noticed an increased efficiency when running the museum.
“With a small museum, you have less resources but more opportunity to use creativity, and there is so much you can do to fit a museum to the community,” she said.
That passion for roots and knowing where she is from fuels Lyles as she works to connect others to their uniquely southern heritage and works to build relationships within and without Fairfield County, one research project at a time.