MONTGOMERY, Ala. —In North Alabama, letters written in pencil by a young Helen Keller are fading away after being exposed to light for more than 120 years. Drawings and paintings by German soldiers imprisoned in the state during World War II are endangered by humidity in West Alabama. County records dating back to the Civil War and beyond are turning brittle and disintegrating in courthouses all over the state.
Pieces of Alabama’s past are in danger of being lost, and preservationists are developing ways to save them from the elements without one essential ingredient: Additional state funding.
Budgets are tighter than ever, and Gov. Robert Bentley is proposing $3.3 million in spending cuts to dozens of museums and historic sites that received state money last year. Museums, libraries and historical groups are applying for private and federal grants, raising money and forging new partnerships among themselves in an attempt to save important artifacts the state literally can’t afford to worry about.
“We’re losing a lot of our history because we don’t have an ability to preserve it,” said Mary Bess Paluzzi, executive director of the Aliceville POW Museum and Cultural Center in Pickens County. Her museum stands to lose some $50,000 in state funding.
Some 6,000 German soldiers were housed at Camp Aliceville as prisoners of war during World War II, and many spent their time in Alabama painting and sketching. Only a chimney remains from the 823-acre camp, but a small museum houses the prisoners’ artwork and other artifacts.
Paluzzi said the items in danger of being lost include a large German landscape that was painted in oil on a sheet of pressed wood that once was part of the wall at the camp hospital. It’s in a wooden frame covered by Plexiglas; ideally, the painting would be housed in a room with humidity and temperature controls, plus special lighting that wouldn’t accelerate fading.
At Ivy Green, Helen Keller’s birthplace in Tuscumbia, director Sue Pilkilton is worried about the lack of lighting designed to eliminate harsh rays that can fade documents, textiles and other material. One particular piece of correspondence that Keller wrote in pencil is getting lighter all the time, she said.
“We have a letter that Helen wrote at the age of 8 to a cousin in Memphis. It’s in a glass case in the museum room, and we have floodlights with the type of large bulbs that were put in in the ’70s. When it was installed, no one thought of it fading,” she said.
The Keller birthplace endured an $88,000 budget cut in the governor’s spending plan.
A recent study commissioned by Alabama Cultural Commons, a consortium of five historical organizations in Alabama, evaluated the extent of the problem with a $4,900 grant. The research asked 1,403 different sites or groups that collect cultural artifacts to assess their collections. But only 120 completed at least part of the survey, perhaps because of a shortage of staff to perform the work at many locations.
The survey found that moisture or water already has damaged 51 percent of collections, and that 43 percent of archive materials have been damaged by pollution. About 90 percent of those surveyed lacked an up-to-date, long-range plan for preserving artifacts, but about two-thirds had not applied for any outside funding for preservation over the past three years, with many saying they didn’t know such funds were available.
Most distressing to organizers was the finding that more than 70 percent of groups and organizations didn’t know enough about their collections to assess their condition.
“It makes us aware of how precarious our cultural heritage materials are,” said Ron Leonard, director of the Network of Alabama Academic Libraries.
The survey found that only 18 percent of groups in the state set aside any money for preservation, and 25 percent of those spend less than $3,000 annually on the work. Eller said it’s impossible to say exactly how much is spent on conservation at the state level because dollars are spread across multiple agencies.
Different approaches are required to save different types of artifacts, officials said.
At the Aliceville museum, Pilkilton said protective cases are needed to save wool military uniforms dating back to World War I. Officials in Tuscumbia already have spent almost $500,000 in federal grant money over the past five years installing new roofs and moisture-control systems at the home where Keller learned to communicate despite being deaf and blind.
Problems are bigger elsewhere: The Sloss Furnace historical site in Birmingham needs to protect large boilers. The Alabama Railroad Museum in Foley, which displays photographs and railroad memorabilia, recently cleaned up after a major outbreak of mold linked to temperature and humidity.
Given the lack of state money available for such work, preservation groups are looking to each other for expertise and to private and federal sources for help, said Clyde Eller, chief curator for the Alabama Historical Commission.
Eller said leaders of preservation organizations have developed a plan of attack that includes improving storage spaces or building facilities that are suitable for protecting artifacts; hiring or training staff for preservation; developing plans and procedures for inventory assessment and preservation; and preparing for disasters like floods, which can quickly destroy documents and other items stored in areas like courthouse basements.
To fund the work, officials are developing new ways to share information about grant money and fundraising techniques since there’s little to no chance of getting money for preservation from the state, she said.
“You need to be vigilant about it and try to maintain basic environmental standards and handle things as carefully as possible and seek funding when you need it,” Eller said. “These types of artifacts are essential because they tell a story of a people and a region.”