During normal times, the volunteers who make up local historical societies are dealing with history, with old things — vintage pictures, yellowing documents, aged artifacts.
But Hurricane Sandy was anything but normal times for most of South Jersey, and it left groups who preserve history scrambling to collect evidence of current events — as many volunteers also had to deal with the storm’s effects on their own homes and lives.
Andy Solari realized not long after Sandy slammed into his hometown that the cleanup crews and contractors weren’t the only ones who needed to get busy dealing with the storm.
Solari, the president of the Brigantine Historical Society, started reminding his colleagues at the museum that they all had work to do, too.
“It was sometime the next week, Andy said, ‘Let’s do an exhibit on the Sandy storm,’” museum curator Roy Kramer said. “I guess he felt that it’s part of history, and it should be collected.”
Earlier this year, Kramer and a group of volunteers started converting an approximately 9-by-12-foot back room into a growing Sandy exhibit that concentrates mainly on pictures and a chronological collection of newspaper clippings. It will also feature some much earlier history that Sandy unearthed by scouring away layers of sand and exposing old bottles and pottery that Kramer dug up from the site of a long-closed Coast Guard station on the island — a station destroyed by another historic storm, in 1944.
Brigantine’s museum is one of many similar local institutions — almost every town has a historical society, its own group of people dedicated to keeping the place’s past alive and accessible to future generations.
Different museums are handling the history in different ways, usually depending on how severely Sandy hit their town. At the New Jersey Maritime Museum in Beach Haven, on hurricane-ravaged Long Beach Island, museum president Deb Whitcraft is planning a Sandy exhibit she hopes to open in the next few weeks. She expects it to go into an area now occupied by exhibits on the legendary coastal storms of 1944 and 1962. On the museum’s website, “Superstorm Sandy” is now the second button on the home page.
Almost 50 miles south, Mike Stafford recently showed off a three-ring binder — only partly filled — that made up what was then the Sea Isle City Historical Society’s Sandy collection.
“The damage was minimal here compared to what it was like in the ’62 storm, despite similar tides,” said Stafford, the museum’s president and a veteran of both storms.
He cites a list of historical factors contributing to that change, including his hometown being forced to retreat from the ocean by more than 100 feet after the March 1962 storm. The city also replaced the boardwalk it lost in that storm with a paved walkway, the Promenade, that’s bolstered by bulkheads and boulders. Also, modern building codes forced most new homes to go on raised pilings, with no ground-floor living space.
Ruth Advena, a trustee of the Ventnor Historical Society, said her museum was putting together a Sandy exhibit that she hopes to open in the next few weeks. But the museum didn’t ask its active members to go out hunting for history in the days and weeks after the Oct. 29 storm hit.
“Most of our volunteers are in their 60s, 70s and 80s,” Advena said, “and most of them evacuated, just as we did.”
Allen “Boo” Pergament is known for keeping an Atlantic City history museum stuffed into a crowded bedroom in his Margate home. Pergament, who is also assistant curator and a board member of the Atlantic County Historical Society’s museum in Somers Point, sees another practical reason why many museums don’t rush to capture history in the making.
“If we went out after everything, we’d need 10 times the building we have,” Pergament said. “Most museums aren’t set up to go out and look for stuff.”
And many museums can still do well just accepting the history that’s donated to them, often when it’s cleaned out of a donor’s parents’ attic or grandparents’ family room.
“People look for places where it will have a good home,” Pergament said, adding that early in his own history as a historian, “I went to a lot of flea markets and garage sales. I went out looking for things. But at this stage of the game, I hardly have to buy anything.”
And Advena of Ventnor’s museum encouraged people to bring in any hurricane pictures they have — particularly ones shot as Sandy passed through South Jersey, when many of Ventnor’s volunteers were still evacuated.
“I’m sure every local historical society would feel the same way,” said Advena, expressing a sentiment that many of her colleagues confirmed.
In Longport, the borough’s historical society is also planning a Sandy exhibit — and planning to make it mainly out of pictures assembled by student volunteers, said Mary Sue Lovett, the curator. The society hopes to display the pictures by this summer, possibly in Borough Hall, which is open far more often than the museum.
That photographic approach to documenting history may prove easier than a plan that Brigantine’s museum wanted to include in its exhibit. Kramer, the curator there, said volunteers were hoping to put together an oral-history project that would capture residents’ fresh memories of the storm and its aftermath.
“But what I’m finding is that a lot of people who were affected don’t want to talk about it yet,” Kramer said, giving as an example a friend he approached about interviewing her on the storm’s effects. “Any time you ask her about it, she just starts crying.”
And that has cut back on the museum’s ambitions — or at least delayed them, the president of Brigantine’s museum said.
“We were going to try to put together a display that rivaled what we have on the 1962 storm,” Solari said, “but people are still hurting from this storm. So a lot of what we’re collecting, we’re going to be saving for sometime in the future, when the pain isn’t quite as great.”
Contact Martin DeAngelis: