By Chamberlain Zulauf, Student Reporter
The Salem Museum and Historical Society, a staple of the greater Salem community, is celebrating its 30-year anniversary with the installment of the new “Cheers to 30” exhibit. The museum has seen a lot of change in the past three decades. Someone who’s been an influence on the museum’s reputation is Alex Burke, the museum’s assistant director and exhibit designer, who has been associated with the Salem Museum and Historical Society since 2014. Burke started working with the museum when he graduated from Roanoke College in 2016, “going on six, seven years now,” he stated proudly.
“Cheers to 30 is full of quirky items that we have acquired over the years but don’t get to display often” explained Burke.
The Salem Historical Society’s story begins in the 1970s, when it was founded as “Save Old Salem” with the goal of preserving buildings. The society also had another early goal of creating a local museum, and so in 1987 the Williams-Brown House was presented to the historical society to be turned into a museum on the condition that it had to be moved. With the project agreed on, the house was picked up, put on the back of a tow truck and moved to where it is today. The Salem Museum officially opened 30 years ago on June 27, 1992.
From then through 2010 the site existed as a historical house until remodeling was due in order to add more gallery space, up-to-date features and handicap accessibility, bringing the historic museum into the 21st century. During the remodeling phase the museum operated out of a travel trailer in the parking lot. While plans were years in the making, additions such as the Logan Research Library and the new front gallery were well worth the wait.
“The 30-year anniversary is special for us here,” said Burke. “It was a longtime dream of many Salem residents to have a museum and historical society. As early back as the late 1800s residents were wanting to have some sort of museum to tribute the history here. To me, being able to showcase and preserve the history of my hometown, being from Glenver… playing a part in sharing that history with the community that helped shape me is tremendously important.”
Burke’s favorite artifacts included in the Cheers to 30 exhibit are two WWI helmets: one German and one American. The German helmet, Burke would point out to visitors, still has a mailing label stuck to the side of it from a soldier sending it home as a memento. The word ‘Salem’ is still visible through the label’s deterioration. The American helmet is unique too as it has a life-saving bullet dent on its forehead
“It’s amazing to think about the impact everyday items can have on people’s lives. I love how every artifact here has a story and these [helmets] tell a story very well,” said Burke. “There’s a lot of behind the scenes features which people don’t think about. Oftentimes people will think of exhibits as if we just pick something old and show it just because it’s old. However, there’s a lot of thought that goes into what the viewer would engage with the most, or what particular artifacts tell the best stories that we’re trying to lay out in our exhibits. Each exhibit has a story it’s trying to tell; we try to tell that story in an engaging and entertaining way for the public.”
Cheers to 30 also features a short film written, directed and produced by Chloe Shelton titled “’Till I Come Home.” The film is the dramatization of letters, gifted to the museum, written home from a WWI soldier named William Whitescarver Jr. The short film has won several regional EMMYs.
Alongside exhibits, every month the Salem Museum hosts membership talks or series for visitors and members. Previous talks have engaged with the historical story of the Norfolk and Western Railroad during WWI. Currently, the museum is hosting the history of long rifles and the construction of long rifles in Virginia. A future event coming up in July is a rich tour and talk about The Gainsborough Library, which has a unique history as an African American Library.
“[The Gainsborough Library] has an amazing story on how they’ve saved a bunch of old and unique books,” explained Burke. “Museums are designed specifically to serve the communities they’re in and to tell the story of that community. It’s important to preserve things because for a lot of things like historic structures, artifacts and so on; once these artifacts are gone, they’re never coming back so you only get one opportunity to protect and save them for the future. So, we take advantage of that while we have the opportunity. Museums don’t simply save artifacts, which are tremendously important in and of themselves, but they also save the stories of the individuals who possessed them,” said Burke.
When asked what makes Salem’s history special, Burke responded with, “We’ve got about four and a half floors of special in here… Salem has a rich history much like a lot of other small towns across America. When people think of small-town USA, they don’t realize a lot of small nitty gritty details that made each one of these individual communities special, and how these individual communities have helped shape this country. There’s a lot of uniqueness in Salem’s history that people don’t know about. So, we encourage you to come check us out! Our cheers to 30 years exhibit will be open through the end of the year with our hours being Tuesday through Saturday 10 to four. Not to mention we are a free museum!”
Throughout the rest of the museum visitors can experience exhibits ranging from the impressionistic paintings of local legend Walter Biggs to an interactive installment on local sports. The Salem Museum is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon appreciating local history. Employees like Alex Burke would be glad to tell you everything they know about the treasures stored inside.