On July 14, two interns from the Vermont Historical Society in Barre will begin crisscrossing the state on a two-week treasure hunt. They aren't looking for gold or silver, but feedback.
The interns are facilitating a 14-page statewide survey of Vermont's collecting institutions that attempts to assess collections-related "needs." Queries range from administrative ("In what county are you located?") to wonkish ("What estimated percentage of your collection is stored in areas you consider to be an adequate environment?"), and will be answered in print and online. The survey is being supplemented by a series of statewide meetings that feature presentations by local historical gurus from each region.
The basic idea behind the survey, says Vermont Historical Society Curator Jackie Calder, is twofold: to ensure that Vermont's collections are well cared for, and to give grant makers a better idea of what makes up Vermont's cultural heritage.
The H-word, in this case, isn't limited to fine art - Calder says many historic artifacts, books, manuscripts and papers are also worth conserving. The federally funded survey's notion of "collecting institution" is similarly elastic: In addition to museums, galleries and historical societies, it is being mailed to public libraries, town clerks and probate courts. Such a survey is important, says Eileen Corcoran of the Vermont Museum and Gallery Alliance, because "pretty much everything we have is in a constant state of deterioration."
Ultimately, notes State Archivist Gregory Sanford, any discussion about Vermont's cultural heritage pits past against present. Sanford says information from the survey will help state and local officials make difficult budgetary decisions between conservation - think circus carousels, theater curtains and town charters - and social services.
Vermont legislators have already made their bias toward the present clear on at least one front. John Dumville, Historic Sites Operations Chief for the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, reports that the state's general fund usually provides about $700,000 for maintenance and staffing at 10 historic sites, including the Justin Morrill Homestead in Stafford and the Old Constitution House in Windsor. This year, however, the money - which happens to be the same amount allocated to University of Vermont researchers last year for investigating hydrogen- and bio-based fuels - has been halved.
As a result of the budget cut, efforts to expand an education program at the Calvin Coolidge homestead in Plymouth have been halted. That's where Coolidge, a Vermont native, was sworn into the presidency by lantern light on the night of August 3, 1923, after President Warren Harding died unexpectedly. According to Freedom and Unity, an authoritative history of the state, Coolidge's swearing-in ceremony is one of the "iconic moments of Vermont history."
"We're a small state, so it's a small amount of money," Dumville says of the fiscal belt-tightening. "But for us, it's a big amount of money."