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Old Town: Laurel Historical Society begins to document life during coronavirus pandemic

Laurel residents who hung 150th anniversary signs in their windows on April 4 will save them and donate them to the museum when it reopens.
Laurel residents who hung 150th anniversary signs in their windows on April 4 will save them and donate them to the museum when it reopens. (HANDOUT)

As members of the Laurel Historical Society worked last year to put together an exhibit documenting the city’s 150th anniversary of incorporation, members noticed major gaps in collection pieces. There were few or no photos of some previous major anniversary celebrations, even in years when cameras were prevalent. Some other historical items of interest had little documentation save a line or two in a newspaper.

So, when the coronavirus pandemic struck last month, the society knew what it had to do: document, document, document. The historical society, which has worked for more than 40 years to preserve Laurel’s rich past and share its story with people of today, suddenly tasked itself with preserving the present to share with the future. It had to not only look back, but forward.

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“We want to capture these memories and stories as they are happening,” said Ann Bennett, the society’s executive director. “We are really benefiting from recent work on the [150th anniversary] exhibit and the perspective we now have of what it takes to tell a complete story of a community.”

The Laurel Historical Society already has started a coronavirus collection and has appealed to residents to share photos, videos or stories that document life in Laurel at this time.

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Examples of collection items include photos of shuttered Main Street businesses and empty shelves at local grocery stores, or the note found on the website of Laurel’s popular Pasta Plus restaurant that it is closed for the time being. The society has asked residents who hung 150th anniversary signs in their windows on April 4 to save them and donate them to the museum when it reopens. Electronic contributions may be sent to info@laurelhistoricalsociety.org.

“We want to make sure we are documenting this as best we can so that generations later we will have a complete picture of what life was like during this time,” Bennett said.

The historical society is also making efforts to continue to educate and engage the community while the Laurel Museum is shuttered. The pandemic struck just six weeks into the museum’s scheduled 10-month run of its current exhibit, “Unpacking Laurel’s Past: 150 Years on Display,” which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the city’s incorporation.

Bennett was able to make a few videos of exhibit highlights before the museum shut down and those videos are available on the historical society’s website, YouTube and Facebook. Assistant Director Monica Sturdivant created a coloring book of exhibit highlights for children that can be found online. The historical society website also features a virtual jigsaw puzzle, a virtual scavenger hunt, a “spot the difference” game and a children’s diary template to document life during the pandemic. They may be found at laurelhistoricalsociety.org.

The society faces many of the same challenges as other small nonprofits as the pandemic continues. Bennett said that it appears the group’s budget will take a “substantial hit.” Its annual gala, a major fundraising event scheduled for April 4, was postponed. The historical society hopes it can be rescheduled for the fall, Bennett said, but that is still uncertain.

Other events — some tied in with city anniversary celebrations — were scrapped. It will be difficult to raise funds as many families face dire economic straits of their own. The group is working to identify internal cost-cutting measures and has also applied for a grant from the state and a loan from the Small Business Association.

The society is also considering how the museum and events will function when the lockdown is lifted. Will guests want to attend a gala with hundreds of other people, for example, or will parents allow children to touch the interactive Diven’s Den historical play space in the museum’s basement?

There are so many unknowns and Bennett said the perspective of a historian at this time is both “a blessing and a curse.”

“The parallels to the Great Depression are very frightening,” she said. “But it’s also comforting to know these things are cyclical and our community has survived really bad things. The story is still one of hope and opportunity. Our community will get through this.”

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