Letter to the Editor: Relocating the Bedford Historical Society to Old Town Hall

May 12, 2021

Submitted by the Bedford Historical Society

This letter was prepared by the leadership of the Bedford Historical Society to provide background and operational information relevant to relocating the Bedford Historical Society from the Stearns Building to the Old Town Hall (OTH).

The Bedford Historical Society (“the Society”) has worked since 1893 to preserve and communicate Bedford’s unique and valuable history for the benefit of the Town and its residents. Over the 70-year history of the Stearns Memorial Building, the Society has stored and, to the extent possible, displayed in that building documents, artifacts, archival records, and museum pieces related to our Town, dating back to its founding in 1729. Although we once had over 1100 square feet of space and a museum, our collections and artifacts are currently stacked to the ceiling of our 380-square-foot office or spilled out into a hallway and parts of a conference room. Some material is scattered in other locations around town. Almost nothing is currently displayable to the public at large.

Most nearby towns (not just Lexington and Concord), have museums located in dedicated buildings and operated by their historical societies, where their historic resources are exhibited.   We now seek to establish in the Old Town Hall (OTH) a modest museum, plus offices and storage space for our collections.  Various consulting reports and Town-commissioned studies have consistently recommended OTH as a location for both the Society and a Town museum. The 2017 consulting report by Spencer & Vogt (S&V) stated to the Select Board, which had commissioned the study: “Our clear recommendation for the historical museum is the Old Town Hall.  It has the most space, could be easily adapted to the functional requirements of an historical museum, is fully accessible, and projects the proper exterior image of a museum building.”  [Emphasis in original document.]

If expansion of the Police Station is approved at the upcoming May 15, 2021, Town Meeting, the Society will soon have to move out of the Stearns Building. This planned renovation of the Bedford Police Station includes the relocation of the Society to Old Town Hall (OTH).  In 2019, Annual Town Meeting granted approval of Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding for one floor of a museum ($165,000) as part of Article 8: Community Preservation Budget – Fiscal Year 2020. This funding will be used to renovate the ground floor of OTH once such renovation work is authorized by the Town Administration.  S&V recommended that the Society use the ground floor for document and archival storage and for modest office space.  We are hopeful that the move into the Ground Floor of OTH can be accomplished as soon as possible. Renovations will have to precede the move, and both the renovations and the move will require planning, time, and effort.

Bedford is in the process of applying to the Commonwealth to establish a “Cultural District,” the purpose of which is to “drive economic growth, strengthen our distinctive local character, and improve the quality of life of families” in Bedford.  A Town historical museum that meets the guidelines of the S&V report, established in a building as centrally located and as historic as Old Town Hall, will be an anchor destination for that Cultural District. It will be a significant factor in the town’s ability to obtain funding and achieve the district’s stated purpose.

The S&V study also recommended that an additional $151,943 (now grown to $159,550) would be needed to fund the necessary work on the first floor of OTH to house the Museum.  The updated amount is recommended by the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) for action by the 2021 Annual Town Meeting. It will be necessary to work out space-sharing issues between a museum and the continuing operations of Bedford Cable Access Television (BCAT) which is currently located on the first floor and occupies half (or perhaps all) of the space available.

The BCAT contract expires in June of 2023.  A study to determine how to manage first-floor space in OTH is underway and should be completed soon.  We are committed to working collaboratively with BCAT to constructively share space, as we have done over the last 70 years with the library, the Town’s administrative offices, the Farm Bureau, and now the police department.  The Town may have to intercede with BCAT to allocate available first-floor space.  It will also be necessary to consider a longer-term transition plan to relocate BCAT to more appropriate space to meet its long-term operating needs and expansion plans including high ceilings and sound-proof recording rooms.

History:  Town government has been supportive of a Town Museum before, during, and after construction of the Stearns Memorial Library, as documented below:

