Beaufort turns new leaf to protect old treasures

It is odd that a municipality where much of the economy is predicated upon historical tourism -- and which has so much history to offer -- has no museum. And the condition of Beaufort's meager public collection, presently stored in the attic of the new City Hall, is a shame.

So a new effort to take those materials out of mothballs and get them into public view is welcomed.

Beaufort City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to create a Beaufort History Museum Committee to manage the city's collection of artifacts. The resolution gives the committee of volunteers and a city staff member a year to assess the collection and formulate a plan to conserve and display it.

The committee's formation comes less than a year after an audit found the collection had long been mismanaged. A group of residents who want to nurse the collection to health can use a $25,000 private donation as seed money and bring in an expert from Columbia to help create a plan for cleaning, conserving and restoring artifacts.

This is an obvious first step, but it also is a good start for reasons that might become apparent only after a bit more reflection. Specifically, although the collection belongs to the city, this effort seems to be powered by volunteers and money from the private sector.

Keep that up.

And learn from the past -- or more to the point, learn from the past mishandling of the collection.

An audit last year found that many of the collection's items stored for the previous eight years at the city-owned Arsenal had deteriorated beyond repair, had no relevance to Beaufort or lacked proper records indicating exactly what they are.

Officials didn't have a precise count at the time but estimated the collection had about 15,000 pieces.

A report by Dave Smoot, a museum technician at the Parris Island Museum who worked with the auditing team, concluded that remaining items worthy of display might fill only about three cases. Smoot possibly overlooked some items out on loan, according to a city official, but his general point is worth heeding: These items will deteriorate and lose their monetary and historical value if not properly tended.

A corollary to that is that in this economy, it simply is not likely the city will have the financial wherewithal -- and given the state of the collection, it certainly lacked the will, even in more flush times -- to give the collection proper care. They need to be in the custody, if not the outright ownership, of knowledgeable and caring folks who will invest their own treasure to preserve history's treasures.

This group could eventually become its own nonprofit organization, according to one member, and that seems a prudent aim. Whatever form this organization assumes, pains must taken to provide a full appraisal and an accountable chain of custody that has been lacking for too long.

Organizers must also move in incremental steps so that past mistakes are not repeated for a project that seems a natural to attract private and nonprofit investment.