City manager clarifies plans for a museum
Published 3:28 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2023
On Tuesday morning (July 18), the first floor of the Grace Martin Harwell Senior Center (310 W Main Street) was crowded with concerned seniors who wanted clarification from the City of Washington about plans to turn the second floor of the building into a museum for historic artifacts related to Washington’s history.
The seniors and the City of Washington met, because local seniors were under the impression they would be kicked out of the building and have to relocate to another building in the area. A building, they feared, would not be within a walkable distance like the Harwell Center is now. They were concerned that a newly constructed senior center would be difficult for seniors to travel to who attend regular activities throughout the week.
City Manager, Jonathan Russell, spoke on behalf of the City of Washington saying initial plans were to turn the second floor of the center into an archival space for multiple nonprofits who educate the public on Washington’s history like Historic Port of Washington and the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad. Too, it would give plenty space for artifacts collected by the George H. and Laura E. Brown Library.
Ideas and discussions about having a museum and/or archival space came about, because the aforementioned organizations were concerned about how their artifacts would be stewarded in the future, Russell said.
“There are several nonprofits that operate currently within the community that were genuinely concerned about what will happen to their archives in the future. Just trying to put all of that under one umbrella that we can maintain and manage and move it forward,” Russell said.
Meetings on possibility of a museum began on Aug. 1 and included the aforementioned organizations as well as the Harbor District Market.
Those meetings consisted of deciding which buildings currently owned by the city would be a good fit for an archival space and museum. Russell said the building would need to be between 5,000 and 6,000 sq. ft. in order to contain artifacts from several organizations. The Peterson Building is owned by the City of Washington and where the Harwell Center is located.
The City of Washington also spoke with the Department of History at East Carolina University and the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources on how to start a museum which begins with developing an official archive.
Russell shared a few of the ideas mentioned for the museum – that it wouldn’t be limited to Washington, but could include all of Beaufort County and other organizations could participate if they wished. Too, the museum would complement both the North Carolina Estuarium and the recently opened P.S. Jones Museum of African-American Education.
The running idea was to use two-thirds of the second floor of the Peterson Building as space for an archive. The remaining space, which is used by the senior center, would remain untouched, Russell said. He continued to explain that, according to museum experts, it would take between two and three years to archive every piece of history currently possessed by the aforementioned organizations. Russell said ECU’s Department of History was interested in having graduate students work on the archiving process.
The second floor of the Peterson Building was viewed as the best location, because of available parking and it has an elevator for easy access and transportation of artifacts, Russell said.
After giving an overview of the ideas and plans for the space, Russell took questions from the audience. One of the primary questions on seniors’ minds was – why were they not consulted about plans which would make changes to a space they use five days a week?
Russell responded by saying those who were contacted were asked about museum creation at a time when the city began brainstorming ideas of what a museum could look like.
By the end of the meeting, it was clear that seniors were resolute in their opinion that an archive/museum should not move into the second floor of the Peterson Building. They are not opposed to the idea of having a museum dedicated to Washington history; however, they do not want it to take space away from the Harwell Center.
“I think there was a general consensus that they wanted to see a museum. They think that would be beneficial, but also to continue on senior services,” Russell said.
Given an immense amount of pushback from seniors at the meeting, Russell said the City of Washington will continue to look for other options for an archive/museum location.
“I think now, hearing the public outcry to preserve the senior center as it is, I think we’ll continue to look at potential museum spaces for repurposing an old building downtown or for constructing something new at some other location within the city,” Russell said.
He made it clear that the Harwell Center would not close and services would continue as normal. “We have had no intention of shutting down any senior services.”
Russell said he “appreciated all of the public input” and the amount of people who came to the meeting. He hopes “a successful resolution” was achieved.
Washington City Council will discuss plans for the Harwell Senior Center at their next regular meeting on Aug. 7. City Council meets at City Hall (102 E. Second Street). Their meetings begin at 5:30 p.m. in Room 214 also known as the City Council Chambers.