  • 1946 – The Library Building Committee states the purpose of the Historical Society’s Assembly Room: “In this room, it is planned to have show-cases and proper displays for the objects collected by the Society.”
  • 1950 – The Library Trustees write in their Annual Report: “The new quarters for the Historical Society will, we hope, bring renewed interest in Bedford’s History.”
  • 1951 – Town Meeting unanimously votes to accept the Pickman gift specifically directed toward providing an Assembly Room within the library building for a Historical Society museum.              Later, the Society occupies its 450.5 sf “Society Room” or “Assembly Room” in the new Stearns Building.
  • 1968 – The Library moves to its new building on Mudge Way. The Historical Society remains in its 450 sf Assembly Room. The Stearns Building’s first floor becomes Town Administrative Offices. The Town makes the old Children’s Library Room on the ground floor into a second meeting room.
  • 1975 – The Town offers, and the Society accepts, use of the former Children’s Library Room to accommodate the growing collection of historic and cultural resources.  This 730-sf room, renamed the “Pickman Room”, combined with the 450 sf Assembly Room gave the Society 1,180 sf of usable space.  (Coincidentally, the Old Town Hall ground floor has about 1,290 sf of usable space, about the same as the Society had 45 years ago.)
  • July 3, 1992 — Society President Mike Seibert sends a letter to the Board of Selectmen stating: “The Bedford Historical Society hopes that the town and the Selectmen have as much commitment as does the Society to the unique heritage of Bedford to work conscientiously with the Society in showcasing Bedford’s past while planning for its future.”  He stated at that time that the space made available to the Society was “too small to store the growing collection of historical artifacts safeguarded by the Society.”  Over the subsequent 30 years, Bedford’s collections have grown significantly. Space available has been reduced by two-thirds while Society needs have substantially increased.
  • 1995 – July 17 Society Board Meeting and Annual Report Presentations discuss possible future space needs and new directions.  Alternatives explored and discussed include: “A new permanent home (Old Town Hall); the purchase of an historic house for museum and offices; build our own new house.”
  • 1996 – The Stearns Building is re-purposed as a police station; the Society is moved from the ground floor to what was left of the first-floor meeting room after much of that room had been claimed for a new stairwell.  The net result is that as of 1996 the Society has less space (380 sf) than it enjoyed when it first moved into the Stearns Building in 1951 (450 sf) and far less space than it had after 1976 when the Town allocated the 730 sf meeting room to the Society.  Lack of space and restriction of access force closure of the museum. The Society’s new office space is in a locked and secured area.
  • 2011 – The Society forms a Museum Exploratory Committee (MEC) to develop and present a formal written plan and presentation to the Board of Selectmen that would lead to the establishment of a museum in partnership with the Town.
  • 2013 (December) – Selectmen Unanimously Support the Concept of a Town Museum:  The Selectmen vote unanimously to support the concept of a town museum and agree to appoint an Ad Hoc Museum Study Committee made up of citizen volunteers who were authorized to look for potential locations and to address related issues concerning the scope of and the establishment of such a museum.
  • 2014 (July) – Ad Hoc Museum Study Committee Reports Back to Board of Selectmen:  The report of the Ad Hoc Museum Study Committee, after a broad review of museums in surrounding towns, describes the factors needed for a successful museum.   Also, 12 potential Bedford sites, both public and private had been evaluated. Compared to the 380 sq. ft. which Society occupies today, the Town’s Ad Hoc Museum Study Committee recommends 3500-4500 sf as detailed on pages 18-19 of their report.  Document and archive content assumptions are detailed in Attachment 1, pages 21-50 of their final report.
  • 2016 – Town Meeting Authorizes Professional Consultant Study:  Funding is authorized to engage a professional consultant with expertise in the design and operation of museums to review the three best potential sites, and a contract is awarded by the Town to Spencer & Vogt in January 2017.
  • 2018 (January) – Report by Spencer & Vogt is Presented to Board of Selectmen:  In summary, the S&V consultants confirm the earlier work of the Ad Hoc Town Museum Study Committee and specify their own estimates of space requirements to enable the Society to function properly.  Both studies (MEC & S&V) conclude that roughly 1000 to 1500 sq. ft. would be needed for archival, storage, and operational needs; a functioning museum would require roughly another 2000 sq. ft.  Total space needs of 3,840 sf were recommended as detailed in the 2018 Spencer & Vogt Study, see pages 15-16.  In terms of recommending the best location for the Society and its museum, on page 48 in boldface type the S&V report says: “Our clear recommendation for the historical museum is the Old Town Hall.  It has the most space, could be easily adapted to the functional requirements of an historical museum, is fully accessible, and projects the proper exterior image of a museum building.”
  • 2019 – Town Meeting Approves Funding for Ground Floor Renovation of Old Town Hall:  The amount of $165,000 is approved for ground floor renovation of OTH.  No Town action has occurred thus far.
  • 2021 – Town Meeting Action Sought:  At this year’s Town Meeting, there will be an item calling for $159,500 as part of the Community Preservation Committee Article to be used for first floor renovations at Old Town Hall.

In Closing: The Society and its members, various other citizen volunteers, donors, and Town officials have put countless hours of time and effort into understanding, protecting, preserving, and sharing the history of our town, our Bedford. Bedford has an interesting and unique history, and the story of it ought to be available and accessible to our Townspeople, our schoolchildren, and our visitors. The details of location and space have been studied and discussed at length; the modern discussions span at least 70 years between 1951 and 2021. The underlying thread of such discussions has been respect for Bedford’s history and interest in at least a modest museum to make that history accessible, from the Bedford Flag of the 1700s to community life during the pandemic of 2020. Our history shapes the culture of our town and provides the foundational roots that connect us all to Bedford’s local life.

Let us make 2021 the year in which the Town of Bedford and the Bedford Historical Society can make real progress toward a Town Historical Museum in Bedford’s Old Town Hall, the site which for so many reasons should be the Society’s and the museum’s long-term home.  Numerous studies reinforce this view.  Funds have been allocated.  A supportive consensus exists.  If not now, when?  The Bedford Historical Society thanks the Select Board and the Finance Committee for their past support and urges the current Select Board and Finance Committee to move forward expeditiously toward this goal.

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