photo by luigi ciuffetelli
Before Scott W. Loehr interviewed for his current job as CEO of the Delaware Historical Society, he did his math. Realizing the society was bearing down on its 150th year in 2014, he made the sesquicentennial a theme. Now, as a year of special events winds down, the really cool stuff is underway. Soon to come: major improvements to the society’s historic complex and museum in downtown Wilmington—upgrades that will make Delaware’s history more accessible to all. “Folks have heard about the historical society or maybe have come to a program, but most don’t know anything about it,” says Loehr. “Most historical societies fit into the category of ‘best-kept secret.’ We’re working to raise our profile.”
Loehr should know how little or how much most people know about history. He has spent 25 years of his 31-year career in public history administration, overseeing organizations such as the Augusta (Ga.) Historical Society and the Newport (R.I.) Historical Society. A five-year detour took him to the science-based Flint RiverQuarium in Georgia before finding his way back to the past at the Delaware Historical Society in March 2011, where trustees and administrators had already been hard at work on strategic and master plans for the future of the organization. “He’s really the right person to be leading us at this time,” says Linda Boyden, chair of the board of trustees. “We didn’t need someone who knew Delaware history, but whose real strength was leading organizations, someone who had the ability to bring us into the 21st century. Scott had that depth of experience.” Just the same, working in the First State, with its rich past, had a clear appeal, Loehr says. “To understand Delaware history,” he says, “is to understand the history of the country.”
As far as anyone can tell, talk of creating a historical society here dated to the 1820s, but it took the upheaval and uncertain outcome of the Civil War to catalyze the effort. “People understood, ‘My God, there is a cataclysmic change,’” Loehr says. The Delaware Historical Society was chartered in May 1864, just a year before the war was declared over. The history it preserves stretches back to pre-Colonial days. Among the 3 million objects in the society’s collections are the archives of the Jewish Historical Society of Delaware, papers and objects that belonged to Caesar Rodney, one of two existing copies of “Biographical Sketch of the Life and Travels of John Tillman”—one of only three printed autobiographies of former Delaware slaves—and two flags of the 1st and 2nd Delaware Volunteer Infantry regiments that flew in the battles of Antietam, Gettysburg and Chancellorsville.
The society is currently trying to raise about $30,000 for the restoration and preservation of the flags. “We’ve decided it really is time to do right by them,” says chief curator Connie Cooper, a 30-year employee of DHS. “They’ll still look ragged and torn, but that’s part of their story. These core objects really connect us to the Civil War. It’s not abstract anymore.” The fundraising effort ramped up in September to coincide with the anniversary of Antietam. It began shortly after the quiet phase of a $6.6 million capital campaign ended. With $5 million already raised in mid-August, the society temporarily shuttered the Delaware History Center and Old Town Hall on Market Street to begin renovations. Old Town Hall will get new electrical and mechanical systems, and, for the first time, restrooms, allowing greater use as an exhibit area and event space. A new connector to the Delaware History Museum next door will make the building compliant with federal regulations for access by people with disabilities. In the museum, a new “visible storage gallery” will allow much of the collection to come out of the shadows and be put on display. Improvements will be made to classrooms and a large multipurpose assembly space.
Most significant, perhaps, when the buildings re-open in March 2016, the museum will house the new Center for African American Heritage. “African-American history in Delaware has been under-represented, so the center addresses that,” Loehr says. “It’s an opportunity for us all to know history better. The center will be a place for everybody, for all to come together, to build our understanding and appreciation.” As trustee Bebe Coker told those assembled for the groundbreaking, “When a group’s history is not ordered, not recorded, that group doesn’t exist. Now is the time to make that correction, and we’ll start with the First State.”
With the 40th anniversary of Lydia Laird’s gifting of the George Read House in New Castle to the society coming next year, the society is also making some changes to that building and preparing to restore its spectacular gardens. The 22-room, 14,000-square-foot Federal-style home was the largest in Delaware when it was built in 1804.After the capital improvements are complete in March 2016, the staff will move into a new administrative space on Willingtown Square, four 18th-century buildings in the 500 block of Market Street, which can be used as educational space. The research library, housed in Willingtown Square, with its colossal collection of books and photographs, will also be improved. Changes in programming and greater outreach across the state are aimed at attracting more interest in Delaware history.
“History, it informs one,” Loehr says. “If you study history and delve into history, get past the facts and figures into the hows and whys, it informs the present—and that’s important. If you’re going to make sound decisions, you need to consult the historical record. In Delaware, that record is preserved here at the DHS. We’re seeing to it that everyone has access to and engagement with their history.”