The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


March 19, 2009

Heritage: Joseph Priestley House may close

Commission blames low attendance, costs

NORTHUMBERLAND — The Joseph Priestley House may soon join the growing roster of historical and cultural institutions that have closed their operations in the face of a weakening economy.

A Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Sustainability Committee draft report has recommended closing the Priestley House “because of low visitation and limited potential for growth.”

Total visitation in fiscal year 2007-2008 was 1,705, with a paid visitation of 1,100, generating $4,125 in program revenue. There were 2,406 recreational and nonpaying visitors.

The total fiscal year 2006-2007 operating budget (the latest figure available) was $142,901, with the museum commission providing $136,001, including two full-time positions. Friends of the Joseph Priestley House kicked in $6,900.

“The recommendation to close does not mean it’s a done deal,” said commission spokesman Kirk Wilson on Wednesday night. “That’s why we will be having a community meeting for public input.”

Among the commission’s possibilities for the future of the Priestley House is to arrange with the Friends group to enter into a management agreement in partnership with the American Chemical Society and Penn State University.

Another possibility is to lease the property or establish a resident curator arrangement with someone who would live there and take care of the property.

No date for the Priestley House meeting has been announced, but with the closing likely to be on or around July 1, the start of the next fiscal year, “it’s likely to be sooner, rather than later,” Wilson said.

“Closing the house would be very shortsighted,” said Friends of Priestley House board member Thomas Bresenhan. “There has been a renewed interest in him, with a book released this past year.”

Bresenhan noted that Priestley House is the only state museum in the area.

“It brings in dollars,” he said. “It’s a place where people bring visitors when they come into town. It’s truly a treasure.”

The Joseph Priestley House isn’t the only historical site under the gun. Closures could be coming for Brandywine Battlefield in Delaware County, Bushy Run Battlefield in Westmoreland County, the Conrad Weiser Homestead in Berks County, the Fort Pitt Museum in Pittsburgh and the Flagship Niagara in Erie.

“If they try to close all those sites,” Bresenhan said, “They’ll have quite a fight on their hands.”

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